Reverend Robin Whittle returned from a two-week holiday in Spain last summer to discover that his car hire company, Avis, had deducted an extra £185 from his credit card for towing charges when his car broke down and had to be replaced.
Reverend Robin Whittle returned from a two-week holiday in Spain last summer to discover that his car hire company, Avis, had deducted an extra £185 from his credit card for towing charges when his car broke down and had to be replaced. Like most holidaymakers who rent a car, he assumed there would be no charge for repairing or exchanging a faulty vehicle.
"They included an amount for the faulty car being returned without a full tank of petrol," Rev Whittle says, although the car had broken down and was immobile. "When I told Avis UK about this idiocy I received the petrol money back, but not the rest."
The faulty car had sticky ignition from the start, he says, but Avis says the breakdown was caused by a flat battery which was his fault. "Nothing was said about an extra charge when I returned the second vehicle at the end of my holiday," Rev Whittle says. "I might have been in a better position to challenge it then. Instead, deductions were made from my credit card and I didn't know until I got home. Once they have your credit card details the car rental companies take anything they want."
Holidaymakers who rent cars abroad can fall into a black hole when they try to reclaim money unjustifiably taken from their credit cards. Rev Whittle was among many readers who contacted The Independent following our two articles (19 January and 2 February) about car rental companies making unauthorised deductions from customers' credit cards held as "insurance" when customers pick up a hire vehicle. Many had not realised their most effective course was to challenge the deductions immediately through their card companies, which could suspend payment and require the rental firms to justify disputed charges.
Rev Whittle approached his travel agent, who referred him to Avis UK, which suggested he take his complaint to the car-hire ombudsman at the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. "I received a letter saying the BVRLA has no jurisdiction over rental cars abroad but it would be asking Avis to comment. I don't want a comment. I want my money back."
A BVRLA spokesman says the organisation can take action on consumer problems with car rentals abroad if they are prepaid direct to a UK car-hire firm. That sounds helpful until you realise it covers only a minority of holidaymakers. All those who contacted The Independent had ordered and paid for their hire cars in the UK, but most had done so through a tour operator or travel agent. Jay Palmer, of the BVRLA's legal department, says that means the UK car-rental company has no direct contractual legal obligation to them.
Mark Kram, of the Office of Fair Trading, disagrees. "Our view is that the contract is with the UK company the initial agreement is made with," he says. "That is the legal situation."
Sean Tipton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, believes Rev Whittle was wrong to be fobbed off with the impression that car hire was not his tour operator's responsibility. "If you have a package holiday, typically flight and accommodation, the travel operator is ultimately responsible for all the elements you are sold as part of that deal, including car hire. It is one of the advantages of a package that whoever provides it is responsible for the actions of their suppliers."
But if you pay for car hire through a travel agent and it is an add-on to the holiday, it seems that is a different matter. "Then you should approach the car rental company direct over unauthorised deductions and other complaints," Mr Tipton says. No wonder holidaymakers are confused.
When Alan and Pauline Wilson from York arrived back from holiday in Italy last September they complained to Hertz that they had been obliged to take a less powerful car than the one they had ordered and paid for in the UK. They received £30 compensation. Three months later, out of the blue, Hertz deducted an extra £59 from their credit card without explanation. They complained to Lunn Poly, the holiday operator through whom they had booked the car and, after pressing for six weeks, and have been assured they will get their money back.
Pauline says: "One of the things I am cross about is that we received no explanation for the extra charge."
So does Lunn Poly, one of the UK's biggest travel agents, see itself as responsible? Spokeswoman Kimberley Kay, says: "We think the customer should take up the issue direct with the car-rental company. But we will pursue it on behalf of customers if they want."
David McDermott, a 33-year-old project manager, was amazed when Hertz deducted £461 from his credit card three months after he returned from a holiday in Austria and Hungary. "I paid Lunn Poly £215 for the week's car hire before I left home. When I couldn't get my credit card company to help me I went to Lunn Poly, who tell me I will get my money back, though I have seen nothing yet.".
Lisa Donohue, a Hertz public affairs officer, says it is company policy to debit customers' credit cards with the final amount the day after a car is handed back. She cannot explain why supplementary charges are made months later by overseas offices.