When the Rental Car Place Doesn’t Hold Your Reservation

PHOTO: An airport sign with direction arrows for rental cars and taxis.Paul Velgos/Getty Images
An airport sign with direction arrows for rental cars and taxis.

Laura Sneed of suburban Chicago thought she was all set when she booked a rental minivan for a family vacation. But when the family of six arrived in Orlando, they were told there was no van available -- despite their reservation.

Read Laura’s original letter to the ABC News Fixer below, and see how The Fixer helped with this overbooking issue. Also, check out The Fixer’s tips for renting a vehicle when you travel.

Do YOU have a consumer problem? Maybe The Fixer can help! Submit your problems at ABCNews.com/Fixer.

Dear ABC News Fixer: In January, I reserved a minivan in Orlando, Fla., for our spring break family vacation. We had six people traveling – our family, plus my sister-in-law and niece, and all our luggage. I provided my credit card number and got a confirmation email.

I called Economy Rent A Car in early March to verify my reservation and get information about their curbside shuttle.

We got to the Orlando airport about 10:30 p.m. We waited approximately 30 minutes for the shuttle and finally called. At that point, we were told they did not have a minivan for us. Their employee told me to find another minivan elsewhere and to submit my receipts for a reimbursement. After three hours of searching, we found one at another rental company for $1,146.14. I was floored at the cost but we did not have a choice. It was 2 a.m. and we were traveling with children.

As soon as I was able to get to a computer, I emailed Economy Rent A Car’s customer care center. They responded that they were sorry for my troubles but I should not have been told I would get a refund. Instead, they offered a $100 credit toward my next reservation. Please help.

- Laura Sneed, Hodgkins, Ill.

Dear Laura: Your description of that spring break night at the Orlando airport sounded like every traveler’s nightmare: Throngs of weary tourists at every rental car counter, all trying to get a vehicle so they could start their vacations. We can only imagine your husband Ron’s state of mind as he trudged back and forth trying to find a minivan after midnight.

You told us that you had shopped online for a rental van months in advance, finally settling on Economy Rent A Car, which had a decent price on RentalCars.com. You had provided a credit card number and other information and received a reservation number. And you had called Economy a couple weeks ahead just to make sure everything was all set.

It turns out that what happened to you isn’t all that rare in the rental car industry, especially during peak travel times or when special types of vehicles are reserved.

As Jerry Seinfeld so brilliantly put it in the rental car episode: "You know how to *take* the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation. And that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them."

Economy Rent A Car apologized for the inconvenience but said that overbooking sometimes occurs – just as in the airline or hotel industries. The ABC News Fixer gets why they do it; the rental car places don’t want to have extra cars sitting around after some consumers decide not to go through with their rentals. But it poses a problem for diligent customers like you, who really wanted the reservation you had made.

Unlike airline overbookings, which are subject to federal consumer protection rules, when it comes to rental car overbookings, there really isn’t much a person can do if the rental car place says, sorry, your car isn’t here right now.

We went to the top brass at Economy Rent A Car and pleaded your case, reminding them that you had called ahead to try to ensure a smooth rental experience. They said that typically, accommodations can be offered such as providing two cars instead of a van, but things didn’t get that far as you never made it to their rental counter. They did offer to refund the difference between the base price of their minivan and the one you got elsewhere. They sent you a check for $419.83, and you said you’re happy with the resolution.

For other people planning to rent a vehicle, here’s some advice:

- When overbooking occurs, your fate depends on the company’s policy. Some companies will give you an upgraded vehicle at the original price, some will have you wait until cars are returned, and some will offer to pay the difference in price if you need to rent elsewhere. Make sure you understand what will happen before you reserve.

- Travel experts say that if you’re a frequent car-renter, enroll in a loyalty program. If you have super elite status, you may be less likely to be left without a car.

- Arrive on time for your reservation. Don’t give the company any reason to think you’re not coming and give your car away.

- Be aware that overbooking may occur at busy travel periods or if there’s a high-profile event in town. It may be more likely to occur with specialty vehicle rentals.

- Some rental car companies offer a “pre-pay” option in which you pay ahead and lock in your reservation. If you fail to show up, you’ll have to pay a penalty (or even lose everything you paid) but you won’t have the stress of finding out there’s no car. A bonus: the “pre-pay” price is often lower than the regular price.

- The ABC News Fixer

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