By Travel columnist
updated 6/3/2005 2:49:55 PM ET 2005-06-03T18:49:55

When Jeannene Page's car rental keys are stolen, Hertz figures they will be easy to replace. But it figures wrong. Problems with the Toyota Avalon's so-called Smart Key system keep the vehicle in the shop for several days. Now, Hertz is billing Page $1,549 for the fob and an extra week's rental. But the company's policy is that it only should charge her $95 for a new key. Who's right? And how can you prevent this from happening to you?

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Q: I recently rented a Toyota Avalon from Hertz at the Denver airport. On the same day my purse, credit cards, and the key to the rental car were stolen from the driveway of my mother’s house in Greeley, Colo.

I immediately informed the Hertz office in Greeley where I had intended to return the car the same day. A Hertz representative offered to go to the local Toyota dealership, have a new key made, and bring it to the house.

The new key opened the door but did not work in the ignition. The Hertz employee said she would not accept a car which did not move. She told me I had the choice of having the car towed at my expense all the way back to the Hertz location at the Denver airport, which is a 58-mile trip, or having it towed to the dealership in Greeley at my expense to have a new key made.

I called the emergency services number for Hertz and was offered the same options. A representative also told me the company’s policy was to charge $95 for making a new key.

I sent the car to the Toyota dealership, where it took the better part of a week to get a working key made. But instead of billing me $95, Hertz charged my credit card $1,549.94.

I checked Hertz policy, and it confirms that in a situation like mine a customer has the option to pay for towing the car to any Hertz location, pay the $95 key replacement fee and exchange the car. So what’s with the extra charge?

— Jeannene PageStamford, Conn.

A: The 2005 Toyota Avalon comes with the new Smart Key system, which looks really nifty on paper. It uses wireless technology to allow the driver to touch the door handle with the “key” to release the locks.

But in practice, the Smart Key can be problematic. Published reports put the replacement cost of a key at $200 or higher.

As I review the details of your case, it appears that Hertz is also billing you for a loss of use for the week the car was in the shop.

Hertz showed its commitment to customer service when it offered to drive a key out to your location. If it had continued to show that high level of customer service, it should have allowed you to return the car after you had it towed back to the dealership.

But it didn’t. Instead, Hertz refused to accept the vehicle, billing you each day that the car was out of service.

I think you could have prevented this by escalating your case to the corporate level (calling the Hertz 800-number) as soon as it became clear that the key would take some time – preferably after you left the car at the Toyota dealership.

As soon as the car is out of your possession, which it clearly was when you left it at the dealer, you should have been off the hook. The car rental company should have asked you to pay the $95 key replacement charge, plus the rental fee for the day. No more.

As wireless smart-key systems become more popular, car rental companies need to take a hard look at their key replacement costs. Obviously, this key cost Hertz more than $95. Should it pass those expenses along to its renters, and if so, how much should its customers pay?

I asked Hertz to take another look at your case. A representative phoned you and agreed that the company should have honored its initial promise to bill you only $95 for the key.

Hertz reimbursed you for everything except the day’s rental and the key-replacement fee.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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