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Beware of "Free" Rental Car Upgrades

When gas prices go up, that free rental car upgrade could cost you

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unhappy man with vanLast year, my travel plans called for a car rental at the Newport News/Williamsburg airport in Virginia. I had reserved an economy-class car with Budget for four days. When I arrived at the rental car counter I was informed that there were no more economy-class cars available and I would be receiving a free upgrade -- to a minivan.

The problem? According to Kelley Blue Book, the Ford Focus I reserved gets 34 miles per gallon. The Ford Freestar I ended up with gets just 24. With gas prices over $4 per gallon at the time, there was no such thing as a "free" upgrade.

I calculated that my companions and I drove a total of 240 miles to and from the airport and spent an additional $12 in gas that would have been saved had we been driving the more fuel-efficient Ford Focus. This is in addition to the extra gas we used getting to and from the beach, to the grocery store, etc. While $12 isn't going to break the bank (especially when spilt between the two couples in our group), and gas prices have gone down since then, it still begs the question: Why should customers have to pay money for something they didn't request?

Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, a leader in car rental consulting, said that while there is no specific data available on how often a customer is upgraded, it is a "fairly common occurrence." The number of customers refusing upgrades is on the rise as well. "It has been particularly prevalent in [recent] months," he said, "because the upgrade given usually calls for a less fuel-efficient vehicle."

How can a car you reserved not be there when you arrive to pick it up? Abrams said car rental companies take reservations and plan their fleet based on historical analysis of customer patterns, but it is "an inexact science." It is not uncommon, he said, for another renter to be late returning a car. If that happens, it means a car in the class you reserved may not be there when you arrive.

A Budget spokesperson said the following via e-mail: "We try to accommodate every customer's rental. When it is not possible because vehicles within a certain car class are not available, we upgrade customers to the next best vehicle. It is our goal to manage our business by providing customers with a vehicle from the car class they reserved."

What should I have done when I was told my options were to take the minivan or cancel the reservation? Abrams said if the company you reserved a car with can't satisfy your reservation to your liking, you should be sent to another rental car company that can. "No company wants to lose revenue, but the company will typically look to a competitor for a like-class vehicle for you." In fact, some car rental companies have pre-existing relationships with others in order to accommodate customers' needs.

car keys with handsBut that wasn't the case in my situation. Abrams suggested that the Budget counter in Newport News may have been a franchise -- an independently owned operation that leases the Budget name from the corporation. "A franchise might have different policies, pricing and technology," he said. Dealing with a franchise often means fewer options for the customer. A quick call to the Newport News airport confirmed that Abrams's suspicion was correct, though it is impossible to say for sure that whether or not I would have been accommodated had it not been a franchise; I may have simply been dealing with an unhelpful person.

The next time you rent a car, be aware that a free upgrade will likely cost you at least a little, and maybe big bucks if you plan on driving a long distance. Try to settle your dispute at the counter, but have the corporation's customer service 800-number with you -- they may have other options, such as finding car from a different company for you. In addition, don't be afraid to go out on the lot and make sure that there are in fact no cars in your reserved class out there. Sometimes vehicles are "held" for special customers (like a company they frequently deal with), while the average customer is told there is nothing available. According to Abrams, "you have every right to insist on a vehicle in the ready line." If all else fails, make sure you have a copy of our gas-saving tips with you -- you're going to need them.

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    --written by Genevieve S. Brown
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