They underestimated us – their mistake!

Golden Pixels/Shutterstock
Golden Pixels/Shutterstock

Richard Barnes wishes he hadn’t rented the car.

The vehicle, which he reserved for on a business trip in Atlanta, was absolutely fine. It’s what happened afterwards that makes his blood boil.

Barnes picked up the vehicle at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. He drove it to the Hyatt in Atlanta. The next day, he returned it to the airport without a scratch.

“Four months later I received a bill for $12,000 for an accident and damage to the car I had rented,” he says.

Say what?

Yep, $12k for a rental car returned undamaged. I recently wondered how careful you have to be in order to not get scammed as a consumer.

But there’s another side to this issue: How careful do businesses think we are?

For the record, Barnes is no dummy. He’s an academic who works for a prestigious Northeastern college, and he knew that he hadn’t caused $12,000 worth of damage to his car, and he also knew he had certain rights.

You’d be surprised at how many customers just roll over when they’re faced with a $12,000 bill, or more precisely, how fast their insurance companies play dead.

As I reviewed Barnes’ correspondence, it seemed they just mixed up the cars and sent him the wrong bill. When I checked with the rental company, it said it no longer had the records of the incident, because the car rental company in question was under new ownership. How convenient.

How dumb do they think we are?

Underestimating your customer — that seems to be a time-honored tradition in American business, and particularly in the travel industry.

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SeaWorld is probably regretting that this week, as several A-list musicians canceled their appearances in the wake of the troubling revelations about the treatment of its whales in a documentary film called Blackfish. I guess they didn’t think anyone reads

It’s hardly the only time the travel industry underestimates us. Consider this: The price of a roundtrip flight from my home airport, Orlando, to Frankfurt, Germany, is about $1,200 in economy class. If you’d rather fly in first class, it’s $12,000. Now, no one likes to be stuck in the back of the plane, where there’s virtually no legroom, service is practically nonexistent, and the other passengers sometimes behave like Barbarians.

But $12,000? Do they think we’ll miss that decimal point?

Similarly, loyalty programs often cater to the intellectually-challenged. Sure, it’s nice to be treated like the average economy class passenger in 1977, with ample legroom and reasonably good service — but in exchange for what? Pledging our undying fealty to a too-big-to-fail airline? Playing their little frequent flier game with points that consistently lose value and don’t even belong to you?

Do they think we won’t notice what’s happening here?

We’re getting played.

Revenge fantasies

I’m heartened when travelers outsmart the companies who underestimated them. When I see folks gaining the upper hand by using unsanctioned strategies, it can be gratifying. Not always, but sometimes. Even though we all know that loyalty programs are harmful to the travel industry — particularly to the average air traveler — we can get some small satisfaction when a clever blogger figures out a way to game the system so that passengers, and not the company, come out on top.

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That includes me.

Barnes’ story has a happy ending. He phoned his car rental company and asked the company if someone else had rented the car after he’d returned it. Yes, a representative said.

“How many miles are now on the odometer?” he inquired.

“11,680 miles,” said the employee.

When Barnes returned it, he noted 4,000 miles on the car.

“Has the car been in an accident?” he asked innocently.

Yes, said the representative. Who? The representative gave him a name. It wasn’t Barnes’.

“It turns out that a subsequent driver crashed the car long after I’d rented it,” he says. “But I was being charged for the repairs.”

He says he asked the car rental company to drop the claim, and it did.

Has the travel industry underestimated us?

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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 Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • polexia_rogue

    unfortunately, while they are underestimating US (educated consumers who like to read they are NOT underestimating the majority of consumers.

    so many people see “free” and think it’s real, so many people think an unrecorded verbal contract is worth anything, so many people think “the customer is always right” still applies.

    but as for the OP- wow, 12,000 is just insane. so glad he was able to get it revolved, no one deserves that.

  • sdir

    They no longer have the records because it’s under new ownership? I don’t think so. One of the things transferred would be business records, otherwise how would they even know Barnes rented a car four months previous? Because of the astronomical sum and ridiculousness of the complaint, I feel Barnes should complain to whatever local authority is involved with car rentals, whether the transportation department or attorney general. The lack of proper records-keeping means he won’t be the last person to face this situation.

  • TonyA_says

    Let us stop talking about them. Let us talk about us. What can we do to win this onesided game?
    A long time ago when airlines were regulated, it made sense that the Feds preempted the States. At least the airlines were accountable to the Feds. But they kept preemption after deregulation leaving the Feds with very little power over the airlines. Now, all the DOT can do is fine an airline for unfair and deceptive practicies. You really cannot sue the airlines in State court unless they screw up giving you the right to do so.
    And since the airlines are largely in debt to the big banks and the big banks use airline miles as give away candy to credit card churners, the airlines have also become too big to fail.
    After deregulation, Congress has passed very little law to protect us. Maybe if you get stuck on the tarmac long enough or you are a handicapped person then there is a specific law that protects you. But if you are not, then only one law is useful – that is the prohibition of post-purchase price increases on airline tickets. Ironically that law benefits you when an a screw up happens and you pay less than what the greedy airline wanted to charge you. Call it a mistake fare or a miscalculation if you want but the law actually protects you.
    Since Congress has given us a way to get even, then use it! Stop whining. Learn how to use and trick the system to your advantage.

  • Justin

    Records vanished upon new ownership? Does the Mafia own the place or is money laundering taking place? Companies buy a business and consumer records to allow continuity. What a B.S. excuse to pin blame on someone else.

  • Trudi

    In all honesty, I think the mafia were better businessmen than some of the travel companies. It stuns me that people just follow the travel industry without question. My loyalty and my loyalty points stops at my billfold, but I do believe some companies have more integrity than others. At least, I believe it when I’m buying from them; of course, I believe the elf on my wall shelf is making notes and reporting to Santa.

  • Justin

    You know the ironic part of the story? The company “lost” the records upon acquisiton, but magically a few pages existed to pin blame on the OP :).


    Elf on the shelf has a fiber optic line and 24/7 surveillance to Santa! So behave youself!

  • Daddydo

    The travel / vacation industry knows exactly what they are doing. The hotels know that you are too lazy to buy the pop, so raid the refridge and pay $12.00. The car industry goes after 25% of their clients to initiate false claims, and the airlines have no respect from anybody except their top 2%. They know exactly what they are doing. The vacationer is too laid back to pay attention to the vendors or feel that they are in no position to argue. so they got you on the spot. Research first, complain throught your travel agent later.

  • Realist

    I voted that the travel industry has not underestimated us. They know that a lot of people will pay up without fighting the charges. Witness the billions made by the airlines industry for the never ending fees. Anybody ever pay a “resort fee” with questioning it? It’s the same with the car rental industry. Got a small scratch on the car? No problem, it’s only a couple hundred dollars. And they can charge for the same scratch several times.If anybody fights these charges, the bean counters just post it on the debit side of the ledger. It’s more than offset by the credit side by those who never challenge the charge. The travel industry has teams of people dreaming up these fees and how much they can get away with. They haven’t understimated us because they know the ordinary person on the street doesn’t stand a chance against their well-oiled machine.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Ditto. They may have underestimated those of us who follow Chris’s blog, but we’re a tiny minority amongst a traveling public that, by and large, lets themselves be taken advantage of and abused. Just look at any article online about the TSA – the majority of comments beneath it will be sheeple claiming the TSA is “just doing their job keeping us safe”. Despite the indisputable fact that the TSA hasn’t caught one single terrorist. Not to mention the fact that they wouldn’t be able to stop a real terrorist attack even if the agency wasn’t populated with employees who are, for the most part, uneducated, ill-trained, power-tripping Walmart rejects.

    The travel industry CAN’T underestimate the traveling public. There’s no bottom.

  • y_p_w

    I was extremely vigilant about my kid and the mini bar the last time we stayed in Vegas. We had a Keurig coffee machine, but the only coffee provided in the room was an $8 package in the minibar. Our kid kept on going after the Kit Kat bar ($3) in there, and we kept on putting it back. Eventually we relented – by buying three of them at a discount store for about $2 and taking it into the room.

    I liked the stay, but the mini bar scared me. I’m bringing cable ties with me next time to keep the door shut.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Most decent hotels will offer you the option of locking the minibar so the rugrats can’t get in there. :)

  • Cybrsk8r

    But be careful. Sometimes you get charged even if you put the item back in the mini-bar.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    This sounds like a clerical error but who knows?

    I actually prefer traveling today compared to the 70’s: no-smoking cabins. Granted, that was due to government regulation forced upon them by the FA union. Back then, FA’s and airlines both were afraid to try to ask flyers to put out a cig. Now, the airlines and FA’s both love being sky wardens.

    It’s unfair to blame the airlines for the smaller seats while simultaneously loving cheaper airfares. How many people could afford to fly from the states to Frankfurt back in the days of Pan Am? Airline tickets ARE cheaper than they were back then. You can always pay for economy plus but even then, you are still getting a bargain. And if you consolidate everything into one bag, the baggage fees are minimal.

    Other things to consider: In the 70’s, if you were bored you could read an old magazine. Today, they have advanced IFES. You can book online.

    What I think is a ripoff are the hotel and resort fees: They are not disclosed and are often difficult to avoid if you pre-bid at some sites. Taxes are outside of the discretion of the hotel but resort fees you can’t avoid are basically fraud.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    They know most are fools or else these games would not be played’

  • Daddydo

    Actually, having worked for Capitol, they became Piedmont, Allegheny, then USAir in the 60’s and 70’s, the air tickets are far more diversified today that yeaster year, and depending how you purchase far more expensive. You had first class, economy one way, ecomomy rount trip and family plan. There was concern over class of service ( 10-20 different fare classes now exist on today’s flights) you just bought what you needed. Even with all $ inflation considereations, airfares in the average market are much higher. Exceptions would be trans – continental, big cities, international, and 3rd class airlines like Allegient and Spirit that use local small airports and subsities. First Class New York to London ( 1969 I have the Pan Am ticket framed for posterity) was $1800.00 round trip with real first class service and they offered free helicopter from any of the NYC airports and Manhattan to JFK.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Perhaps I’m just so darn good at getting good airfares. Flew the family IAD-FLL for $177 per person in the fall on Jetblue. Flew international IAD-SVO-ODS for $750. That was a bargain, however, but usually pay about $950 for Lufthansa through MUC. These prices have been about the same for us for about 10 years or so. I recall paying similar in 1998. About that time and 9-11, prices shot up and have remained at that level ever since. The airlines are trying to control for inflation via fees. Most of the money from those going to the executives and stockholders and not the front line crews, sadly.

  • Barry Moss

    Mr. Elliot, I appreciate that you do not like frequent flyer programs. You’ve said so many times, and I don’t mind agreeing to disagree. I’ve appreciated a lot of the other information that you supply. But you are completely out of line with this statement: “loyalty programs often cater to the intellectually-challenged”. I can assure you that I’m far from intellectually challenged, and I would hope that the Master’s of Engineering degree hanging on my wall would be of some evidence of that.

    It was just last week you wrote a comment bemoaning the ways that airlines regularly insult their customers. Perhaps you should re-read it and re-read your statement. I know you make your money either directly or indirectly from the advertising in your on-line columns or in the publications you write for. If you really feel that it’s appropriate to call your readers “intellectually challenged” simply because they disagree with you, then perhaps it would be stupid of me to keep reading your column.

  • That’s a strange comment. I wasn’t calling anyone “intellectually challenged.” I said loyalty programs cater to the intellectually challenged, and that is true. You don’t have to be that bright to see that the programs are there to primarily benefit companies, not customers. Travel companies, and primarily airlines, think we’re too dumb to notice. Question is, are we?

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    Chris has a huge blind spot when it comes to frequent flyer programs and other so called “loyalty” programs. This is a classic case of taking the good with the bad. Chris does a lot of good for others and gives some useful information. So, if we have to swallow the occasional ill-conceived, illogical frequent flyer rant, for me at least, its worth it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    And my grocery store engages in activities primarily to benefit itself. I guess I shouldn’t shop for food either. Terrible, tortured logic.

  • Carver, I don’t mind the criticism, and I welcome your comments even when they’re dead wrong and illogical. But please stick to criticizing ideas instead of people. Otherwise I’ll have to add the word “point” or “mile” or “cranky” to the name of this site. Just wouldn’t have the same ring to it now, would it?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I didn’t criticize you. A blind spot isn’t a criticism, especially in the context of saying that you do a lot of good for others. I was defending you.

    A criticism is saying that FF programs cater to the intellectually challenged, aka stupid people. Ergo, if you participate in a FF program you are the stupid person its marketed to. An indirect insult is still an insult, just phrased nicely.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Its a game that they’re playing.

  • TonyA_says

    How much government subsidy you think that cheap fare you got from Aeroflot has?

  • fshaff

    Your statement about Capitol becoming (eventually) USAir has me stumped. My deceased father was a sheet metal mechanic for Capitol at DCA. That airline was later absorbed by United!

  • Cam

    Not feeling the poll today. It just adds questions to question.

  • Daddydo

    I feel and have felt, that FF programs are the ruination of hte airline system. They do make people do the wrong flights, the wrong fares all in the name of achieving the almighty free ticket. So Chris is correct that “loyalty has a price. Example – XYZ gas company allows their employees to book their flights and get re-imbursed. 1 passenger buys PIT ATL non-stop on Air Tran at 300.00 round trip. the FF passenger buys USair through Charlotte at 500.00 to get 4 segments and his personal milage. You just got ripped off on your utility bill. Yes FF people on the whole are controlled by the airline.

  • Daddydo

    I went from Capital to Piedmont to Allegheny to USAir in 2 decades without ever leaving the PIT airport or having a choice. I was just absorbed.

  • Daddydo

    Locally sussidized airlines like Allegient in HTS and CKB are more of what I am referring to. They fuel perks, seat guarantees, etc from the local airport authority.

  • Daddydo

    Were these last moment purchases or did you plan in advance. Remeber, the airlines work on percentages of availablity for discounts. We can fly Spirit for 98.00 RT from Latrobe to Ft Lauderdale, but guess how many seats are available at that price? Clarksburg advertises Clarksburg To Orlando at $49.00 each way, but I have never seen the available seat. Luck, availability to move travel days, and advance planning lead to your success.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes FF people on the whole are controlled by the airline.

    That’s a bit hyperbolic don’t you think. I’d be interested in getting real numbers instead of hypotheticals.

    But consider this. A major argument against FF is that people no longer buy by price/convenience (per your example). But I submit that is a false argument. That works for commodities where the product is undifferentiated. However, do you always shop at the closest, cheapest store? The closest clothing stores to me are Target and Walmart. They’re probably the cheapest. Yet, I don’t buy clothing from either one.

    The same is true with travel. I fly to LAX often. I rent from Hertz. Why? Budget has relatively few courtesy shuttles, Alamo screwed me three times, Payless/Fox has crappy cars, aren’t 24 hours and park their car in dark alleys where I can’t inspect for damage, don’t hold cars for more than 4 hours, and don’t have a frequent renter option. At this point, the ease of dealing with the known quantity (Hertz) outweighs the few dollars that I might save by trying Dollar or Thrify.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    For Jetblue and my international flights, I usually purchase about 6 months in advance and on sale.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I truly don’t know. That said, what a wonderful flight my in-laws had! The food and drink was good, the service (surprisingly) friendly and it was on a Boeing 767 (Yes, Aeroflot uses BOEING!) That said, it was an unusually good fare. Usually, even with Aeroflot, it would be about $900. I initially saw the fare at $700 but when I went to grab it, it was gone and I had to pay $750. And after grabbing that, the fare was gone in about a week.

    Early_Bird (get(Worm, (The));

  • davidglass

    and only if the airlines chooses to honor the fare mistake. 75% of the time they cancel and refund the purchase

  • Annie M

    You can have them remove the items from the mini bar. Then no need to worry. And mini bar charges are easily disputed – Read the book “Heads in Beds”

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