“I should know better” — stung by Travelocity’s fine print

Sometimes even our own advocates fall afoul of fine print. Andy Smith, our chief copy editor, found himself in this trap during a recent trip to Costa Rica. Smith admits that he should have taken the advice we offer other readers of this site. Had he done so, he would have read Travelocity’s fine print — and he wouldn’t be out $126.

“I should know better,” says Smith. His story carries a warning not to trust low-appearing prices on travel websites. It’s also a reminder to book only simple reservations through those sites in the first place. Use a travel agent to make complex bookings, especially if you’re traveling overseas — and always read the fine print.

A higher “base price” and a lower “total price” 

Smith booked a one-week car rental through Avis via Travelocity in Liberia, Costa Rica. He received an email confirmation showing a “base price” of $322 and a “total price” of $141, listed as “due at pickup.” It also listed taxes and fees of $15.

Confused by the two rates listed, Smith emailed Travelocity to ask for clarification. Travelocity’s Customer Care agent replied that the $141 “total price” was correct.

When Smith arrived at Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, he went to the Avis facility. He was expecting that Avis would charge him only $141 based on Travelocity’s earlier assurance. But that didn’t happen.

“Mandatory” insurance coverage?

Avis’ counter agent told Smith that he would have to pay an $18 daily charge for “mandatory” insurance coverage. The agent refused to honor Travelocity’s “total price.” Feeling that he had no alternative, Smith paid the charge. But had he checked out Travelocity’s fine print, he would have learned that he didn’t have to pay it.

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When Smith returned home, he used our Travelocity executive contacts to request a refund of the insurance charge. (Travelocity is a property of Expedia.) But Avis denied his request. He then asked our advocacy team for help. But our advocate, Dwayne Coward, didn’t have good news for Smith.

Travelocity’s fine print

Smith’s email confirmation contained some of Travelocity’s fine print, but apparently, he didn’t see it:

The total price includes all mandatory taxes and fees. Rental fees are due at pickup. May not include mandatory insurance charges that are required for certain international rentals. At time of pickup, the car rental agency may charge you for additional insurance, such as liability insurance, which may be required in certain locations.

Car rental companies in Costa Rica, as in Mexico, don’t include mandatory liability insurance in their online car rental rates. Travelocity’s fine print contains the following disclaimer for Costa Rican car rentals:

Your rental may have mandatory local insurance requirements that result in additional charges at the time of rental. …
The purchase of third party liability (TPL) is required by the rental location on all vehicles unless you provide proof of liability coverage … Customers can obtain coverage for damages and injuries to third parties, up to the policy limits, under the local rental car company’s insurance by purchasing its TPL protection, and such a purchase is required unless the customer presents valid written proof of current liability insurance specifying coverage in Costa Rica. … TPL provides coverage for incidents which occur during the rental period in Costa Rica.

Deceptive upselling tactics

Despite these disclaimers, the insurance coverage Smith purchased wasn’t actually mandatory. Avis’ counter agent in Liberia induced Smith to buy a personal damage waiver (PDW), roadside assistance and window/tire coverage. These are all optional.

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Smith would have had to pay for additional liability insurance (ALI) if he used a credit card protection plan. This is because credit card companies will usually protect the car, but not third parties. But his paperwork doesn’t indicate that Avis charged him for ALI.

Unfortunately, Smith’s experience is in line with other international car renters, who find themselves duped into purchasing optional insurance products. We can’t help Smith, because Avis claims that he voluntarily purchased the coverage. But we can warn rental car customers: Read the fine print.

“Lesson learned,” says Smith.

Should third-party websites be required to prominently disclose international insurance coverage requirements and costs to customers?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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