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.