I avoid using this soap box for personal vendettas. A Wild Duck has a broad venue but spats over shady business practices aren’t covered. Tonight, I am outvoted. My co-editor wants me to run this story. Hey, this wound is fresh! Who am I to disagree?
Every once in a while, one encounters a vendor with business practices so out-of-whack, that it just begs to be exposed. Here’s one that hasn’t fully played out. If it is resolved before next week, I will update this Op Ed. But after experiencing this scam, I have doubts that a culture of deception can be corrected by a Blog posting…
Let’s start with statements of fact: I travel. And I hate renting cars.
Until recently, the cost of renting a car was rarely what was agreed in advance. Online reservations are especially problematic, because franchisees fail to report local fees or policies to the franchiser, agency or internet marketing affiliates.
But years ago, I developed a method to overcome the problem, and it has worked splendidly. I first applied ‘Ellery’s Rule’ planning a trip to Florida. I called the rental agency directly and presented my discount codes. I was quoted an excellent weekly rate. (I think that it was Avis, but I am not certain).
Just in case, a desk clerk were to add up the numbers differently than the friendly telephone agent, I asked the agent to add a statement to the Memo section of the contract. She added these words:
The customer has been promised the rate as calculated in this estimate. He is not to be charged a different amount if the car is returned in good condition and with a full tank of gas.
To ensure that the statement exuded authority, I asked her to cite the name of a regional or department manager.
When I got to Florida, the reservation contract was already printed and waiting at the airline terminal rental desk. I pointed out the statement in the Memo section and the local clerk brushed it off with a chuckle. “Don’t you worry”, he said. “The rate is correct. You won’t be cheated.”
But when I returned the car, there was an extra $11 tacked onto the contract. “What’s this?!” I asked to a new face at the desk. “Oh, that’s the Florida drug tax” a friendly woman exclaimed, as if reading from a script. “Every customer must pay it. It’s the law. We have no control over state taxes.”
“Guess what?” I snapped back. “I don’t want any drugs.” I don’t think that she got the wit or charm of my dry sarcasm, but after a few phone calls, I certainly didn’t pay the Florida drug tax. Of course, she was right. It is a state law and payment is ascribed to the renter. But Avis paid it from the proceeds that I had agreed to pay. That’s because I had a written contract that specified the cost after all taxes, fees and even drugs. It is inclusive, en toto, complete! You get the picture.
For years, my little system worked like a charm. If at first, a rental agent refuses to add the memo (effectively stating that their estimate is truthful), I threaten to cancel the reservation. They always get authority to add the Memo. It never fails. And so for these past years, I have been quietly smug when overhearing another traveler talk about unexpected fees added at the car rental desk.
I was smug, that is, until this past week. With Rent a Terstappen, I got hoodwinked!
I traveled to Frankfurt Germany last week and rented a car from the local Dollar franchise. I got a good rate from HotWire.com, a popular web travel site. For a simple booking, it’s difficult to get a live agent on the phone, and so I booked my rental online, realizing that I might get stuck with a Frankfurt “drug tax”–or perhaps in this case, a wiener-schnitzel tax. But I was woefully unprepared for what happened. I was socked with an enormous fee and an even more absurd justification. It doubled the amount quoted in Hotwire’s good faith disclosure!
Dollar franchisee Rent a Terstappen
Desk clerk Beatrice Lindholm-Dagci
HotWire itinerary 4523744713
Contract offer $151.87 *
Customer charge $315.38 (?!)
* Revised from original offer of $182.24 for 6 days
Dear readers: You won’t believe the pretense on which Rent a Terstappen doubled my rental contract cost. Even with the separation of 6,000 kilometers and 6 days since my return, I still can’t believe the loony reason that Ms. Lnidholm-Dagci told me (at first, with a straight face). More shocking, I sensed that she didn’t believe it either. She whispered for me to visit Dollar competitors at nearby rental counters. Clearly, she gets push-back from more than a few outraged customers.
Well, this customer won’t stand for it. I landed during the busiest travel week in Germany. Even with staggered school vacations, everyone is on holiday during the 3rd week of August. Five other rental companies offered to match the rate that I was promised (without a farcical add-on), but none had vehicles anywhere near the airport. They were fully booked no matter what I paid. The folks at Hertz and Sixt (a European car rental outfit) sympathized with my plight. One even offered me a personal ride into the city. She has dealt with other disgruntled Dollar-booked clients.
- Does Dollar Rental know of the massive deception foisted on their clients by Rent a Terstappen? (the local Dollar franchisee at the Frankfurt airport).
- Does Rent a Terstappen force desk agents to pretend they don’t see what agents at every other rental counter already see? Beatrice Lindholm-Dagci recognizes the deception she is forced to perpetrate. She must hoodwink customers and then blame the fiasco on HotWire or other referring agents.
- Does Hertz know that the reporting chain at Dollar is either deceptive or egregiously deficient? (My travel department will talk with Hertz if this is not settled by the end of this week.)
Oh yes! I forgot to tell you the reason for the doubling of my rental charge: Ms. Linholm-Dagci explained to me that I must use a Gold branded MasterCard to complete the transaction, because she had no way of verifying insurance coverage for any other form of payment. I had with me a Platinum American Express, a Platinum Visa Card and a Business Premium MasterCard. All of them carried rental insurance. I offered her a $1500 deposit, which she processed! I also offered proof of my insurance coverage through Liberty Mutual with a very clear stipulation of full vehicle replacement value, even when driving in a foreign country.
She didn’t care. It had to be a Gold MasterCard. Not Premium, Not American Express Platinum, Not Chrome, Not Visa, Not the 7 other cards whose logos that they display at the counter. Only a Gold MasterCard.
Next week, I will add Hubert Terstappen’s phone numbers to this story. Perhaps Wild Ducks can persuade him to rethink his business model.
Late Thursday Update:
A representative at HotMail has seen my rant and has launched an investigation. I understand that HotWire may compensate me for the difference between what I was promised and what was stated in their good faith estimate.
HotWire is a good company. They want to do the right thing. But I don’t really consider their payoff to be a proper solution. What about future visitors to Frankfurt who don’t know about the policy/scam? (Take your pick. It’s a toss up!) I have asked HotWire to reassess Dollar representation or at least get the corporate franchiser involved. Craft an ethical solution to the Rent a Terstappen practices. I am fortunate to be working with individuals at HotWire and Dollar who are both understanding and empowered.