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Christopher Elliott: Read car rental contract carefully

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:31 a.m.

I asked the agent why it said $105 instead of the $52 that I paid through Hotwire and she said they didn't know how much I paid through Hotwire but that was the Avis charge in their system and that I would only have to pay what I paid Hotwire.

Well, when I went back a few days later to return the car, I saw they'd charged me this same $105. I couldn't figure out why, and so I disputed the charge. A manager showed me where I had allegedly agreed to insurance at a cost of more than I paid for the car. I explained that the agent either circled that herself when she was showing me the options or circled it after I signed because I have never in my life purchased insurance for a car rental since I have my own.

While I understand the manager's position completely, I am quite offended by this apparent fraud and would appreciate having this charge removed. Can you help me?— Carla Dorsey, Chicago

A: Avis shouldn't have charged you for insurance you didn't want. Based on your description of events, it seems you were dealing with a rental agent who had just finished one of those seminars on upselling, and was eager to make her numbers for the month.

It's no secret that car rental companies — and their employees — earn much of their money from upgrading you to optional items like insurance, prepaid fuel and amenities like GPS navigation systems. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. What's wrong is when an employee nudges customers along by circling the wrong field and hastily asking them to "sign here" knowing full well that their signature means they'll have to pay for insurance.

You intended to turn down the insurance, so the manager you appealed to should have followed up with the agent rather than just denying your request. Hotwire issues a voucher that should cover the entire cost of your rental (as a reminder, when you prepay for a rental car through Hotwire, it lets you pick the location but not the car rental agency. In exchange, you get a deep discount.)

Talking to a manager was the right first step, but it wasn't your only option. A short, cordial e-mail to Avis might have helped, although based on previous dealings with Avis, I would have put your chances at about 50/50. After that, a dispute of your credit card bill would have been your last option before going to small claims court. And no one goes to small claims court over $53.

Next time you rent a car, read your contract carefully. If you can't make out the type — sometimes the printers run low on ink — then ask the agent to clarify or write "I decline optional insurance" on your contract. That way, there is no doubt that you do not want insurance.

Incidentally, not all insurance is a shameless "upsell." Some credit cards claim do cover you but only offer secondary insurance. It's best to check with your card company or car insurance company before you rent, just to be sure.

I contacted Avis on your behalf, and it refunded the insurance charge.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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