Jeff Gelles: In car rentals, beware the fine-print trap

Priceline.com's William Shatner in a TV commercial. A Blue Bell couple's experience shows some dramatic changes in the car-rental business.
Priceline.com's William Shatner in a TV commercial. A Blue Bell couple's experience shows some dramatic changes in the car-rental business.
Posted: October 07, 2013

I owe a tip of the hat to Joel and Tamar Port, a Blue Bell couple who'd probably rather get the $150 they lost because of a Priceline car-rental gone awry. Their story highlights one fine-print trap that can snare anyone seeking cheap wheels away from home. But it's also a window onto some other pitfalls - and onto surprising differences among rental companies' policies.

If you rent cars often for work, you likely have a standing deal with one or more of the major rental brands - most now consolidated into three multi- brand companies such as Avis Budget Group. But if you're an occasional renter, you may have been slow to notice some dramatic changes in the rental business. And a key factor has been the role of Internet players such as Priceline and Hotwire.

Priceline made its name via its name-your-own-price deals. As pitchman William Shatner said till we wished he'd been captured by Klingons, you can save big bucks by bidding blindly for unclaimed hotel rooms or rental cars - perishable assets that produce no income when empty or parked.

Whatever you think about the process, or Hotwire's blind-offer counterpart, it's fair to say that it works especially well for rental cars, which are essentially interchangeable commodities. So when Joel Port planned a weekend getaway to Sarasota, Fla., he decided to give Priceline a try.

Traveling with Tamar's sister and her partner and flying into Tampa, more than an hour away, the Ports wanted a larger vehicle. After two unsuccessful bids, they got a small SUV for $15 a day - $60 for four days, plus about $44 in "taxes and fees."

Those extras are a topic for another day. Because states, cities, and airports already impose a confusing mix of levies and surcharges, it's easy for third parties such as Priceline and Hotwire to pile on. Still, the model can work if it benefits everybody. And to the Ports, a bottom line of $104 looked great.

So what went wrong? Joel Port was delayed by an unexpected meeting and booked himself onto a later flight directly to Sarasota. But when Tamar Port got to the Hertz counter in Tampa, she ran into that Priceline fine print: With only Joel's name on the contract, only Joel could pick up the car.

Tamar pointed out that she had the same last name, address, and credit-card number, and even had a copy of Joel's driver's license. But everybody at Hertz, and on the phone to Priceline, said the same thing: " 'Sorry, it's under Joel's name. He has to be here.' "

She eventually paid National $142 for a similar SUV. The bottom line: They were out nearly $150, angered and baffled.

"Priceline and Hertz don't recognize the union of marriage," Joel Port said in an e-mail, noting that Priceline's site provides no space to identify a spouse.

When I asked about Port's complaint, neither Priceline nor Hertz explained that omission, except to say it was part of the basic rental deal.

"It's a prepaid booking, and Hertz has said that under no circumstances are they going to allow anyone other than the driver to pick up the car," said Priceline spokesman Brian Ek.

Hertz's Paula Rivera, while acknowledging via e-mail that Tamar Port "appears to have some documentation evidencing her spousal relationship," confirmed Ek's statement.

"The trade-off is that it's nonchangeable and noncancelable," Ek said. "And if that doesn't work for you, then retail is probably the way to go."

But there's a twist to this story, one useful for any renter to know.

Even if Hertz had taken Tamar Port's ID, she'd have been unhappy with the consequence. In most states, Hertz charges $13.50 a day for an additional driver, to a maximum of $94.50. Coworkers are exempt on business rentals, but there's no give for spouses.

That's not true everywhere. According to their websites, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, and National (an Enterprise brand) exempt spouses and domestic partners from the additional-driver fees they impose, except in the handful of states where laws limit or bar them. Alamo, another Enterprise brand that also exempts coworkers on business trips, says spouses must pay the $10-a-day fee - still less than Hertz.

So that crack about Hertz, Priceline, and marriage? Well, maybe Joel Port is right.


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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