By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/31/2010 1:09:57 PM ET 2010-08-31T17:09:57

Be nice to your car rental agent. Otherwise you could end up like Hank Jeffries.

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He doesn’t remember saying anything offensive to the clerk when he rented an intermediate-size vehicle in Cancun recently. It didn’t matter: Jeffries’ “confirmed” $325-a-week rate through his travel agency turned into $900 when he checked in.

“I said I wanted to rent the car,” said Jeffries, a retired information technology worker from Los Angeles. “Not buy it.”

That may have rubbed the employee the wrong way. Although the rate was adjusted back to the original price, he had to buy insurance, which brought the price up to $700. Then he was handed the keys to a high-mileage car with extensive damage.

“In retrospect, I would have been far better off renting a vehicle at the resort where I stayed, even paying a daily rate,” Jeffries said.

Although it might not always be obvious, car rental employees are people, too. They have the power to make your rental experience a pleasure — upgrading you to a sedan or looking the other way when you put a chip in the windshield — or, like Jeffries, to make your rental experience absolutely miserable.

Here are five tricks of their trade — and how you can make a detour around them:

1. Wanna play the price game? Angry car rental agents can modify the rate you’re paying, often broadsiding you with a new, higher price when you pick up the vehicle. When Shirley Garcowski booked a car in Orlando recently, that’s what her agent did. “When I went to pick up the car, the rate they were giving me was higher than the rate quoted when I booked the car,” she said. “They said the corporate rate is only an estimate — the only locked-in rate is through their website.” That’s nonsense, of course. And she knew it. She complained to a manager, who agreed to honor the original price as “a one-time accommodation.”

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2. This box is pre-checked for your convenience. A car rental agent who wants to make your life miserable can also pre-check a box on your lengthy car rental contract, in which you indicate your acceptance of the optional insurance. (Collision-damage waivers are one of the most profitable add-ons for car rental companies, so the bottom line might also have something to do with it.) That’s what happened to Jim Strohmeier when he rented a car in Las Vegas recently. “They charged my credit card for car insurance, even though I did not check the box on the contract where it is indicated to select insurance,” he said. When he requested a copy of the contract, the car rental company backed down and credited him for the insurance.

3. We make up the rules as we go along. Like airline agents and hotel clerks, car rental agents can often do as they please. For example, they can make up policies, just for the fun of it. That’s what happened to Vinil Bhandari who rented a car at the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) airport recently and was surprised when he was asked to pay another $18 a day in additional-driver fees. The reason? A manager told him it only applied to married couples. “Then the folks behind rental counters, along with the location manager had a good laugh at this,” he recalled. Wow, that’s pretty mean. Bhandari is appealing the charge, since it contradicts the car rental company’s own website. He should be receiving a refund shortly.

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4. It wasn’t like that when you got there. Perhaps one of the most unsporting things a vindictive car rental agent can do to you is to assure you that the pre-existing damage you note on a car won’t be held against you, but then it’s held against you. It happened to Bruce Bennett when he rented a car in Honolulu recently. “When we loaded the car we noticed that there was a hole in the rear bumper and we brought it to the attention of the lot attendant,” he remembered. “She told us to tell the person at the gate. We did and they circled the rear bumper on the car diagram and off we went. When we returned the car I told the person checking us in about the damage.” But the next month, they got a $738 bill from their car rental company, anyway. Typically, a strongly worded letter to your car rental company with a copy to the state insurance commissioner, is enough to reverse those charges.

5. We didn’t want your business, anyway. Sometimes, car rental companies just don’t want to be bothered with renting you a car. That can be annoying. The car rental employee Mike Murray tried to rent from in Albany recently fit that description. He mumbled, gave him bad directions to the location, and then refused to honor the reservation. Murray decided to rent from another location within the chain. A representative there offered a theory about the bad service. “I was told that the other location was low on cars, and that the incident was a successful ploy to dodge a booking they couldn’t satisfy,” he said. I’m not so sure. Sometimes, incompetence is just incompetence.

So how do you avoid a confrontation with a rental agent? It’s pretty easy. Be polite, accommodating and even-tempered when you rent a car. And smile.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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