Questions Of Cash: Failure to read the small print proved costly


Q. My sister-in-law hired two cars through an internet car rental broker to travel from Turin airport to a chalet we stayed in over Christmas in France, prepaid by debit card. On the window of the car hire booth, a hand-written note advised that additives should be added to diesel fuel to prevent it from freezing. Both cars had a full tank of diesel. Neither car needed refuelling during our week away: we used just one car and only a few times. When we tried to start our homeward journey the unused car would not start, because the fuel had frozen. We contacted the car hire company, which advised us that we should not have taken the car out of Italy. It turned out this was in the very small print of the car hire agreement.

We had to remain with the car until recovered, missing our flights home. The car hire company said we did not qualify for any assistance in getting back to the airport. It cost six of our party £2,700 to return to the UK by train. We were charged an extra £230 by the car hire company – using our credit card deposit – for the recovery of the vehicle. The internet brokerage company is only contactable by email and did not respond to our enquiries. How can we pursue the matter to recover our money? HL, by email.

A.There are no obvious grounds for you to recover your costs from anyone. You explained, when we contacted you, that "my sister-in-law didn't tell [the car hire company or brokerage] we were taking the car out of Italy, but neither did they ask: we assumed it was OK to move around inside the EU". That was a mistake, compounded by you not checking the terms and conditions of the agreement. Although the EU has a 'single market' for goods and services, this does not mean that national boundaries be ignored. In fact, you may not even have been insured to drive the car in France – so you risked getting into even more serious difficulties.

The UK European Consumer Centre (UKECC) ( www.ukecc.net) is an expert advisory body that assists consumers in dispute with a trader based in another EU country. A spokeswoman for UKECC says: "Car hire contracts always stipulate that when hiring a vehicle, a consumer is bound to notify the car hire company if they are taking a vehicle out of the country where it is collected from – this is due to insurance requirements imposed on all car hire contracts.

"Consumers also have an implied duty of care to look after a vehicle while it is in their possession. It is a consumer's responsibility to read and understand any terms and conditions within a contract – even if it is within the small print – and a consumer's failure to read and understand these terms do not make a trader liable for any assistance or redress. In cases where the failure of a vehicle is not due to a breach of contract on the part of a trader, it is unlikely that they are obliged to reimburse a consumer with costs incurred." The UKECC adds that it is worth checking your own travel and car insurance policies to see if they cover your problem. But we think it is very unlikely they would do so.

Q. I made three hotel bookings for last month with Bookinhotel.com. When I made them last December my Visa provider, MBNA, phoned to ask why my card was being used in Istanbul. I had assumed the company was based in the US or Holland. MBNA allowed me to complete my bookings, but then cancelled my card to protect itself. Later, I needed to change our plans and cancelled two of the bookings.

Bookinhotel's conditions stated that accommodation could be cancelled without penalty up to a few days before the take-up date. In January, it confirmed the cancellations and said the charge would be refunded, without penalty, via my Visa provider within 15 days. No credit has appeared to date. MBNA said it could not help because I had cancelled the bookings. Phone calls and emails to Bookinhotel are met with pre-recorded messages, bland assurances by email and general non-cooperation. AR, Cornwall.

A. Bookinhotel ignored our requests to discuss your complaint. At our behest, MBNA issued a chargeback against Bookinhotel, so you are now fully refunded. There was a delay in processing the chargeback, as MBNA had to wait to do this until after the date of the accommodation that you originally booked. MBNA tells us that Bookinhotel initially told MBNA that it would credit you with the funds itself, but failed to do this. We would advise readers to choose websites with care when booking hotels, holidays, concert tickets and other items. We are not making any allegations against Bookinhotel, but the fact that a website looks professional is not a guarantee that there is a company behind it that is able to properly service your requirements, or that it will make a refund if there is a problem. It can be difficult to pursue consumers' rights with a company based in another country. At least you booked with a credit card, enabling you to obtain a full refund.

Q. We ordered a combined TV, phone and broadband package from Sky. It could provide the TV and phone, but not the broadband because of systems constraints. I regarded this as breaching the contract, so rescinded it. Sky accepted it should refund £169.99.

But in October Sky deducted this amount from my bank account instead of paying it to me. After I notified Sky, it refunded this in November. But Sky still owes us the £169.99. Each time we request this, the payment is declined because the computer says the amount has already been made. Can 'The Independent' get our money back for us? SE, Eastleigh.

A. Yes.Sky processed your payment with alacrity when we contacted them.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But if you have a financial dilemma, we'll do our best to help. Please email us at: questionsofcash@independent.co.uk

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