An important recent analysis in the New York Times (March 16) has served to remind us of what we subconsciously knew: that the car-rental industry has gone way over the line in a current stampede to add multiple extra fees to your eventual bill — fees that no reasonable person could have anticipated.
An example? How about an extra $100 added to the charge for a four-day rental called a "trip saver," meaning that it covers your theoretical right to roadside assistance that you never needed? The author of the Times article "The Rental Car Squeeze," Elizabeth Olson, cites that extraordinary charge, as well as the widespread auto-rental practice of pressuring you to pay for collision insurance, even though you already have an insurance policy on your own car that covers out-of-town car rentals.
She also discusses the car-rental practice of charging $7 to $14 per gallon of gas for the fuel needed to fill your tank on return of the car. (The latter point, with its $14 ex-ample, is not an imagined one, but an actual charge imposed in one of the Western states.) All in all, the Times article is a strong one.
But dramatic as it is, the Times expose is a softy compared with treatment of the car-rental industry in a book by Bob Sullivan (he's the well-known author of most of the blogs in MSNBC's consumer-protection site, www.redtape. msnbc.com, and of a book called "Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day — And What You Can Do About It." In a review of the commonly imposed and totally unexpected surcharges of the auto-rental industry (one of several chapters dealing with a succession of American industries), he ticks off no fewer than a dozen atrocities currently in use:
"Peak season fees. Concession recovery fees. Facility usage fees. Refueling surcharge. Stadium surcharge. Recoup fees. Consolidated facility charges. Highway use fees. Vehicle license recoupment fees. Frequent-flier miles fees. Tire and battery recover fees" ... among others. As a result of such fees, and others, Sullivan writes:
"Travelers to Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport can expect to pay 52 percent more than the base rental price ... That includes a flat $4.50-per-rental fee that's collected to build facilities for — you guessed it — car-rental companies. ... Travelers to Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport pay a full two-thirds more than the base price for car rentals."
How to avoid such outrages? In making your car-rental reservation by phone, ask that the reservationist state the "bottom-line" price for the entire rental. Require, then, that he or she confirms that price by e-mail. Keep the e-mail, and show it to the counter clerk when you return the car.
I urge you to obtain a copy of Sullivan's book. Its chapter on surcharges and extra fees in other segments of the travel industry (like hotels) is just as devastating. And you will save many times the cost of the book by keeping its lessons in mind when you reserve hotel rooms, car rentals and other travel facilities.