They ran out of rental cars — why won’t Hotwire do the right thing?

Francisco Hernández Mayagoitia was frustrated. Hotwire had sent him confirmation that a rental car would be available at the Thrifty facility at the airport in Montgomery, Alabama, when he went to pick it up. But when he arrived at the counter, Thrifty’s agent told him that the facility ran out of rental cars prior to his arrival.

Even more maddening to Hernández, he would have to pay for a new car rental reservation. Hotwire would not apply his prepayment to the price of a new rental car.

“I believe they incurred a breach of contract that in this case caused me a great deal of grievance,” says Hernández. But while Hernández suffered severe inconvenience, Hotwire had no legal obligation to provide him with a rental car.

Hernández’s story is a reminder to car rental customers to be prepared for the possibility that there might not be a car waiting for them at the rental facility. And should that be the case, the only thing they’re entitled to from the car rental agency is a refund.

“We ran out of rental cars”

Hernández made a prepaid car rental booking through Hotwire for last February. Hotwire is an “opaque” travel booking website, which means that it doesn’t identify a travel service supplier until the customer completes the booking. The site allows customers to select rental car size and designate pickup and dropoff locations and dates and times of the rental. But Hotwire does not guarantee that a car of the requested class, or any car at all for that matter, will actually be available when the customer goes to pick it up. No travel agency or car rental company makes such a guarantee.

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The Thrifty agent at the Montgomery facility told Hernández that “nothing could be done about” the lack of available cars when he went to pick up his reserved rental car. He immediately called Hotwire, but its agent told Hernández that the only thing Hotwire could do for him was to issue him a refund.

Hernández responded that a Hotwire refund wouldn’t solve his problem. He needed a vehicle, and a refund would not appear on his credit card account for at least two business days. He insisted that it was Hotwire’s responsibility to book a new car rental for him with another agency at the Montgomery airport. The Hotwire agent agreed to book a new car rental reservation for Hernández with Budget. But she told Hernández that he would have to pay for it in full at the Budget counter. He could not apply his prepaid reservation to the Budget rental.

“All we can do for you is a Hotwire refund”

He then told the agent and a Hotwire supervisor that he felt that the terms of his rental contract obligated Hotwire to get him a new rental car without his having to pay for it. But both stood firm. They told him that all they could do for him was to cancel his reservation and issue him a refund for the prepayment.

By then, Hernández had spent an hour on the telephone with Hotwire. No other car rental agencies at the Montgomery airport had cars available for him to rent. He called Hotwire’s corporate office and emailed its Tier 3 support, but the only response he received was a request for his telephone number. Nobody at Hotwire’s corporate office or Tier 3 support offered him a rental car, and nobody from the Tier 3 support contacted him. Hernández missed a commitment and incurred additional travel expenses to leave the airport.

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“Hotwire breached its contract with me”

Hernández believed that Hotwire owed him a rental car, and that when Thrifty didn’t have one, it had a contractual obligation to provide Hernández with one from another agency, just as an airline has a legal obligation to transport a passenger whose flight has been canceled to his or her destination.

Morally, perhaps, Hotwire had that obligation. And while car rental agencies generally do provide their customers with vehicles from other agencies when they have none available, Hotwire’s terms and conditions disclaim any such legal responsibility:

The carriers, hotels and other suppliers providing travel or other services on this Website are independent contractors and not agents or employees of the Hotwire Companies or the Hotwire Affiliates. The Hotwire Companies and the Hotwire Affiliates are not liable for the acts, errors, omissions, representations, warranties, breaches or negligence of any such suppliers or for any personal injuries, death, property damage, or other damages or expenses resulting therefrom.

As Hotwire’s agents pointed out to Hernández if its designated rental car supplier couldn’t provide him with a vehicle, then all Hotwire owed him was a refund.

A satisfactory resolution

Having failed to get a resolution from Hotwire he considered satisfactory, Hernández turned to our advocates. (Contact information for Hotwire is available on our website.)

Our advocate, Michelle Couch-Friedman, asked Hernández if he had formally requested a refund in writing. He responded:

No, I haven’t requested a refund because that would be an [unacceptable] resolution. I believe I am entitled to a restitution for the losses incurred. A simple refund could be obtained even through a chargeback from my credit card.

I was hoping that you may be able to understand the situation and their negligence in dealing with a contracted prepaid booking. Maybe [you are] able to mediate or guide me to reach a resolution before hiring an attorney in consumer law.

Shortly afterward Hernández informed Friedman that he had just received an email from Hotwire in which the company promised him a refund for the original car reservation as well as his incremental expenses. But he felt that “[it] would have been way more efficient and saved me from a terrible experience if they had just booked it themselves in the first place and used my prepaid reservation.”

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Friedman pointed out that there are no regulations that would compel a travel company to provide Hernández with more than a refund.

Was Hotwire’s original offer of a refund sufficient compensation in Francisco Hernández Mayagoitia’s case?

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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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