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An early return, a higher price

Molly Reinhardt returns Alamo rental car three days early, after there’s a death in her family. The company shows its compassion by charging her an extra $361 in early-return fees. Did it make a mistake, or is Alamo really billing Reinhardt more for less?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: We recently booked a rental car through Alamo.com for 10 days. Unfortunately, my husband’s grandmother passed away while we were on vacation and we had to come home three days early.

A few days after I returned, I discovered my credit card had been charged more than triple the price that Alamo had originally quoted us. The early-return policy on Alamo’s Web site says something about a $15-per-day fee for early returns, but our weekly rate was raised from $152 to $513.

Neither my husband nor I were made aware of the higher charges when we returned the car. We did not authorize or sign a receipt agreeing to pay that amount.

Alamo claims that we broke our original contract when we returned the car early, but I feel this is a classic case of bait and switch. Do I have any recourse in this matter?
— Molly Reinhardt, Kawkawlin, Mich.

A: Raising your weekly rate by $361 because you returned your car three days early makes no sense. If anything, Alamo should be offering you a refund for bringing one of its vehicles back early, allowing them to rent the car to someone else.

But that’s not the way it works. Two years ago, Alamo made a small but significant change to its return policy. Not only would it apply a $15-per-day early return fee, but it would also recalculate your rate, charging you the same price that walk-up customers pay for renting cars without prior reservations.

In other words, you would owe Alamo the penalty plus the rate difference, which in your case is an extra $361.

The Alamo policy is similar to the airlines rules. Booking a seat two weeks in advance is almost always cheaper than a walk-up fare. And if you change your plans, you’re subject to a rebooking fee.

You could have prevented this excessive surcharge by carefully reading the terms of your rental contract and asking about the early-return fee when you came home before you were supposed to. Assuming everything is all right because no one said anything was a mistake.

If you had asked, you might have been able to explain your situation to a manager, who would have almost certainly adjusted your rate in a more compassionate way.

I contacted Alamo on your behalf. Regina Barr, a senior customer service manager, contacted me and said that under the circumstances, the company would honor the original weekly rate. It has issued a refund.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,