By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 10/25/2007 12:04:29 PM ET 2007-10-25T16:04:29
THE TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I’m trying to solve a surcharge mystery on my rental car agreement, and I could use a little help. I recently rented a vehicle from Hertz for two days. When I picked up the car, I signed an agreement saying I would pay a Florida surcharge rate of $5.94 per rental. The fee is listed on page two of my agreement.

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But when I got the estimate, I noticed that they planned to charge me the fee twice. I figured this would be corrected when I returned the vehicle. That didn’t happen. After I returned the car, I showed the customer service representative the line where it says $5.94 per rental. The representative then said she could not do anything about it because the computer makes the calculations.

I wrote to Hertz to ask about the surcharge, and its response was that the fee was per day, not per rental. But that’s not what I agreed to pay. I agreed to pay a rate of $5.94 per rental. Is my contract with Hertz now void? I agreed to pay $5.94 per rental, not $11.88. Can you please help me? — Michael Norton, Warrenton, Va.

A: If you signed an agreement that says you’re going to pay $5.94 for the entire rental, then that’s what you should pay. End of story.

Or maybe not. The State of Florida imposes a daily surcharge on the lease or rental of motor vehicles designed to accommodate less than nine passengers. It’s included in the lease or rental price on which sales tax is computed and must be listed separately on the invoice, according to the government, but that fee should have been $2 per day or any part of a day.

I also consulted the Hertz Web site, and it confirmed that there’s $2 a day “rental surcharge.” It isn’t clear why the rate nearly tripled — that might have been a local tax — but what is clear is that the fee applied to your rental for every day you had the vehicle.

This raises an interesting question: If you signed an agreement to pay one price, but are billed another, which price do you have to pay? Hey, I’m no lawyer, and I barely passed my journalism law class when I was in school, but I can tell you that if you signed a contract to pay one price, then that’s the rate you should be billed.

When you run into a price difference like this, bring it to the attention of a manager immediately. You assumed that it would be adjusted later on, but you shouldn’t have. It is just as easy for the company to assume that you accepted its estimate — which is exactly what appears to have happened.

State and local taxes on rental cars are ridiculously high. Taxes account for about a quarter of the cost of a vehicle rental, and many of the fees fund projects that the average traveler will never benefit from, like a sports stadium or arts center. Needless to say, taxes on car rentals are a touchy subject, particularly for frequent travelers.

In other words, rental companies need to get their taxes right. And when they don’t, they need to do whatever it takes to make it right.

That’s exactly what Hertz did when I contacted it. “The surcharge does not appear to be printing properly on our rental agreements and contracts,” spokeswoman Paula Rivera told me. “While technically the charges are correct, we understand Mr. Norton’s concerns and will adjust his charges by $5.94 to reflect the verbiage on his rental agreement.”

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler
magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at
celliott@ngs.org.

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