By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 12/26/2008 4:52:21 PM ET 2008-12-26T21:52:21
travel troubleshooter

Q: Can you help me get my money back for a rental car? I recently prepaid for a car in Vancouver through Priceline using my debit card. But when I checked in at the Avis counter, I was told that I couldn't get a car because I didn't have a credit card. I had notified Priceline that I didn't have a card when I made my reservation.

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I was treated like a deadbeat. I tried to cancel my reservation, but when I called Priceline, I was told that my rental was nonrefundable. For the next eight days, I had no transportation and was forced to remain in the vicinity of the airport. This was more than an inconvenience; it was an outrage.

I insist that my money be returned. Don't you think I deserve a refund?
— Linda Kirby, Wichita, Kan.

A: Without a question, yes. Priceline should have either refunded your rental immediately or found you a comparable car. Preferably both.

Priceline offers two different ways of booking a car. The first is pretty conventional: You find a good rate and you reserve a car that you can cancel anytime without penalty. No prepayment is necessary.

The second is called the “Name Your Own Price” method. That's where you bid on a rental and if it's accepted, your debit card or credit card is billed immediately. Although there are no refunds, naming your own price can be a good deal. I've personally saved 20 percent off the lowest published rate by using this Priceline service.

When I booked my “Name Your Own Price” rental I noted a box that lets you tell Priceline you're using a debit card. But Priceline also warns that some car rental companies might not let you rent unless you have a credit card. You may not have seen that notice. Priceline's booking screens are a little busy.

This could easily be avoided. Priceline could stop accepting debit cards as payment for its rental cars. It might also consider simplifying or clarifying its booking system. And customers need to remember to scroll down and read everything when they're making a reservation.

I contacted Priceline on your behalf. It refunded the full amount of your rental.

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.

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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