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An online rental-car runaround
August 22, 2004
Question: I booked a weekend car rental one Friday in June through http://www.expedia.com . I received what I thought was a "rental agreement" from Expedia guaranteeing my reservation and a $9.99-a-day rate with Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
When I called the rental location to confirm that the car was ready for pickup, I was told that none was available. When I asked about getting another car at that rate and about who's responsible for fulfilling the rental contract, I got the runaround — and still no car. My weekend trip never got off the ground.
Who's to blame? It seems Expedia's website misleads customers by making a reservation and issuing a confirmation number without advising that cars may not be available.
Paul Lerro. Visalia, Calif.
Answer: Enterprise — not Expedia — was the culprit. It accepted too many reservations for a busy weekend. Lerro was one of the unlucky few who got turned away, or "walked," even though he held a confirmed reservation.
Apparently many people in Visalia had the same idea as our reader: Grab the rock-bottom rate and get out of town. By the time Enterprise accepted Lerro's reservation on Friday, the day of his departure, that Visalia location had run out of cars.
To compensate for its error, Enterprise should have rented a car for Lerro from another company. Had he incurred expenses (such as taxi fares or lost hotel deposits) because of the inconvenience, Enterprise should have reimbursed him for that too.
Instead, Lerro said, the company simply promised to call when a car was located — and never did. This was a breach of Enterprise's contract with Lerro, according to travel attorney Al Anolik.
"The company had a legal obligation to mitigate damages," Anolik said. "But Enterprise ignored [Lerro]. And that type of conduct isn't mitigating."
We also wondered why Expedia let the reservation go through in the first place. By doing so, did the website also breach its agreement with the customer?
No, Anolik said.
"Expedia was merely a conduit to retrieve information from Enterprise's inventory," he said.
The website's not-so-easy-to-find legal disclaimer backs up that position. It states that Expedia has "no liability and will make no refund" in the event of overbooking or "other causes" beyond its "direct control."
Lerro contended the online agency could have at least disclosed during the reservation process that his booking was based on availability. Expedia, however, said availability was not supposed to be an issue. The system is designed to block a booking if the rental company runs out of cars, said product manager David Dennis.
"If a car's available, a confirmation number is issued," he said. "That's a guaranteed reservation."
Dennis also cited Expedia's agreements with preferred vendors such as Enterprise.
"Our contracts say you cannot 'walk' a customer," he said. "You're obligated to find them another car."
Why did Lerro get stranded? Enterprise's tiny Visalia office got flooded with reservations for that weekend and forgot to "cut off availability of cars to Expedia," an Enterprise spokeswoman told us.
According to Scott Shuler, assistant vice president for the company, when the office discovered it couldn't deliver a set of wheels, the branch manager had three options: "To bring in a vehicle from a nearby location, personally drive you to your destination and deliver a car shortly after, or rent a vehicle from a competitor at our expense." None of those options was exercised.
To make up for a ruined weekend — and poor customer service — Enterprise offered Lerro a free weekly rental. He refused it, requesting cash instead. The company came back with a second offer: a $100 gift certificate to a local restaurant and a free three-day rental, which Lerro accepted. We commend Enterprise for its efforts to provide a fair resolution.
As a gesture of goodwill, Expedia gave Lerro a $150 credit toward a future hotel or vacation booking on its website, even though it wasn't at fault.
How can travelers make sure they don't get "walked"? And if they are, how should they be properly compensated?
• Call to confirm. If you book through a third party such as Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz, call the car rental company directly to make sure it has your reservation on file. Sometimes the middleman doesn't send the reservation to the vendor, though this happens more frequently with hotels than cars.
• Don't back down. If your rental company is overbooked, you still deserve a car, even if it's an upgrade at the company's expense. Don't leave until you get it. If you must leave the premises, don't wait for a call back. Check the status or your reservation by calling from your home or hotel and insisting on a prompt solution.
• Go for the dough. When a rental company doesn't deliver what it has promised, it's a breach of your contract with them, according to attorney Anolik, author of "Traveler's Rights" (Sourcebooks, 2003).
"You're entitled to compensatory money damages," he writes. That means cash, not credit toward a future rental.
If a company does not resolve the problem to your satisfaction, you can go to Small Claims Court or file a complaint with the California attorney general's office, http://www.caag.state.ca.us .
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