By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 3/25/2008 12:11:54 PM ET 2008-03-25T16:11:54
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: My wife and I were overcharged for our rental car when we vacationed in Italy last summer, and we need your help getting a refund.

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I had reserved an Opel Astra online through Budget Rent A Car, for a guaranteed rate of $361 a week. But when we arrived in Naples, the staff at the car rental counter told us they had been informed about the reservation, but not the firm price quote. They had also run out of Astras and offered me a Lancia Musa, which is a smaller car.

Their attitude was, “We don’t care about that fixed price confirmation you are showing us. We charge what we charge. Now sign here if you want to get a car.”

Having little real choice, I signed the agreement they put in front of me. But at the first opportunity, I sent Budget an e-mail requesting that they sort out the apparent miscommunication with the Naples office.

Budget acknowledged this e-mail a few days later and promised to get a response from its location in Naples. None ever came.

When we returned to the states, we found that our Visa account had been billed for almost twice the quoted amount — $686. A few weeks later, Budget credited my card for $146, which I assumed was an adjustment for my involuntary downgrade. I’ve written two more letters to Budget over the last six months, with no luck. Is there anything you can do? — Douglas Hawkins, Minneapolis

A: Budget should have honored the first price you were offered. And if for some reason the Naples location couldn’t give you the rate to which you had originally agreed, the company should have fixed the misunderstanding by issuing a quick refund. I don’t consider six months of foot-dragging an acceptable response.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem. A few weeks ago in this column, I wrote about another European rental in which a motorist had been billed more than 2-1/2 times the original rate after his car rental location ran out of the vehicles he’d reserved (coincidentally, an Opel Astra) and offered him an “upgrade.”

If I were to give Budget the benefit of the doubt, I might note that you made your reservation through Budget, but actually rented at an Avis location. (Budget and Avis are owned by the same parent company, Avis Budget Group.) I might speculate that the Italian location had become confused about currencies — believing, maybe, that it quoted your rate in euros, not dollars.

But I’m not inclined to be so generous. I’ve heard more than enough stories about car rental companies in Europe figuratively — and sometimes literally — tearing up the American contract, doubling the price, and telling travelers they can “take it or leave it.”

If that ever happens to you again, politely ask to speak with a manager. If that fails to clear up the misunderstanding, call the company’s reservations number and explain the situation. If you’ve made the reservation through a travel agent, phone your adviser and ask for help. A good agent will make sure the mix-up is taken care of before you return the vehicle.

If none of those strategies work, you should consider walking away from the car rental counter. You might do better elsewhere.

E-mailing Budget wasn’t a bad idea, but a car rental problem of this nature is best cleared up sooner rather than later, and e-mails can sit in the queue for days or weeks before you’re sent a form response.

I contacted Budget on your behalf. It turns out the extra charges were for insurance, an extra driver, and a quarter tank of gas, according to a representative who contacted you. But no one had bothered to explain those fees or to give you the option of not paying them. Budget refunded you another $239.

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.

© 2007 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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