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A textbook rental scam?

Arul Menezes rents two cars from Hertz and both times gets the same drill: An agent prints out a contract for a higher rate and then tries to force an upgrade to a more expensive vehicle. Menezes wonders: What's going on?
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Arul Menezes rents two cars from Hertz and both times gets the same drill: An agent prints out a contract for a higher rate and then tries to force an upgrade to a more expensive vehicle. Menezes wonders: What's going on?

Q: I recently rented cars from Hertz in San Diego and in Avignon, France, and the experiences were so similar that I wondered if the agents were following the same script.

In each case, I reserved the car months in advance on the Web and got a great deal: less than $200 a week, including taxes, for a mid-size car. But when I arrived at the counter, I was handed a contract with a rate almost twice what I had agreed to pay.

Both times, I disputed the new contract. And both times, I got dragged into 20 minutes of wrangling about how there might be a mistake, and the computer might have a bug, or the quoted rate was before taxes, and so forth. I stood my ground, pointing at the line on my printout from the Web, which said, in plain English, that the rate included all taxes and fees.

Then the agents claimed they had no mid-size cars available, but could give me a full-size car at a higher rate. I declined this offer, suggesting that if they had no mid-size cars, they were free to give me a bigger car at the same rate. This was followed by the claim that they could have a mid-size car ready in a half-hour or so, if I cared to wait.

In San Diego, the reservation agent even called the lot on the two-way radio to ask if they had any mid-size cars ready. Unfortunately for the agent, the guy at the lot wasn’t in on the scam, and the answer came back clear as a bell: “Plenty!” At this point, about 30 minutes into our argument, we’d reached a complete impasse, so I just stood there drumming my fingers on the counter.

Suddenly the agent caved (perhaps he noticed the rather long and impatient line behind me). The transformation was dramatic. Within seconds, I was handed a contract priced exactly as specified on my reservation. Within minutes, I was driving away in a car in the class I had reserved.

Hertz is usually efficient and offers good service, so both these experiences came as a real shock. Do you have any idea what is going on?

— Arul Menezes, Sammamish, Wash.

A: I am as surprised as you are. Not by what happened — the schemes you mention are all too common in the car rental industry. No, I am shocked that it happened at Hertz, which, as you point out, has an excellent reputation for customer service.

I’m relieved that Hertz eventually did the right thing: It gave you the car you asked for at the rate it promised. But what happened in between - I’m hard-pressed to explain that.

You describe several textbook car rental schemes. For example, the “Buggy Computer Dodge,” in which a wrong rate is blamed on some technological glitch. (Watch for a similar ploy, the “Printer Is Almost Out of Ink Scam,” in which you are handed a contract that is practically illegible.) These “bugs” are not your fault - they are the car rental company’s responsibility. But these technological lapses favor the company, which may be why they’re so slow to get fixed.

You also experienced the “Forced Upgrade.” This usually happens when an agent needs to make a sales quota. (Also be on the lookout for the “Heavy-Handed Insurance Pitch,” in which the employee tries to frighten you into buying an expensive, and often unnecessary, policy.)

Your response was textbook correct. You stood your ground.

If a car rental company refuses to honor a rate, don’t bother arguing with a manager. Call the company’s toll-free number to set things straight. Most car rental companies, as a matter of policy, offer free upgrades when the class you’ve reserved is unavailable. So there’s no need to play the waiting game, either.

I checked with Hertz, and it is also surprised by your story. “Hertz honors its rates no matter how a customer chooses to book — whether via the Web, a travel agent or via the company itself,” said company spokeswoman Paula Stifter. She also verified that Hertz’s policy is to offer a free upgrade to the next class of vehicle when the rental location can’t offer a car in the class you have reserved.

“Hertz does not condone the behavior described by your reader,” she added. “We are conducting a full review of the matter and recurrent training at both locations as appropriate to ensure all policies are being properly followed.”

As a gesture of goodwill, Hertz sent you a $100 certificate.

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 or visit his . Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting .