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Christopher Elliott: Car renter arm-twisted into paying extra for insurance in Mexico

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 12:42 a.m.

Before leaving for my trip, I verified that my credit card company covered all types of rental car insurance and that no additional insurance should be purchased. When I arrived in Cancun, the Europcar agent insisted that it was company policy that I take the extra insurance, otherwise he could not rent me the car. He even insisted that this would have been on the Hotwire page.

Reluctantly, I accepted the insurance. When I got home, I ended up being charged $268 for the rental car. The Hotwire and Europcar websites do not mention mandatory insurance, yet neither will compensate me for what I believe was an attempt to overcharge me for services. What can be done about this?— Gordon Houston, Calgary, Canada

A: Ah, the old Mexican insurance scam! Regular readers of this column already know about this one. It goes something like this: You rent a car south of the border, believing the rate you've been quoted includes all mandatory charges. But wait. When you get to the car rental counter, an associate tells you that without insurance, you're not going anywhere. So you pay.

Europcar and Hotwire offered you an unbelievably good rate for a rental car in Cancun. Even with the extra insurance, the $268 rate wasn't bad. But I agree with you. Hotwire should have disclosed the mandatory insurance, preferably in the initial price, and if not there, then at least sometime before you pushed the "buy" button.

Even Hotwire's fine print appears to do an inadequate job of warning customers of the Mexico insurance rules. In fact, it suggested the exact opposite: "You will have the option to purchase insurance and add additional drivers to your contract at the rental counter for an additional charge," it says.

This lack of clear disclosure doesn't benefit Hotwire, or any other intermediary. It only helps the car rental company, which profits from selling you insurance. Still, Hotwire bears some responsibility for failing to quote you a total price, and it should have been more responsive to your complaint.

If you ever run into this problem again, complain, in writing. First, through Hotwire's website (keep a copy of your e-mail for your own records) and then escalate it to a company executive.

To apply additional pressure, copy the insurance commissioner in your state and the nearest American consulate in Mexico. Even though neither will likely be able to help, it sends a signal to Hotwire and Europcar that you're serious about getting this situation resolved. As a last resort, you can dispute your credit card charges or sue Hotwire in small-claims court.

Fortunately, none of that was necessary. I contacted Hotwire on your behalf. A representative agreed to credit you for the extra money you were forced to spend on insurance.

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 ca n read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliot@tngs.org.

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