By Travel columnist
updated 8/10/2005 3:18:03 PM ET 2005-08-10T19:18:03

Karina Castillo is offered a bargain 220-euro weekly rate on a rental car in Paris. But when she returns the vehicle, she's in for a shock: The bill comes to more than 800 euros. Now, one year later, Avis hasn't even acknowledged her e-mails and phone calls appealing the higher bill. Should the car rental company give her a refund? And how could Castillo have avoided this dispute in the first place?

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Q: We rented an Avis car in Paris more than a year ago. After two days, we decided to extend our contract by a week, and were offered a rate of 220 euros.

When we returned the car, we were presented with a bill for more than 800 euros. We were sure it was a mistake.

I tried to speak with an Avis employee before we left, but we were in a hurry to catch our plane and I couldn’t get anyone to fix the rate. I called the Avis location at the airport after we returned to the United States and was told that the reason our bill was so high is that they had not entered our frequent-renter number. I gave the number to the agent, thinking that would be the end of the story.

It wasn’t. More than a year has gone by. I’ve called both the Avis location and Avis corporate, and I’ve e-mailed the company. I have not once received a courteous letter or phone call in response.

This has turned into an ordeal. We would never have agreed to pay 800 euros for a one-week rental. Can you help us get a refund?

— Karina Castillo, New York

A: You’re right, 800 euros sounds a little pricey for a one-week rental. Even in Paris.

It sure looks like Avis was trying to pull a bait-and-switch, offering you a low rate and then charging you a higher one. I don’t base that opinion on the fact that you were charged about 600 euros more than you expected — overcharges happen all the time in the travel industry. I base it on the fact that the company apparently did nothing to address your complaint for a year.

Let’s just say that doesn’t look very good for Avis.

Fortunately, this kind of situation is completely avoidable. If you want to extend a car rental, get the new terms in writing. A car rental company can e-mail you with a new agreement, or send it to you by postal service or messenger.

But tell you by phone? Non, merci.

When you see an incorrect charge on a rental bill, remember to climb the corporate food chain one link at a time. First, see if an agent can fix the situation. If not, appeal to a manager. Finally, take your grievance to corporate. If that doesn’t work, see me.

Your mistake was waiting too long to appeal to a manager. When the agent started hemming and hawing, you should have politely cut him off and asked to see the boss.

Signing the credit card receipt was also a mistake. If a travel company requires you to sign (and that’s not unusual), make a notation on the slip that you do not agree with the charge, and that you intend to appeal it. Make your intentions clear to the agent and manager as well. Sometimes this is enough to resolve the dispute on the spot.

Whatever you do, don’t give a travel company a whole year to address a dispute like this. After all, you have a limited time to challenge a credit card charge. Instead, notify your credit card company of the problem immediately, and then give the company a few weeks — a month at most — before filing a formal complaint. You normally have only 60 days to file a challenge.

If you had gotten the weekly rate in writing and had followed a few simple appeal procedures, this dispute wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — dragged on for a year.

As far as I can tell, Avis just put the wrong rate in its computer. Then it stubbornly stood by that rate, even though you were a frequent renter. Well, so much for giving its customers the benefit of the doubt.

I asked Avis to check its records, and after it did, it offered you a refund of $300. That’s a pretty nice gesture, considering it apparently had no official record of offering you a lower price. And half your money back is better than nothing at all.

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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.

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