Hurricane Irma

Despite being car enthusiasts and avid road trippers, we at AutoSlash are most definitely not always fans of the rental car industry. It's replete with shady business practices, overly aggressive salespeople, and a lack of transparency (although some—National—are a little higher up on the scale than others—Payless), and we have no problem calling out problems when we find them.

Between that and our relentless pursuit of helping people get the lowest possible rate on their rental car, you can believe that we aren't exactly best friends with the rental companies.

But we're also fair, and when a company steps up and does the right thing, we want to give credit where credit is due. This time, it's a personal experience.

A Vacation Cut Short

A couple of family members from Florida were vacationing in Ireland last week when it became obvious that Hurricane Irma was becoming a major threat.

Of course, kissing Blarney Stones becomes a lot less enjoyable when you're worried about your home, and fortunately, American Airlines was willing to let them cut their trip short by a day without any penalties to put up the hurricane shutters and batten down the hatches.

They made it to Charlotte before learning that their onward flight home to Fort Lauderdale had been canceled—the airports in South Florida were shutting down early on Friday. The closest AA could get them was Tampa.

Fortunately, AutoSlash works pretty well. With their Costco discount and a few other coupons we were able to find, I was able to get them booked on a one-way rental with Budget from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale for only $80—just in time before the storm hit.

An Unpleasant Surprise

Everything went well at the counter when they arrived at 4 PM. They opted to add on the full coverage package (since they were driving into a hurricane area, although they were planning to return the car before the winds started and weren't in a mandatory evacuation zone). Total: $140.

Then the Budget agent hit them with a surprise: the Budget return location in Fort Lauderdale—normally open 24 hours a day—would be closing at 6 PM. It's a four-hour drive from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale, which meant that they wouldn't be able to get the car back until after the location closed.

Not knowing how it would be handled but not having much of a choice, they accepted the car and started the drive south.

Thankfully, the Fort Lauderdale area was spared most of the brunt of Hurricane Irma (and their house survived unscathed). The airport remained closed for several days, though, and with that, most of the rental agencies remained closed as well. They returned the car as soon as Budget re-opened on Tuesday—four days after the original return date. Here's what their bill looked like:

4 Days @ $75 per day $300.00
13% discount -$39.00

Total Time & Mileage $261.00

Late Fee $10.00
Fuel Service $93.90
Loss Damage Waiver $131.96
PAE/ESP/SLI Insurance $57.72
Various Taxes & Fees $110.93

Total $665.51

Quite a bit more than $140. Of course, most of that was a high daily rate and the cost of coverage, but notice that fuel charge: Budget charged them almost $10 per gallon to gas up the car, even though widespread power outages, fuel shortages, and closed gas stations made it effectively impossible for them to refill it themselves.

A Plea for Help

Of course, I received a desperate plea for advice from my family member. I immediately recalled the statement Budget had posted on their Facebook page in the days following Irma:

This gave me a glimmer of hope that they would step up and adjust the rental fees to something closer to what their original estimate was. The key in these situations is to ask for what's reasonable. I suggested they ask for the following:

  • Adjust the base rental charge back to the 1-day that was originally reserved and confirmed by Budget
  • Adjust the LDW and PAE/ESP/SLI rates to 1-day's charge as agreed at the rental counter
  • Adjust the fuel charge to market rate rather than the inflated rate that was charged of over $10 per gallon since there were no gas stations open at return time anywhere in the vicinity of FLL airport
  • Remove the late fee

A Happy Ending

My family member sent that in an email to Budget on 9/13. Five days later, he received this reply from Budget:

Thank you for contacting Budget Customer Service regarding the additional charges billed on your recent rental. We apologize that the charges displayed on your rental agreement differed from what you were expecting. We realize how frustrating it must be for you and will be more than happy review this issue.

We completely understand the situation with Hurricane Irma. We're glad you made it through the event and hope all is well. We checked the rental agreement and confirmed that you were indeed charge for additional days. To our knowledge the location was closed on the 9th and reopened on the 12th.

To rectify the situation, we went ahead and credited the additional days that were charged on your rental including the extra days for the insurance. We honored the same base rate from your reservation and even reduce to refueling fee to the location price. In total, the credit you will be receiving back is $457.61. This amount is going back to your credit card ending in ****. We recommend to please allow 3-5 business days for processing. A new revised receipt was emailed for you to review.

Budget sincerely appreciates the business you have given us, and we look forward to serving you again soon.

Final total: $207.90—reasonable, given the circumstances, and far better than originally quoted.

Our Take

What's the takeaway? Sometimes you have to take what you can get and trust the company to make things right in the end. It helps if you have a strong argument and good documentation in your favor. And being respectful to the person on the other end of the phone (or email account) generally helps, too.

Things could have gone badly here (and my family member was prepared to dispute the charges on his card if necessary), but kudos to Budget for stepping up and doing the right thing. I do wonder, though, whether the outcome would have been the same with Budget's sister company, Payless

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