Noah Berger  /  AP file
When renting a car, columnist Christopher Elliott suggests watching out for common practices aimed to milk you out of money.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 10/15/2007 11:19:53 AM ET 2007-10-15T15:19:53

Never underestimate a car rental company’s drive to make an extra buck. Amy Villa did when she rented a car from Alamo in Columbus, Ohio, recently, and she ended up paying twice as much as she expected.

Villa’s flight from San Jose, Calif., was delayed, so she phoned Alamo to let the company know about the hold-up. A representative assured Villa, who works for San Jose State University, that her reservation and rate would be honored, “because I would be arriving within 24 hours of my original reservation,” she says.

When she finally touched down in Columbus, an Alamo agent handed her the paperwork. “The contract and the price was essentially double what I was quoted, going from $268 to more than $400. And that’s for one day less,” says Villa. “Alamo never told me that the rate would go up.”

Welcome to the tricky new world of rental cars. Unable to raise their rates or impose significant cancellation penalties on their customers, rental companies have always relied on fees and surcharges to eke out a profit. But they are doing so now with more creativity and zeal, leaving frustrated customers like Villa swearing they’ll never rent again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are four of the latest car rental scams — and how to avoid them:

Rules are meant to be enforced
The biggest car rental scam is technically no scam at all. Car rental companies are just enforcing existing rules more strictly than ever. In Villa’s case, what Alamo did was perfectly legal — and at the same time, completely wrong. Traveling with her husband and daughter last Christmas, she says she felt broadsided when the car rental company changed her price. In fact, car rental companies have different rates that are based on the length of your rental. These rates are disclosed on the agency’s Web site. Not so long ago, companies used to look the other way when a customer picked up a car late or brought it back early. No longer.

So what, exactly, was that agent promising Villa? Alamo charges a $10 “no-show” fee for customers who don’t cancel their reservations within 24 hours of pick-up (it began doing that in 2005). Perhaps the company was assuring her that the $10 penalty wouldn’t apply to her. Now that’s the holiday spirit.

The only way to beat a car rental company at its own game is to know the rules. Read the terms and conditions on your company’s Web site, and make sure you do your next car rental by the book.

Your needle isn’t quite on “F”
Car rental companies have offered a “pre-pay” fuel option for almost as long as there have been car rental companies. But their definition of a “full” tank has apparently not always been the same. Reader Penny McLain wrote to me recently about two recent car rental experiences. “Both times, the attendants had supposedly checked the gas gauge — we saw them do it,” she wrote. “And although we knew the tank was full, we were issued a receipt that reflected a big charge for gas.” After I covered the gas gauge scam in my blog, I decided to do a little research of my own. I returned a car I’d recently refueled (but hadn’t topped off, which you’re not supposed to do anyway). The needle was just below the “F” mark. Wouldn’t you know it, they tried to charge me, too? I returned to the gas station and topped off the tank, as ordered.

But some car rental companies will even bill you if the needle is on “full”. Several readers reported that when they drove less than 75 miles, they were subjected to a $10 surcharge from Avis or Budget. The fee was waived if they could prove they filled the tank before returning the vehicle.

To get around this scam, fill your tank immediately before bringing the car back and keep all of your gas receipts. Otherwise, you might find an unwelcome surcharge on your bill.

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Someone dented our car, and you’re gonna pay
For several years, car rental customers have complained about bills for damage to a rental car for which they weren’t responsible. A few car rental companies were even caught invoicing customers twice for the same damage. The industry at first seemed to back down, pursuing only the renters they were sure about. But it turns out that move was only temporary. Instead of leaving well enough alone, there’s evidence that car rental companies were just quietly retooling their internal systems, adding technology that makes it easier to successfully pursue a claim.

Some of the applications — for example, there’s technology that automatically photographs a car when it leaves the lot and returns, allowing the company to monitor damage — are helpful. Others, which have streamlined and automated the claims process — whether the customer is responsible or not — aren’t.

In order to make sure you don’t get stuck with a bill for damage someone else inflicted on your rental car, take pictures of the vehicle before you pick up the car and when you return it. If you see damage when you’re handed the keys to your car, be sure it’s noted on the rental form. Otherwise, you’ll probably be asked to pay up later.

Is there a fee we haven’t thought of?
The search for new fees continues. For example, car rental companies used to give their best customers big breaks when they rented from them. Warren Atwood used to rent from Hertz in Los Angeles County and return his vehicle to Orange County. Technically, he would have incurred a drop-off fee, but because he was a frequent renter, that fee used to be waived. Not anymore. “Now I have to pay [a drop-off fee],” he says. “I guess I don’t rent from them enough.” Maybe. But maybe Hertz, like many other car rental companies, is just looking to make the most money from its cars.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But, when it comes to these clever fees, I have a feeling the car rental industry is just getting its second wind. In the past, they’ve found ways of passing along the cost of everything from their car registration (vehicle license recoupment fee) to getting rid of old tires (tire disposal fee). This kind of creativity puts them in a league with the airline industry.

The only way to avoid these surcharges is to check your rate quote to make sure the fee is disclosed. If it isn’t, you can — and should — argue to have it removed from your bill.

With a few common-sense precautions, you can steer clear of the latest car-rental scams. I’m happy to report that Villa’s rental nightmare had a happy ending. A few days after I contacted Alamo to ask about her case, she received a check for the difference between her first rental price and the second one. There was no apology, no letter explaining what had happened.

“I was shocked,” she says. “I’m a very happy person.”

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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