Who’s to blame for an “invalid” reservation number?

winding road 2Question: I recently pre-paid for a rental car using Priceline’s “name your own price” option. I was given a car through Avis — or at least that’s what I thought.

When we landed in Raleigh-Durham International Airport, I went to the Avis counter and showed them my reservation. But the agent said my number was “invalid.” He said it had already been used in Chicago in 2007, and that the reservation number couldn’t be used again.

I called Priceline, and a representative apologized, but said he couldn’t help us.

So I made a new reservation with Avis, paying $265 more than the original price of the car through Priceline. I’d like Priceline to refund the difference. Do you think I have a chance? — Jeff Williams, Newark, Del.

Answer: Yes, I think you do.

You paid for a rental car that you didn’t get. Obviously, Priceline and Avis shouldn’t be able to keep your money, and they need to cover your extra expenses you incurred as a result of their error.

But whose error was it? The difference between your “name your price” confirmation number and the Avis confirmation number, which were both on your reservation, is slight. Both are 11-digit numbers. Your Avis confirmation had three letters attached to the end.

It appears the counter agent read the wrong one, matching it to an existing reservation from 2007.

Could you have handled this differently? Maybe.

You phoned Priceline and it couldn’t help you. You might have also asked to speak with an Avis manager in Raleigh, and if that didn’t work, called the Avis reservation number for help. But you made a good-faith effort to resolve this before accepting the new, more expensive reservation.

I contacted Priceline on your behalf, and it worked with Avis to credit you the difference between your original, pre-paid reservation and the second one.

Who should have taken responsibility for Jeff Williams' botched reservation?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It appears the counter agent read the wrong one, matching it to an existing reservation from 2007.

    The only error was made by Avis so they should be the ones to bear responsibility. Case closed.

  • sirwired

    Well, as his agent, Priceline should have taken the initiative in getting things made right, but of course the check should be cut by Avis, since it was their error.

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    If the Avis employee read the “wrong” reservation number at the time the OP arrived at the counter, this suggests to me that there was more than one reservation number on his documentation. While this is confusing in itself, why did the OP not insist that the employee enter any and all reservation numbers in an effort to see which one would work correctly?

    It seems to me that with a little persistence at the rental counter, this whole problem could have been avoided.

    That said, when people book through OTA’s, invariably there are problems. The rental car business is probably worse than airlines or hotels at the best of times, and booking one through a third party is a sure recipe for frustration.

    Consumers should understand that they should stop using OTA’s and book directly with the service provider so that they cut out the middle-man nonsense which invariably leads to much finger pointing when there is a problem.

  • MarkieA

    Take responsibility??!?!?

    Who does that anymore?

  • jerryatric

    Don’t know why people keep using Priceline & the other on line companies. Need a rental car – check out Priceline & the others & then contact rental car companies direct. That’s what I do & always pay a little more or the same & with fewer problems along the way. I do the same with hotel reservations.
    Dealing directly with a company IS better @ very little or no extra cost.
    Last car rental? Used Alamo & got the same as Priceline “Name Your Own Price” deal. Only thing I almost forgot my GPS unit & ran back to the car. GONE! Turns out an employee saw me leave to go to the counter & removed it, hoping I would leave – THEFT really. But I did get it back after creating a stir saying I was out of the car for 2 minutes & some employee stole it, since there were no other clients in the lot. Some guy sheepishly “found” it in the car & “assumed” it was forgotten. He watched me from his little hut & ran & grabbed it when I went to the counter. He should have been fired!

  • Wayne Dayton

    How come they couldn’t pull out the reservation by name? Plus, RDU isn’t the world’s busiest airport and is not a teeming center of tourism…how many inbound clients was Avis actually expecting that day that they couldn’t just scroll down a list??? Looks like the Avis agent was lazy, incompetent, or both.

  • Alan Gore

    Does Alamo still have that weird “return empty” policy?

  • jerryatric

    Not when I returned the car last Spring.

  • Charles

    “That said, when people book through OTA’s, invariably there are problems.”

    Oh, give me a break! Invariably means “always”. I have booked vacation packages, hotels, flights, and cars with OTA’s since they came into existence. I’ve used Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Orbits, and Hotwired. I have had no problems with the OTA’s at any time. So, your assertion is disproved! Yes, some people have problems with OTA’s. Some people have problems with local travel agents. I know I did. Mistakes happen with any vendor, but my experiences with OTA’s have been great.

    I’ve a savvy traveler, so I never pay more for an OTA. For example, it is very rare that I’ve found Priceline or Hotwired to be a good deal and these days there is usually no reason to get a hotel or airline ticket alone from an OTA, though buying them together can be a huge discount. So, I’m not pushing that you should use them, but lots of people use them every day with no problems at all.

  • Charles

    Vacation packages can be a really good deal on an OTA. We had two recent trips to Jamaica, one using Expedia and the other Travelocity, where the package was more than $400 less than buying separately, about a 15% savings. We’ve done these packages for years. We’ve never had a problem with them at all. And yes, I did price the parts separately. It really was a difference! When they make a package, they can discount in ways they can’t when selling items alone.

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    It would seem in your case, Charles, that we stand corrected. You are fortunate that you have never experienced a problem with an OTA, and we hope you never do. But our point was, and is, IF there is ever a problem, it will be a rare case if the OTA ever accepts responsibility, whether or not the error is theirs.

    Admittedly, I have a bit of a bone to pick with OTA’s in general (because of the lack of respectful service to clients in many cases after the booking) but beyond that, I have a real bone to pick with an OTA in particular on how they have treated one of their smaller vendors. If you have a moment, take a look at an earlier post of ours highlighting a problem a small hotel in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico had (and perhaps still is) with one of the OTA’s you frequently use. Go to: http://casamariposasantafe.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/wow-you-will-not-believe-this-story/ If you choose to read the link, we’d be interested in your thoughts afterward.

    Wishing you a great day.

  • Bill___A

    It is unfortunate that this happened. Not only is the Avis agent unwilling/unable to find the reservation, but Priceline seemingly was unwilling/unable to help and the person who booked the reservation was forced to pay more.
    Yes, they should have refunded the extra money. However, Priceline and Avis should both also take a hit for their extreme incompetence. Maybe a refund of the extra money and half the rental also – the renter went through a lot of unnecessary stress and effort in this case. I made a reservation with Avis through Expedia about a year ago, and although it was generally okay, I was uncomfortable enough to never do it since.

  • Asiansm Dan

    it’s seems the local AVIS try to pull a stunt to charge a higher price. Even the confirmation don’t match, I bet my shirt the reservation can be retrieved by NAME.
    I never provide any reservation number when arrived at Avis Counter. Just spell my name, they pull the reservation up to screen in less than 2 seconds.
    It’s a force error to charge a higher price when it’s busy day and they are overbooked.

  • Asiansm Dan

    The Avis agent purposely read the wrong one, knowing he can charge higher price.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I have to strongly disagree. I booked my rental cars through Travelocity for years without incident. I even once booked Payless when no one else had cars. Also, it had my frequent guest number for several car rental agencies and I always got my premium perks.

    Between car rental, hotels, and airlines, my experience is that if you book through a third party site car rental agencies give the least amount of headaches .

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Don’t know why people keep using Priceline & the other on line companies.
    It really depends on your needs. My needs and wants are such that booking directly with the travel provider is by far the best way. But, I have used priceline/hotwire about 4 times in the past 15 years and gotten great deals.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I was originally skeptical when you mentioned that the Avid agent was being purposeful. But as you pointed out, pulling up a reservation by name is fairly easy, even when booked through a third party site. I never have my confirmation number on me unless I have concerns about the reservation.

  • TonyA_says

    Wouldn’t a 2007 reservation be expunged by now? Sounds like a bogus line to me.

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    Well, like Charles, you are lucky. I have booked car rentals through two different OTA’s in the recent past, and in both cases, there wasn’t even a car available for me when I arrived to pick it up. In both cases, the person at the counter shrugged and said there was nothing they could do. All cars were out. In both cases I called the OTA’s to complain, and was told there was nothing they could do, because they could not control the actions of the service providers. In both cases, I got the person at the rental counter to sign my “reservation” sheet saying there was no car available, even though I had made the reservation.

    In both cases, I successfully disputed my credit card charge. I am not prepared to give OTA’s a 3rd strike chance.

  • Alan Gore

    One small advancement, then. I guess they eventually figured out that it’s a lot more difficult to return a car empty than to return it full.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Counter agent are paid by commission on the percentage of the sale. You can guess the answer, May be some TA in this blog can explain to us how the car-rent agent was paid by third party reservation.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    …or maybe you’ve just been unlucky. ;)

    Seems like there are two questions

    1. What would you have done if you’d rented directly with the car rental agency and there was no car available? How would a car magically appear? Personally, I would have demanded that the OTA find me a car at another agency.

    2. Why did you have to dispute the credit card charge? When you told the OTA that there was no cars available why didn’t they refund your money? Actually, when I used to book car rentals with Travelocity, they never charged my card until I physically picked up the car

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    Hi Carver,
    To your point number 1: Surely you jest. Even if I had demanded that, and even if all the planets were lined up and the OTA agreed to do this, it would have taken more time than I was willing to waste (it was easier to step 20 feet to the next counter where I got a car).
    To your point number 2: They didn’t actually charge me, but they told me I had 7 days to send them proof of no car available in order not to be charged.

  • JenniferFinger

    Avis should have made sure that the right number was made available, but Priceline should have stood behind its customer. Neither should be allowed to keep money without providing the service it was paid for and shrugging it off as “Sorry, not our fault, can’t help you” was bad customer service on both Avis and Priceline’s fault.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    HI Casa

    That makes no sense whatsoever, not even a little bit. You’re already on the phone with the OTA who told you that they couldn’t make the car rental agency produce a car out of thin air. How difficult would it be to then ask, “OK, give me a car from another agency” 8 words.

    Suppose the next agency 20 feet away didn’t have any cars, or were more expensive, or didn’t have the car type that you wanted. Plus, you wouldn’t have had to deal with the “proof of no car”

    Regarding the second point, I’m confused. I thought you said you had to file a credit card dispute.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    But Priceline did provide the service it was contracted to do. It was only because of the Avis agent’s laziness or duplicity that the OP was in this predicament.

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    Hi Carver,
    Yeah, the thing didn’t make much sense to me either. 1) When the car rental guy told me there were no cars, I was confused because I thought: “Well, what’s the point of making a reservation then?” When I asked him that, he just shrugged as if it were a common thing. 2) Wrong choice of words. As I was focused then on getting a car at an adjacent counter, I did not think to ask the OTA to get me a replacement, nor was it necessary. I was already at the next counter arranging a car, and I called the OTA to be sure they would not be charging my card. The person on the phone said the best way to ensure this was to send them a copy of my “reservation” with a notation by the first rental company that there were no cars available. I had never heard of this before, but whatever. The first guy complied, I faxed a copy to the OTA when I got to where I was going, and I never heard anything again, and there was no charge. OK resolution, but a bit of a scramble and a pain.

  • fshaff

    I recently completed a 1-week rental with Hertz via RCI (pre-paid) by exchanging my timeshare points. I had absolutely no problems with this rental, nor others that I have done this way in the past. I also want to thank Chris and all the readers/contributors for all the suggestions and comments about how one should protect themselves when renting cars. I have learned to ALWAYS take pics (before & after), note any damage on a form, and make sure an agent sees the damage BEFORE I take possession of the rental. So far, I have not had any problems with Hertz/Avis/Enterprise/Budget/Dollar, etc.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Sorry about the drama.

  • Cybrsk8r

    This made me think of this Seinfeld bit. Best ever car rental bit.


  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    Yeah, me too. Or maybe the old Abbott & Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” lol

  • $16635417

    Interestingly enough, just was a victim of an attempted “scam” by Avis yesterday. Returned the car full, just filled up by the airport, and the return agent verified the gauge showed full and asked if I filled up before returning. I indicated I did and she proceeded to run the receipt and hand it to me. There I saw buried a “fuel service” charge of $13.99. I asked was that was for and AGAIN was asked if I filled up before returning, and I said my answer was still yes, just like when she asked 30 seconds ago. She asked for my gas receipt, which I showed her and she reprocessed the return without the fuel charge.

  • bodega3

    How do you know your never paid more for a booking through an OTA? I can almost guarantee that you have.

  • Charles

    Because I check the alternatives. I check direct with the hotel and the airline and compare. It’s that simple. I shop a lot for every trip we make, so I know what things are going to cost. Maybe a local travel agent might be cheaper, I don’t know. But, I really doubt it. I’ve never actually seen that happen.

  • bodega3

    It isn’t always the price you have to worry about, it is the information you are seeing online and the toll free number you are calling. They don’t have to give you the lowest price or availability. You don’t know if you are getting the best and I know that for fact!

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    I feel he can only blame himself. Not checking up twice is foolish.

  • JenniferFinger

    I don’t agree. I think Priceline as an agent can’t back away from a travel deal it brokers by saying, “It’s their fault, we have nothing to do with it.” Whatever the level of its involvement was, it brokered a deal where Avis provided a number and then refused to stand by it, regardless of the reason why. It should have advocated for its customer, not just shrugged it off with “We did what you paid us to do.” That’s not enough-people don’t pay Priceline to shrug off the deals they broker that go bad with cool “Not our fault the other party that we are responsible for setting up a deal with for you didn’t follow through, so we’re not going to help resolve it for you.”

  • deafgimp

    For whatever reason, I have black text in a blue box, it’s really really difficult to read. It’s the same color as the top of box where the search engine is. Anyone else have this happen? While I can read it, those with visual impairments may not be able to.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Yeah, that’s happened to me several times in the last couple of days, too.