Help, my “free” car rental voucher doesn’t work at the airport

After Robert Reeve redeems 70,000 Hilton HHonors points for a car rental, he gets some unfortunate news: He won’t be able to use the nonrefundable certificate for the rental. What now?

Question: I recently called Hilton HHonors to redeem frequent-stayer points for a rental car. A Hilton representative told me that for 70,000 points, I could get a “free” midsize car with Alamo at the Fort Myers, Fla., airport for one week. Hilton would issue a rewards certificate for the car.

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I got the certificate and called Alamo, which refused to honor it. A representative said that it had no more cars at that location for my rental dates. Alamo promised to appeal this to the “district,” but we never heard back.

So I took it up with Hilton. After speaking with multiple representatives, I was told that the certificate can never be used to rent a car at any airport. The nearest place we can use it is two hours away from where our plane is landing.

We’ve asked to have the certificate canceled and the points returned to our account. Hilton refuses, saying that once the certificate is issued, it’s final. Hilton is unwilling to correct a situation that is due to bad information it gave us. Can you help? — Robert Reeve, Unionville, Conn.

Answer: Your certificate should have worked as advertised. When it didn’t, Hilton should have been able to either show you the terms and conditions of your certificate, which say that it won’t work at an airport location, or play you the tape from your conversation — preferably both. It did neither.

Hilton’s terms and conditions are a little vague. They say that the certificate is “valid at participating locations in the United States and Canada.” They also say that the vouchers are nonrefundable, and mention the possibility of blackout dates. But looking at the fine print, I never would have known that the vouchers are not accepted at the Fort Myers airport location. You’d have to ask about that, which is exactly what you did.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the value of a loyalty program. Your certificate wasn’t “free.” You had to earn it. Maybe you gave Hilton business even when a cheaper hotel was available. You offered Hilton your allegiance, and it had the audacity to tell you that “some restrictions apply,” even after a representative said that you could use the certificate for an airport rental.

Am I the only one who thinks the loyalty is just one-way?

In fairness to Hilton, its lodging loyalty programs are less scammy than the average airline rewards program. But that’s little comfort to you, and it’s not going to fix your car rental problem. You’re stuck with a certificate that won’t work as promised, and neither Hilton nor Alamo is willing to assist you. Do they expect you to drive two hours to get to the nearest “participating” location? It looks like they do.

I don’t think anyone would be upset at a hotel chain or car rental company if it disclosed the terms of its nonrefundable certificates in advance. It always helps to get everything in writing. But once you redeemed your hard-earned points for the car, based on a promise you received from a company representative, there was only one way for this to end: with you behind the wheel of a midsize car in Florida.

And that is exactly how it ended after I contacted Alamo on your behalf. A representative contacted you and found a way to make your certificate work in Fort Myers. Have a great trip!

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