By Travel columnist
updated 6/15/2006 1:24:15 PM ET 2006-06-15T17:24:15

Question: My family of eight decided to have a reunion in California over the Christmas holidays. I reserved a minivan with Budget that would be sufficiently large for at least seven of us to travel together. My brother, who lives in Los Angeles, wanted to be able to show us around.

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When I arrived on time at the Los Angeles Budget rental counter on Dec. 22, I was told that no minivan was available for me even though I had a confirmed reservation. They told me that they didn’t expect any more minivans that night, but offered a car seating five people so that my wife and I could drive to our hotel in Long Beach. I was told to check back the next day to see if a van had become available.

I called the dispatcher once or twice every day during my stay in California and was told that no minivan was available. I contacted Budget’s customer relations office but they didn’t seem very interested in helping.

As a result of Budget failing to honor its contract with me, my family was never able to tour around Los Angeles together. We always had to take two cars when we went somewhere, but my brother was the only one who knew his way around. It was a major disappointment. I even tried to rent a van from another company, even though such last-minute reservations are much more expensive. But I could find none.

I wrote to Budget when I returned home to complain about the situation. They merely sent me a form letter, which didn’t address my specific situation, and a certificate good for $20 off a future Budget rental. I then wrote to the Better Business Bureau covering that part of California. They told me that they contacted Budget twice about this matter but never received any response from the company.

I’m not sure what else to do. Budget’s lack of performance put a major dent in our reunion plans and I can’t even get anyone at the company to acknowledge the problem. Can you help?

— Ron Lancaster,Bowling Green, Ohio

Answer: When you reserve a vehicle, you would expect the car rental company to actually hold one for you.

But this being the travel industry, it’s not that simple. A car rental company never knows exactly how many cars, trucks or vans it will have in its parking lot when you arrive at the counter. So it tries to project whether your wheels will be available using a computerized inventory system.

In order to play it safe, car rental companies offer classes of vehicles -- compact, economy or mid-size, for instance -- so that they don’t have to deliver a specific model. But for a specialty vehicle like a minivan, supplies are often limited, and the software sometimes projects there will be more vehicles available than there actually are.

Apparently, that’s what happened in your case. I’m sure Budget had every intention of delivering a minivan. Its system projected a minivan would be available, but demand exceeded supply, and all the vans were gone by the time you arrived.

That’s not to let Budget off the hook. It had no business offering you a vehicle it couldn’t deliver. The company needs to improve its reservations process to make sure it gives you the car you reserved.

Budget should also have followed the standard procedure in the car rental industry, which is to offer a comparable type of vehicle from its lot or to find you one through another company at the same rate. Instead, it did neither.

You should not have accepted the car if it didn’t meet your needs. If the rental agent isn’t interested in helping you, ask for a supervisor. If the supervisor doesn’t help, call the corporate office right then and there — don’t wait until you’ve driven away in a compromise car. By then it will be much more difficult to fix the problem.

To be fair to Budget, you were renting a minivan at one of the busiest times of the year. I happened to be at Los Angeles Airport a few days after you rented your car. I had reserved a car through another rental company. The check-in line was twice as long because Budget had actually run out of cars. So, you weren’t the only one with this problem.

Still, that’s no excuse. When I contacted Budget, it agreed that the Los Angeles airport location had not lived up to its terms and it apologized for the way your reservation was handled. Spokeswoman Sheri Brennan also told me that the district manager had been notified about the incident “to make sure it does not occur again.”

Budget credited your Visa card $100 for the trouble, which represents almost half of the weekly rate you paid for the substitute car. That seems like a fair resolution.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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