hondaOne of the things I like about contributing to this site is that it gives readers an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. Yep, even those of us who are mega-miler travelers encounter the same problems that you do.

Case in point: my recent car rental from Hertz at BWI airport in Maryland. I live in Annapolis, but rented from the airport for several reasons, including convenience and the need for unlimited mileage. (I was driving it to and from Key West).

I reserved the car online through their ‘pre-paid’ service. First, a warning: Pre-paid does not mean to Hertz what it does to you and me. To you or me, prepaid means you’re done, to Hertz it means they have to think up some additional fees to hit you with when you get to the counter. Among the four pages of disclaimers and disclosures there’s a passage that ominously notes that “taxes, fees and extras, if not included in the rate, are subject to change.”

My rate sheet showed that most of the expected taxes and fees (airport concession, ‘licensing cost recovery’ and facility charges) had been computed in the rate, so I felt lucky.

And yet somehow I ended up paying more for the rental. In fact, for a time, I paid for my rental almost twice.

The problems started almost immediately when I went to pick up the car. The guy took my confirmation number and asked if I’d like to pay $10 more a day for an SUV or larger vehicle. Nope, I said, I just want what I reserved.

Guess what? I got offered an SUV anyway, because all they had left were sizes larger than I’d reserved. (Here’s a tip: if you want a ‘free’ upgrade, pre-pay for a small car and pick it up late, after they have already handed out most of their inventory).

The counter guy kept a straight face when I inquired if it was ethical to ask a customer to pay for an upgrade when they would get it at no cost anyway!

Next came the credit card shuffle. You see, I’d reserved the car on my Capital One card which put it perilously close to the limit when combined with all the other holds posted to it for my trip. Nowhere in its four-page disclosure does Hertz tell you that on top of all the expected charges, they’ll add a $200 deposit for ‘incidentals.’

Hmm…you’d think they would find room in all that legalese to tell you that.

When I asked BWI Hertz employee Jim Kleinschmidt if he thought it was fair to ambush customers with that expense he avoided a direct answer, referring instead to the ominous (and vague) passage about possible rate changes. In fact , my confirmation said the approximate amount due at the counter was $99.73, but with the deposit requirement, that increased 200 percent, meaning my card was charged an additional amount of more than $300.

It didn’t go unnoticed by me that at least two other customers were displaying a combination of indignation and irritation at being told of this previously undisclosed required payment. (Hertz later admitted to me that they don’t explicitly disclose the $200 deposit, but consider it fair game under the umbrella clause that hints there could be additional charges. I still consider that unfair).

Because the $200 extra amount overtaxed my Capital One, we had to switch over to another card. I whipped out my card holder and faster than a Vegas dealer, choose my lucky green card (M&T Visa). Oh, except that’s a debit card. Now, according to their encyclopedic list of conditions, changing cards, especially to a debit card, should mean that they have to cancel the whole ‘pre-paid’ reservation and start a new one.

But, oh wait! They’re going to do me a favor and keep the same reservation and use the new card (thus violating the terms of their own contract). Don’t even think about pulling out a card with a spouse’s name on it as this ensures they have to start over and list the cardholder name as the only authorized driver!

Next comes what I call ‘risk roulette.’ Because Hertz is compassionate to allow debit cards, they inform me they’ll run my card through an Equifax approval system. The system tells them if my credit is good enough to let me drive away in one of their cars but, counter guy assures me, they don’t see my actual credit score, only something akin to a red or green light for approval.

Seconds tick by. Hertz has me hanging on a wire. Did I pay that bill on time? Does it matter that I have maxed out Capital One? Will the credit gods approve me?

They like me, they really like me!

The magic screen says yes, and I feel like I’ve won an Academy Award. We move on. Counter guy asks if I want to add my husband as an extra driver, extra being the operative term. That costs an extra $14.99 a day. Hubby defers to me, I say no – I’m ready for the road rally to the end of the continental U.S., all 1,000 miles of it. Because I like to live really dangerously, I decline all the additional coverages and hope that Geico lizard feels OK with that.

Finally, after an event longer than the birth of my second child, we have a slip of paper and a car waiting for us somewhere out there in the vastness of the BWI rental car garage. It’s a Ford HHK something-something –that’s a smallish SUV.

Preparing to do battle, I approach with the damage report slip in hand. Hubby starts at the back end, me at the front. Our first observation it that the vehicle is filthy and I wonder if this is a tricky ploy to disguise any scratches and dents, but if it is, is doesn’t work. Between us, hubby and I find enough defects to keep a local Maaco in business for a couple of weeks. The damage slip is beginning to look like an NFL gameplan. Since the slot where its parked is very dimly lit, I pull the vehicle back into better light. With a few more watts thrown on it, the car looks like it’s been through the streets of Iraq.

The coup d’ grace? The entire front bumper is cracked in half. So much for that. I march back inside.

Feigning apologies, I slide in front of the several harried businessmen waiting in line, explaining there’s a problem with the car I was given. There’s also a little problem with Hertz customer service. I ask a counter guy if he can help me with a ‘small’ problem as he finishes with the couple he’s helping. He barks at me “Yeah, when someone is available!” He finishes the transaction in less than 10 seconds and, to make his point, leaves the counter.

Two can play at that game. Someone opens up and beckons. Walking over, I loudly announce that there are so many things wrong with my rental, I can’t fit them all on the sheet and emphasize the bumper is cracked in half. For good measure, I add that if they installed bulbs higher than 20 watts, customers could catch that kind of damage before they drive off the lot.

This gets me some attention. Now a manager arrives and motions for me to follow (I’m not dumb, I know he wants to get me away from the others before I say more). We go into a back room where he checks the available inventory and asks me what I want. Hubby asks for the Mustang convertible parked prominently nearby, but no dice. We reject yet another car for visible damage and end up with a Saturn Aura who’s damage inventory can fit on the sheet.

End of story, right? Wrong!

I have a sneaking suspicion, so when I get home, I run to my computer and check the transaction histories for both the bank cards presented to Hertz.

Bingo! I’ve been charged twice for the car. Hertz still has it charged to the ‘pre-paid’ online reservation and they charged a second transaction to the substitute debit card. (This is probably possible because my Capital One card allows me to go over my limit and then charges me a fee). I call BWI Hertz – like many travelers, I don’t want to start a long trip with less money than I have to.

The line clicks through only to be followed with a rude order to hold. “Wait!” I yell, and the guy listens long enough to tell me he has 20 customers waiting. “Well,” I reply, “maybe you want to finish dealing with the one from a half hour ago and give me some of my money back.”

This starts a back-and-forth argument between myself and someone with so little understanding of financial transactions I’d be surprised if any bank gave him a card. He can’t seem to comprehend BOTH of my cards have been charged. He insists one was hit for the rental and one for the deposit. Nope, I tell him, I’m looking at the screens. Capital One has been charged the entire pre-paid amount, and Visa debit has been charged the entire rental amount AND the infamous $200 deposit, meaning I have in fact, been charged more than I should.

I explain I believe this occurred because Hertz did me a ‘favor’ and substituted the debit card instead of canceling the original reservation and starting over. He stresses this is still a great favor because they could have canceled the reservation and started a new one with a much higher rate, or not given me a car at all with so little inventory. (Like this is a way to instill customer loyalty, but oh, yeah, right, airlines have done it for years). He also has no understanding of any of the content of the online prepaid contract. He insists it says some things that it doesn’t (like that there’s a $200 deposit) and claims it doesn’t say some things that it does (like the point of ‘prepaying’ for the car is to have one guaranteed available).

Finally, because I believe its unfair to pick on the mentally disabled, I let it go. I have a car and I’m headed to the Keys in five hours where I’ll just let the heat and sunshine bleach the memory of this frantic encounter out of my system.

Which, in fact, does happen. So that when I drive the car back to BWI and get handed the tiny slip that tells me I drove 3177 miles in 9 days for a total cost of $366.27 (which represents about eight cents a mile), I put away my frustration and savor all the beautiful sunsets, warm water beaches, sand castles and beaming smiles from my four year old that are worth about a million dollars a mile.

Key West is much more than a latitude adjustment, it’s a problem eraser.

(Photo: Fovea Centralis/Flickr Creative Commons)