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Currency confusion with my car

Avis charges Laura Cattell $124 in currency exchange fees when she rents a car in England. Cattell insists the fees are excessive, because they convert pounds into dollars and then back into pounds. But the car rental company claims it had the right to make the exchange. Who’s right?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: Avis overcharged me for a one-month car rental in England, and I’ve had absolutely no luck in getting the error removed. I’m hoping you can help.

I had reserved the car rental through the British Airways Web site. When I arrived at the rental counter, I gave the employee my American driver’s license and my U.K. credit card.

Avis’ computers were down when I returned the car, so they couldn’t give me a receipt. But you can imagine my surprise when I checked my Visa statement and found that they had converted my U.K. pounds into dollars, because I had used my U.S. license. As a result, I paid an extra $124 for my car.

I called Avis’ customer service number, which was a complete waste of time. I also sent them an e-mail, but have heard nothing back from them, nor have I even received an acknowledgment of my message. Can you get my money back?
— Laura Cattell, Houston

A: Avis should have charged you in the currency it said you’d be billed in when you signed your car rental contract. But what did you agree to?

The Avis contract should have offered a choice of currencies — yours or theirs. But if you didn’t make a selection, its reservations system would have automatically defaulted to the currency of your country of residence. So even if you’re a British citizen renting a car in Britain with a credit card issued in the U.K., but live in America, you would still be charged in American dollars.

That would mean your pounds are converted into dollars and then back into pounds, incurring a processing fee of up to 3 percent each time. That doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t think any reasonable person should be expected to pay that.

Determining the Avis policy on currency conversions is maddeningly difficult. The terms and conditions on its site contain separate contracts for each country, and it is utterly confusing when it comes to the subject of currency conversion.

As I read the European contract, the rate of exchange used on any currency conversion will be “conclusively determined by Avis.” What I take that to mean is that the company can basically do whatever it wants.

I’ve been assured that it doesn’t, in practice. Instead, its policy in Britain is to give renters a choice of paying in the currency of their native country or in pounds. An agent should have reviewed those options with you when you picked up your car. There is no record of you selecting a currency.

Currency conversions are a tricky business. Credit cards charge a fee, and often, travel companies do as well. If you don’t pay attention, you could rack up a lot of surcharges without even realizing it. Any time you plan to cross the border, it’s critically important to check with your credit card and travel company to make sure you’re using the payment option that allows you to avoid any unnecessary surcharges.

I checked with Avis to get its side of the story. According to its records, an agent explained the charges to you in a phone conversation a few weeks ago, but that you “then hung up the phone on one of our representatives,” according to a spokeswoman. That may be why Avis never responded to your follow-up e-mail.

Needless to say, hanging up on a phone agent doesn’t help your case. Travel companies can attach notes to your reservation that follow you around like a rap sheet. A little politeness sometimes dramatically improves your chances of resolving a dispute.

Avis refunded the $124 in fees as a gesture of goodwill.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations,” on the Fine Living TV Network. E-mail him at