Jason Arakelian prepays for his Paris car rental through AutoEurope. So why did his car rental company suck another $368 from his account after he got home from his honeymoon? Does he really have to pay for his car twice? And why isn't his credit card company siding with him in this dispute?
Q: I'm having trouble with a double billing on a rental car, and need your help undoing one of the charges. I prepaid $336 for a car in Paris from AutoEurope for my honeymoon. I received a voucher from AutoEurope that said the balance due was $0.
When I picked up my car, I was told they needed to place a hold on my card for about $2,000 in case I returned the car damaged or did not return it at all. I thought this was reasonable and signed the document they gave me, which was in French. When I returned the car, the office was closed, but I left the keys in a drop box.
After I returned to the States, I noticed the car rental company had charged my credit card $368. I immediately disputed the bill because I had already paid for the car and had the voucher to prove it. But after a lot of back and forth, my credit card company didn't side with me. Is there anything I can do to get my money back? -- Jason Arakelian, Collegeville, Pa.
A: You shouldn't have been charged twice for the same rental car. And when you were, your credit card company should have sided with you -- not the rental agency -- and reversed the erroneous charges.
Keep in mind that AutoEurope isn't a car rental agency, but a reservation service. It sold you a voucher that was supposed to cover your rental through Europcar in Paris. It's easy to get the two confused -- I've done it a time or two myself -- but they are, in fact, two separate companies.
None of this should have happened, of course. Actually, since this was your honeymoon, the folks at the car rental counter might have done something nice for you, like offer a free upgrade. They still do that, you know.
But I think you could have resolved this without having to rope your credit card company into a formal dispute. I would have started with a brief, polite letter to AutoEurope and Europcar, explaining the situation.
A phone call to one of the three parties -- the reservation service, the car rental agency or your credit card company -- would have been less effective. Phones are ideal when a rental agency runs out of cars or an agent is trying to strong-arm you into buying an upgrade, and you need an immediate response from the company. But when it comes to a billing dispute, your agency will need specifics, like names, dates and reservation numbers.
The correspondence between you, AutoEurope and Europcar would have probably given your credit card company all the evidence it needed to issue a credit. But I'm fairly certain you would have had a full refund long before you needed to contact your bank.
Two other things. First, regarding your French contract. If you're uncomfortable signing the paperwork, don't be shy about asking for a translation, or at the very least requesting that someone explain what's in the contract. Oh, the horror stories I could tell you about travelers who unwittingly sign contracts in a foreign language and live to regret the day.
Second, regarding your credit card company. I think it's time to find another one. Seriously, this was so obviously a double billing that you've gotta wonder who the customer is -- you or the car rental company? (The correct answer is: you.)
I contacted AutoEurope on your behalf. A representative admitted Europcar had "billed you incorrectly." It issued a full refund, but then charged you an extra 40 euros. Why? The items were an "ecological charge" a "road charge" and a "garage charge" -- all of which should have been included in the original price of your rental.
I offered to revisit the matter with AutoEurope, but you were done, and you indicated you'll never rent a car from the company again. Can't say I blame you.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.