Strong-armed into insurance, then handed the keys to a lemon

If you look up the phrase “jerked around” in the dictionary, you might see a picture of Savannah Wilson next to a Budget logo.

I’m only half-kidding. Her recent trip to the Caribbean island of Martinique with her fiancé was a disaster because of Budget, she says. And after you read what happened to her, you might agree. Unless, of course, you work in the car rental industry.

Stories like hers make me think the car rental industry’s policies have gone too far to favor them and leave drivers at a disadvantage. Maybe it’s time to tap the brakes.

Wilson arrived in Martinique and stood in a long line at the Budget counter. When it was her turn, she learned that she had two choices: either preauthorize a charge of €2,000 to her card as a deposit or buy Budget’s “optional” insurance.

“Nowhere online or in the confirmation email was a deposit mentioned and never had we encountered one in previous experiences with Budget,” she says.

With $2,255 locked up on her card, that left the couple with almost no money. Even after agreeing to Budget’s “optional” insurance, which lowered their pre-authorization to €650, they only had $164 for the week — hardly enough for a vacation.

Why no warning? Well, the Budget Martinique site does have some details on the pre-auth, but try booking a car through the Budget.com site in the States, and you’re in the dark.

But wait, there’s more! I’ll let her pick up the story:

On Wednesday, March 9, we left the hotel at around 11 a.m. to head into Trois-Îllets for a light breakfast for the road on our way to hike Mount Pelée. As I was turning out of the parking lot into the main road, the steering wheel seized up and I almost drove the car into a huge ditch on the side of the road.

Thinking I could have possibly stalled (although unlikely because stalling is very noticeable), I stopped the car and restarted. When I restarted the engine, the steering was still locked up and a light appeared on the dashboard.

I did the best I could to pull off to the side of the road, put on my flashers, and found a manual in the car’s glove box. The manual, completely in French, explained that the symbol lit up on the dash indicated a problem with the power steering.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the couple lost an entire day of their vacation because their Budget rental was a lemon. The rental company replaced their car with a different one.

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At a minimum, Wilson would like a refund of the $226 she had to pay for “optional” insurance in order to reduce the pre-authorization charge to her card. But beyond that, she doesn’t know.

“I’m not entirely sure,” she admits. “I am very frustrated with the whole incident, and even more enraged with the service I received from the customer service line, and the complete lack of apology.”

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this one, either.

Should Budget have coerced her into buying its insurance? No, not like this. A $2,255 pre-authorization is preposterous, and enough to ruin anyone’s vacation, and Budget surely knows that. It can claim that its insurance is “optional” but in effect, it isn’t.

This is no way to run a car rental company. There’s no excuse for handing a customer the keys to a car that doesn’t work. There’s no reason to threaten them with an unconscionable pre-authorization.

This kind of nonsense shouldn’t be tolerated by customers or by the government of Martinique. I’m inclined to help Wilson, and I know we can help others like her by writing about her case.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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