Tom Gainor pays for a rental car through Hotwire.com (www.hotwire.com), but when he gets to the car rental counter in Mexico, an agent strong-arms him into buying insurance that more than doubles the cost of the car. Neither Hotwire, nor the rental company seems to care. Is there any way of getting his money back?
Q: I have a question about car rental insurance. I recently booked a car in Manzanillo, Mexico through Hotwire. I ended up paying $197 in advance for a two-week rental through Thrifty.
My practice in renting cars has been to decline the optional insurance, relying on my personal coverage and my credit card coverage. That hasn't been a problem -- until now.
When I arrived at the busy rental counter, I was presented with a contract that required an additional $22 per day for insurance, which added more than $300 to the cost of the car. I was told that declining the coverage was not an option.
After several minutes of heated multilingual dispute, and in the absence of any Thrifty supervisor, I concluded that my alternatives were to initial the form or do without the car. I initialed the contract and wrote the word "protest" alongside the initials, but the clerk then proceeded to scratch over that word.
Since the reservation had been made through Hotwire, I contacted the company by email when I returned home and asked if they could look into the reason why the "estimated total cost" they provided had not been honored.
Hotwire said the accuracy of the information they provide is not their concern, that they would not ask Thrifty about it, and that I should contact Thrifty myself. I did. Thrifty did not respond to a written query.
I'd like a refund of the extra $308 I had to pay. Can you help? -- Tom Gainor, Mendota Heights, Minn.
A: Thrifty's insurance requirements should have been disclosed to you when you paid for your rental, which was when you booked it through Hotwire.
Hotwire's site is clear about what is, and isn't, included when you rent through it. It says your payment covers the full rental amount, including applicable tax recovery charges and fees. "You will have the option to purchase insurance and add additional drivers to your contract at the rental counter for an additional charge," it adds. You can view the full terms online.
The way I read that, it means insurance should have been presented to you as an option -- not a requirement.
The problem with a Hotwire rental is that you aren't able to choose which company to rent with. When you book one of its cars, you're just shown a rate and a class of car. You only find out the agency you're renting through after your credit card has been charged.
That means you can't know if the car rental company will charge you extra for insurance and then make a booking decision based on that. You've already paid for your car, so you're stuck.
Incidentally, this also happens with sites like Hotwire that sell hotels in this way. You prepay for your hotel, only to discover that it charges a mandatory $15-a-day "resort" fee that there's no getting out of. The best remedy is to dispute those fees on your credit card, since you never agreed to pay them. Works every time.
Hotwire, as your travel agent, should have contacted Thrifty and negotiated an immediate return of your $308. Instead, it sent you a form letter. Thrifty could have at least acknowledged your e-mail beyond the auto responder even spammers get.
I contacted Hotwire on your behalf, and this time the company got in touch with Thrifty. A representative contacted you and verified that credit card insurance -- the kind you were using to cover your car -- is not accepted in Mexico. "We do try to ensure customers are made aware of this," she added.
In terms of the "excessive tactics" concerning the sale of the insurance -- Thrifty's words, not mine -- the company representative said they do not condone them.
Thrifty cut you a check for $308.
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) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.