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Thinking about booking a low-rate rental car? You could be cruising toward trouble.

3 minute read

On a recent vacation to a southern California beach town, I tried to save money by renting a cheap rental car. I usually book Avis, but a compact car from Avis cost $260 for five days. The least expensive company priced an economy car at only $160.

With the cheap company, I could save $100, or so I thought. How bad could it be? So, I took my chances and booked the low-ball company. When I arrived at the San Diego airport, the reality of booking cheap smacked me in the face while I waited in line.

One agent for the company, which I’ll just call “You Get What You Pay For,” insisted that one customer couldn’t book a car without purchasing the collision damage waiver (CDW). The other agent pressured every customer into buying the CDW, along with a string of additional extra charges. Then it was my turn.

Where it started

First, the agent told me that the economy car I’d booked was a three-cylinder smart car, not the Ford Fiesta displayed with the booking rate. That picture was “only a template,” the agent told me. Instead, he’d give me a compact car for the same rate. Then he tried to pressure me into purchasing the CDW, which I didn’t need.

When I went upstairs to pick up my car, my sense of dread heightened.

“My car won’t even start,” announced the woman behind me in line. Meanwhile, I reviewed my receipt. My bill was now $260, the same rate I’d have paid with Avis. Where was my “discount?” The supervisor, “Joe,” told me that he’d credit $100 if I reverted to an economy car, since the economy vehicles weren’t all smart cars, as the other agent had insisted.

Ten minutes later, I headed north on I-5 in a Kia Rio, a tiny torture device with manual locks and windows, a nonadjustable seat and a dirty windshield. Then, on a morning two days into the trip, I turned the ignition to head for the beach.

Nothing. The car was dead. Of course, I called Joe at “You Get What You Pay For.”

“We’ll have to charge you to send someone out to start it,” he told me. I’d find someone myself, I told him. An hour later, a guy at the hotel gave me a jump. Now, however, I was afraid to shut the car off.

I left the engine running outside a coffee shop, then a few minutes later, while I sat in a parking lot overlooking the ocean, contemplating my dilemma. Did I really want to worry that my car wouldn’t start every time I turned the key? I took out my phone and booked a compact car with Avis for $170.

Then I called Joe, still miffed that the “credit” he’d promised hadn’t shown up on my credit card. I’d paid $260 for this awful experience. “I’m driving back to San Diego and turning this car in,” I told him.

I fumed on the 20-minute drive back to the San Diego airport. By the time I returned the car, when Joe told me that since the vehicle now started on its own, I wouldn’t receive a refund, I’d resigned myself to cutting my losses on this pricey experiment.

“If there’s anything you can do, I’d appreciate it,” I told him, having gotten in just enough beach time that week to still be a nice person despite my annoyance.

The almost $70 lesson I wish I never had to learn

Joe gave me a $200 credit after all, but in the end, I still paid $69 to suffer with “You Get What You Pay For.” Add another $180 for the Avis Ford Focus, which drove like a Cadillac compared to the Rio, and I spent around the same amount I’d have paid to book Avis originally.

Later, I looked up online reviews for the cheap company. Descriptions like “nightmare,” “awful” and “avoid at all costs” were plentiful. I could have avoided that whole experience with a few minutes of online research.

Next time you’re tempted to “save” by booking with the cheapest rental car company, keep in mind that those savings can backfire. There’s a good chance you’ll pay more overall with unexpected costs and aggravation.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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