That is what happened to a Winneconne, Wisconsin-based woman. Two weeks after Mary returned from a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, she received a letter from Budget that she was being charged $250 for "interior damage to the vehicle."
The reason? Budget employees apparently smelled smoke in the car and saw ash in the back seat. But Mary says she is a non-smoker. In fact, she suffers from an asthma condition that requires several inhalers and would never tolerate smoke in her car.
So she disputed the charge by calling the Budget location from which she rented the car. Budget responded by emailing pictures of the car showing what the company claimed were ashes on the back seat.
And that's when she figured out what happened. At one point in her trip, she went to a nursery and bought a large plant -- which she put in the back seat. It apparently tipped over, spilling some pot ash.
Case solved, right?
Budget insisted the charges would remain. She filed a dispute of the charges with her credit card company. But the the credit-card company refused to take the charges off the card. Under the circumstances, it seemed a rather arbitrary decision from both Budget and the credit-card folks.
That's when she wrote me.
I called Budget's corporate office in Parsippany, New Jersey, and got in touch with Gregory Stevenson, the Executive Response Coordinator. When I reminded Gregory of the renter's medical condition as well as the evidence of the plant, he agreed to refund the charge, which was credited in her next billing cycle.
What's the lesson here?
1. Never take no from someone who isn't empowered to say yes in the first place. When Mary complained to Budget, she spoke to clerk-level staffers who didn't have the power to override the charge.
2. If you can't reach a satisfactory resolution, escalate the case. Ask to speak to head of customer service in the corporate office, not just the next level up. Do it in writing, either by certified mail or email. Send all details, including your full name, contact information, rental agreement number, pick-up location, dates, and details of the concern or complaint.
3. If that doesn't work, escalate your customer service inquiry to the Office of the President, where it will reach executive level. Copy the head of the customer relations department.
4. Be prepared for some delays. Keep in mind that many car-rental companies are franchised, which mean the location from which you rent may be independently owned and operated. That can cause delays when you're dealing with the corporate office.
But there are steps to take preemptively to save you from this annoying struggle to get charges reversed.
- Always carry a camera. Take pictures of the exterior and interior of the car before you ever leave the lot to avoid getting dinged by existing damage. (This wouldn't have helped in Mary's case, since the potash spilled after the fact, but it can be enormously helpful if a company tries to tack on charges for nicks or scratches.)
- Resolve the situation, then and there. Try to return the car during business hours and ask an employee to inspect it while you're still on the premise.
And, do you have any other travel complaints you need help resolving? Send them to me at email@example.com.
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