The Travel Troubleshooter: The needle may be on “F” but I’m not done paying

By | June 10th, 2011

Question: I recently rented a car from Alamo, and I encountered a questionable practice that I wanted to let you know about.

I’ve used Alamo many times in the past, always returning the car with a full tank. Last month, after bringing back my rental in Tucson, Ariz., an Alamo attendant verified the full tank and gave us a receipt.

After we left, apparently Alamo felt the need to try and squeeze more gas in the tank, even after their employee confirmed a full tank, and charged us the inflated rental-gas price for two gallons.

They didn’t even try to notify us by phone, email or letter. This seems very sneaky and underhanded. I wrote them two emails, but never got any reply or explanation.

It’s not a huge amount of money, but rather the principle and the deceitful tactics to make a few extra dollars. I thought you’d be interested in this episode, if you haven’t heard of this practice, and perhaps could warn others in your column. — Stephen Farr, Sacramento, Calif.

Answer: When the car rental agent checked your tank and offered you a receipt, you shouldn’t have been charged extra. But if Alamo decided you owed it money, the least it could have done was to let you know — not find out when you checked your credit card bill.

Alamo’s failure to notify you only deepened your suspicion that the company was trying to pull a fast one. And mine, too.

Alamo’s terms and conditions at the time describe your fuel purchase option. First, there’s a “prepaid gas option” that allows you to buy an entire tank of gas before your trip. And second, there’s an option to return the car with a full tank.

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“If you return it with less than a full tank, you must pay Alamo for all fuel that you used but did not replace,” Alamo warns. “The price for fuel will be substantially higher than the local retail pump prices, plus applicable taxes.”

Stories about fuel-purchase requirements are the stuff of legends (just do an Internet search on “Alamo” and “gas tank.” I wrote about one unhappy Alamo customer on my blog a while back, who was asked to show a receipt for gas after he returned his vehicle with a full tank. He refused.

I understand a car rental company’s reasons for wanting to ensure the tank is full, but I think it’s going about it in the wrong way. First, Alamo should have been more specific about its “full tank” requirement.

How do you determine if the tank is full? Is it a needle on “F,” a receipt from a gas station, the color of your attendant’s mood ring?

None of this was spelled out on Alamo’s site before you rented your car, or in your contract, and so the company apparently reserved the right to retroactively charge you for two extra gallons. That doesn’t seem fair.

If Alamo didn’t respond to your emails, I would have appealed to an executive at Enterprise, which owns Alamo. Failing that, try disputing the additional charges on your credit card, since you never approved them.

Good thing none of that was necessary. I contacted Alamo on your behalf. You received a call from a manager shortly after that, apologizing for the overcharge and offering you a full refund, plus a voucher for a two-day rental.

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