Simon Calder: Car-rental rip-offs, and how (not) to avoid them

The man who pays his way

Today we celebrate California, home to America's real capital: Hollywood, where the Oscars are dished out tomorrow night. My duty for this Golden State special was to survey the mysterious Salton Sea (see related links).

I needed a rental car. So I followed the second rule for avoiding travel rip-offs. It is as simple as the first (which is, of course, "Never change money at a UK airport") and concerns car rental in America: "Never upgrade a hire vehicle in the US." For any British motorist going west, there is no point in accepting the offer of a bigger vehicle.

First, a "sub-compact" or "economy" car in American terms is a perfectly respectable size for a European family. Next, if you swallow the salesperson's assessment of your pre-booked vehicle as being thoroughly unsuitable for the journey you plan ("You're not seriously thinking of all sharing that car, are you?"), the costs swiftly increase; the upgrade fee is itself uprated by a range of additional charges. Third, experience suggests you stand a good chance of a bigger car than you ordered anyway.

On about half the occasions I hire in the US, there is not a single "economy" or "sub-compact" car in the rental lot, and I get a vehicle built like a Sherman tank without paying a penny more.

Accordingly, I always book the smallest possible vehicle, in advance, direct with the UK division of one of the big multinational firms, or through a broker such as Holiday Autos – the company I chose for this trip. It cost just £1 per hour for the 48 hours from pick-up to drop-off at the San Diego airport depot.

The price included "Total Damage Excess Waiver", which sounds as mighty as a Sherman tank. Thus armoured, I could cheerfully turn down the miscellany of expensive insurance add-ons offered at the rental desk.

The other big revenue stream for car-hire firms and their staff involves persuading you to choose a bigger vehicle. So when the friendly car-hire man offered a "Thanksgiving Weekend upgrade special" (some time after the public holiday), I declined.

The agent feigned the open-mouthed astonishment normally seen on the face of a starlet who has just picked up an Oscar. "No one else has turned it down," he said, and reiterated the deal.

Wearily, after a flight of nearly 12 hours, I re-declined and began to initial the rental contract in the places he indicated. Then I took the wheel of a Nissan Versa (better, I guess, than a Nissan Vice). As I stuttered off into the night, the vehicle seemed quite roomy, but then every visitor to the US must recalibrate assumptions about small/medium/large.

When my credit card statement arrived, I was as amazed as a Hollywood starlet to see that the cost of the hire had also been recalibrated: £26 had been added for an upgrade. Holiday Autos' customer services proved both courteous and efficient. Within a couple of days, my contact, Sebastian, had procured from the car-hire firm in California a copy of the contract.

It showed that I had agreed to pay for a better car. Those are my initials, in the box beside the squiggle the agent marked.

"We cannot proceed with the refund on this occasion," concluded the company. I have to agree. I had inadvertently accepted an upgrade I neither wanted nor needed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Engage brain before gear

"Our advice," a spokeswoman for Holiday Autos told me, "is always to carefully read through all the terms and conditions of the contractual agreement before signing." Had I done so, I would have spotted, and contested, the line reading: "I acknowledge and accept car class change."

Are such disputes common? Apparently not. "We're not aware of similar complaints being made to Holiday Autos."

Evidently my case was an isolated misunderstanding. But I wonder if other travellers have experienced anything similar with other firms.

Imagine the following sequence of events: agent asks customer if they want an upgrade or extra insurance; customer declines; agent keys in the code for an upgrade anyway then prints out contract for customer to sign, circling places to initial; customer, in the mistaken belief that they have declined everything, initials without reading the details.

Such a scenario promises the prospect of extra commission with no downside: even if customer spots the unwanted upgrade, the agent can explain it away as a mistake and correct it.

Next time, I will study every line of the car-rental contract, and you may wish to do the same.

travel@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum