“Misled and overcharged” by Budget

When Nickolle Preaseau’s rental car has a flat tire, Budget tells her that they will pick up the car and bring her a new one — but doesn’t warn her about the charges. Then they send her an invoice for $550, which she thinks is unreasonably high. Can our advocates get Budget to eliminate the charge?

Question: I rented a car from Budget, but one of the tires went flat while I was driving it. In accordance with my contract and the instructions on my key fob, I called Budget’s Roadside Assistance telephone number. Budget’s Roadside Assistance representative informed me that Budget would send someone to pick up the car, drive it to another location over an hour away from where I was, and return with a new car.

I had other options available to me, including American Automobile Association (AAA)’s roadside assistance, but Budget’s representative seemed happy to handle the situation.

However, Budget’s representative did not inform me that I would be charged for roadside service provided by Budget. This information was also not made available to me in my contract. I received an invoice from Budget for the flat tire for $550. I don’t think I should have to pay such a high amount with no advance warning, especially since I was prepared to use other options. Can you help me get this charge reduced or eliminated? — Nickolle Preaseau, New York

Answer: I’m very sorry for your experience. Receiving an invoice for car repairs after turning in a rental car is nobody’s idea of a pleasant road trip.

It’s understood in car rental contracts that the renter is responsible for any damages to their rental cars while the cars are in their possession, including flat tires. But the repair rates should have been clearly disclosed to you — if not when you signed the contract, then at the time you were offered Budget’s Roadside Assistance service. You should not have been taken by surprise at Budget’s Roadside Assistance charges.

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It sounds as though Budget’s Roadside Assistance representative subjected you to a hard-sell treatment, which left you feeling obligated to accept it over your other options. Budget’s Roadside Assistance service is a fee-based service, and renters are responsible for flat tires unless they contract for insurance from Budget that offers coverage for flat tires. We’ve noted in recent articles on this site that repair fees constitute a major source of revenue for car rental agencies, which may be why Budget’s representative wanted you to accept it.

You mention that AAA’s 24-hour roadside assistance service was an option. AAA’s OnBoard program requires that members install devices on their cars that sends feedback to AAA as to mileage driven and the conditions of their cars, but it allows this device to be installed on rental cars as well as cars owned by its members. AAA’s website does list some charges for certain types of repairs, but it does not mention any charges for flat tire changes or repairs — and you could have used it with your Budget rental.

Out of curiosity about whether you would have had a similar experience with any other car rental agency, I checked out the websites of the Drive Alliance (Enterprise, National and Alamo), Hertz, and Avis in addition to that of Budget.

Not all car rental agreements are created equal. Of all these rental agencies, Budget and Alamo are the only companies that mention flat tires or roadside assistance on their websites, none of which provide information as to charges for repairs or other roadside assistance. But contacts at Enterprise tell us that renters are only charged for tires in instances of rim damage.  Also, if Enterprise renters are members of AAA and can get the car towed to a Firestone location, Firestone will replace the flat and bill Enterprise for the replacement tire, with no charges to the renter for towing or tire replacement.

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Our advocates contacted Budget on your behalf. Budget reduced the “exorbitant” amount of the charge from $550 to $80, which you agreed to pay.

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.

  • cscasi

    It seems that the car rental companies’ (many of them, anyway) charges are getting way out of line. While I understand them recouping for damages, including flat tires, etc., it seems that they are getting really greedy. It’s no wonder we continually see these cases here and Chris is asked to advocate. Still, these companies will continue adding more and more until they are forced to stop. Question is, who is it that will be able to reign them in.

  • Fishplate

    I’m glad they got a refund. It’s easy for a tire to pick something up that isn’t noticed immediately, and cause a flat much later.

    This caught my eye: “AAA’s OnBoard program requires that members install devices on their cars…”. I’ve been an AAA member for 40 years, and I’d never heard of that. Turns out that’s part of AAA’s insurance business, and not connected to the Roadside Assistance program that will come out and change your tire.

  • MarkKelling

    AAA Onboard has nothing to do with their roadside assistance. It is a tracking device for their auto insurance that tells them how you drive so they can give you a “discount” if you are a consistently good driver by their measure (many auto insurance companies offer similar devices). It is only available to you if you have their auto insurance. Not sure how that relates to flat tires.

    AAA flat tire service is limited to changing the flat with your spare or towing you to the nearest tire repair location if your spare is not usable or nonexistent. This is covered by your membership fee. They do not, in my experience and from what is quoted on their website, replace a flat with a new tire or even just add air to the flat. This is left to the tire repair shop. In this case, the OP would have still been out something for flat repair or worse case a new tire if the AAA option was chosen. The car rental company may not have been happy with a replacement tire not of their choosing.

    Not sure how Budget came up with the $550 which is extreme no mater how you look at it. Glad it was able to be reduced to a reasonable amount.

  • sirwired

    I’m not sure what the reference to AAA On-Board is about. If an AAA member is driving a car (it doesn’t matter who owns it), the car is eligible for AAA roadside assistance; end of story.

    Anyway, I agree that Budget should have warned them about the charges for drop-off and towing. A bill for the tire itself makes sense (could be $100-$200, depending on the car), but they should have given a head’s up about the service charges.

  • Joe Blasi

    $550 4 new tires? Under line of some BS that all must be the same?

  • Rebecca

    As an fyi – I have State Farm and if you’re covered by their insurance, they offer roadside assistance that will tow you, put in gas if you run out, etc at no cost under their plan. If you break down and know you’re going to need a tow, it’s a very good option because they’ll tow it to the shop for free. I was surprised to know how many people didn’t know about this.

  • Barthel

    A flat tire is normal were and tear. Unless the user has deliberately abused the tires, the rental company should absorb the cost. It’s not possible to avoid running over a nail if you can’t see it.

  • When you look into renting a car, always, always consider prices that include the rental company’s own comprehensive insurance. If you use your own, they will find a way to scam you.

  • Joe Blasi

    They should Road hazard program for the rent a cars.

  • Peter

    I guess there’s now another thing we’re supposed to do when renting a car. Photograph the entire car, inside and out (including the roof). Video your entire interaction with the rental agent (both rental and return). Photograph car upon return.

    Let’s add photograph condition of each tire. And conduct a mechanical inspection of each system of the car, including computer diagnostic system. Let’s do an emissions test before we go also, just to be on the safe side …

    Am I thr only one who thinks car rental is becoming an adversarial game these days?

  • Kristina

    The AAA On-Board program is indeed an option for AAA’s auto insurance program, but it is not mandatory.

  • Mel65

    We have that thru Allstate and my daughter thru USAA, as well. It’s so inexpensive to add to insurance and with teenagers driving and me making long road trips (8 hours) sometimes by myself it’s peace of mind!

  • Joe Farrell

    Once again . . .$80 is STILL probably more than this person should have to pay.

    Car rental agencies generally rent low end, low option cars – especially Budget.

    When tires and shocks and brakes and transmissions and clutches become areas of demand, they are also areas of wear.

    Rarely does one get a new vehicle; whereas decades again the cars would never be more than a year old – now – they are often 2-3 years old before they are replaced. They routinely get 20,30 and even 40,000 miles on them – especially at neighborhood locations. So, wear and tear becomes an increasing issues.

    When ANYONE gets a demand for replacement of a wear item, you need to know how many miles are on the vehicle, and what the expected lifespan of the component is. . . .

    For tires, especially the cheap OEM tires which adorn most rentals – the cost of replacement and mounting of the tire is less than $100. Want proof? Go find a rent a car [average non-luxury economy – full size] and look at trim level. Then go to the car manufacturer sales site and see what tires are on it standard. Then go price that tire at TireRack.com . . . .if will likely be under $100.

    Most OEM tires are cheap B/C or A/.B rated tires.

    Add $20 to mount and balance if you do it retail, $5 if you amortize the tire machine most airport rental locations have. Take an OEM tire with a life span of 25000 miles and you get the car with 15000 on it – and they’ve already got $60 of use out of the $40 tire.

    Same with shocks, brakes, even clutches and transmissions . . . .

    So – when you get a damage demand, you need to:

    a) mileage on the car
    b) is it within the warranty? Remember – car rental companies WAIVE the manufacturer warranty but thats not YOUR issue – your argument is you waived the warranty to increase profit – you did not shift that liability to me. some tires have mileage warranties as well.
    c) life span of the component.
    d) use history – does the component they seek remibursement for have a repair history? Has the tire been plugged? Did it leak in the same spot again? Has the tranny been repaired before- you have 18000 miles on the car, are they still OEM brake components.

    You think about this and then ask for this documentation [under oath – make someone swear the information provided is true – that someone who is legally able to bind the company] so you can consider the repair history and betterment.

    They know what betterment is.

    They will be required to produce ALL of this in court if you require them to follow the rules of evidence. Small Claims is still court – and they can be required to offer ‘admissible’ evidence.

    By requiring a large corporation follow the rules – they will go away because the cost of compliance exceeds the cost of repair in most cases . . .

  • Barthel

    And, who knows how often these cars are serviced? Do they do maintenance that an owner would do, such as change oil at recommended intervals? Probably not. Abuse by previous renters is another problem. I have known renters who deliberately speed over elevated railroad crossings causing the car to bottom out. When an abused car is returned, the damage may not be visible, but it may show up later when another customer has rented that car.

  • RBXChas

    I believe you are covered even if you are a passenger in your or someone else’s vehicle. As far as I know, there’s no requirement that you have to be the one driving.

  • RBXChas

    The fact that the coverage follows me, whether I’m the driver or a passenger, and not my car is why I have AAA. The roadside assistance through my insurance company, which is included whether or not I want/need it, only covers my car. I’d have to read the fine print in USAA’s roadside assistance program to see if it would cover a rental, but I know AAA would.

  • RBXChas

    I have USAA, and roadside assistance is included for “free”, as far as I know. Now I feel like I need to check to be sure I’m not paying extra for it!

  • sirwired

    It is logical to charge the full cost to replace the tire if it goes flat due to a road hazard. Generally, a car does not increase in value because one of the tires has been replaced early, so the fact that you swapped out 60k tire at 30k doesn’t give the rental company any benefit vs. just letting all 4 original tires wear out normally. When the car is disposed of at auction at the end of it’s rental life, it won’t be worth one penny more because of a single newer tire.

    What does the warranty (or lack thereof) have to do with anything? Most flat tires are due to road hazard, not a warrantable defect.

    In any case, your suggested steps seem like an awful lot of work to go through to try and reduce the amount of a $200 claimed cost for a flat tire. I have better things to do with my time than go to Small Claims Court for a bill that size. (How would that even work? I rent cars when I travel; any claim would have to be filed there.)

    Bill your credit card insurance (Visa and AmEx both cover flat tires, although inexplicably, MC does not), and get on with your life.

  • pauletteb

    I’ve had AAA for years without OnBoard, and it doesn’t matter what vehicle I’m in — mine, friend/relative, rental. I can call the 800 number 24/7 for service.

  • Mel65

    Oh, I don’t know if USAA charges for it.. I know I pay something minimal like $25 a year or something thru Allstate… USAA may be free…

  • RightNow9435

    Same here…been with AAA many years, and basically you get 4 service calls per year at no charge, and no device on your car.

    Also, the word exorbitant should NOT have been in quotes in that closing paragraph. No question whatsoever that $550 is an exorbitant amount to charge.

  • RBXChas

    I just looked it up, and it’s not free! It’s a little over $1/month/vehicle, so with two cars, we pay about $25/year. At that cost I may as well keep it in case, say, I lend my sister my car (I rarely let anyone but me or my husband drive my car, but it happens maybe once every other year), and she gets a flat tire. I don’t know that AAA would cover her if she’s not a member herself.

  • Mel65

    My understanding AAA is that the coverage follows the driver, not the vehicle . A neighbor has it, but not his wife and when she had a breakdown, she wasn’t covered. You have to get coverage for each person… which is weird, but *shrug*.

  • RBXChas

    I like that AAA covers me if I’m not in my own car, but it is annoying that I have to pay for my husband as an additional member. Because I just signed up again after a lapse, I got a special deal. It was something like $11 for the year to add my husband, but it doesn’t stay that cheap. I want to say it is something like an additional $40/year to add him under normal circumstances. The only thing I can think is that they are trying to be fair to single-driver households rather than charge a driver+spouse rate for every primary member.

  • Mel65

    I think if they assigned the coverage to the car, they’d actually be more “fair” AND come out ahead. We have 5 vehicles right now. They could get a lot of income from us :) But, since we have it thru our insurance it’s much cheaper and *knock wood* we actually haven’t had to use it except once when my battery died at the airport while we were on vacation.

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