“I rented a car in Norfolk, but Hotwire changed the city”

Here’s a common complaint from travelers who book through so-called “opaque” sites like Priceline and Hotwire: A customer who tried to buy a particular flight, hotel or rental car, but ended up with a nonrefundable reservation in the wrong place.

That’s what happened to Michael Robinson when he tried to rent a car in Norfolk, Va., through Hotwire. His experience underscores the importance of making sure you get your itinerary right the first time in this day and age of nonchangeable reservations — especially when you’re dealing with the strict opaque sites.

He writes,

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I rented a car in Norfolk, but Hotwire changed the city.

I was wanting to rent a round-trip car rental from Norfolk and they changed to D.C. I was, in fact, already in D.C. but had already had a Southwest flight to Norfolk. As soon as I received the confirmation email, within a minute, I noticed it was for a pickup and dropoff in D.C.

I wrote to them right away, within three minutes of receiving the confirmation email — I have time-stamped emails — saying they made a mistake. All they told me was, “All sales are final”. I tried to explain the mistake and explained to them it was only a few minutes from their email to mine. I told them I still wanted a car, but in Norfolk, not D.C.

I tried to have my credit card (Bank of America) help but they reply that Hotwire provided them proof that I made the reservation, I also went around and around with them to no avail.

Can you — would you — please help?

Robinson’s apparent location-shift, as I’ve already mentioned, isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this happening. I get emails from unhappy travelers several times a month, claiming Hotwire or Priceline “moved” their reservation. When I bring these issues to the companies’ attention, they normally say 1) they have proof that the reservation was made and 2) all reservations are nonchangeable. And that’s the end of the story.

But moving a rental location 190 miles seems a little extreme. And Robinson backed up his claim with correspondence between him and Hotwire which seemed to corroborate his story and suggested the company was being less than helpful. So I asked Hotwire for its side of the story.

Here’s what they said:

Based on the records we have, it appears that Mr. Robinson initially booked a round-trip car rental in Washington D.C. Later, we received an email contact from Mr. Robinson stating that this was actually supposed to be a one-way rental from D.C. to Norfolk. We asked him to contact us so we could discuss his situation. They are not included in his correspondence to you, but they were received a couple of weeks before his provided examples below.

Later on the phone, our representative offered to change Mr. Robinson’s booking to a one-way D.C.-to-Norfolk reservation instead, as requested, and quoted him the one-way price. Unfortunately, one-way rentals can be more expensive. Rental locations generally prefer to hold onto their inventory, and paying to get those cars back from other locations can be costly, so they increase their own prices accordingly.

Mr. Robinson declined the one-way option, citing the high price. When our representative informed him that this was a non-refundable car booking (it was an opaque purchase), and we were only offering to change it as a courtesy, he informed us that he would be disputing the charges through his credit card by claiming fraud. The credit card issuer researched the charges with us, and was satisfied that it was a legitimate transaction. As such, there was no refund provided to him.

The email string below [which Robinson sent to you] between Mr. Robinson and Hotwire didn’t start until after the initial contacts happened. Somewhere along the way, his desired itinerary changed, with Norfolk becoming the required destination AND origin city this time. If that were the end goal, we may have been able to help more if we knew that during the initial contact. Unfortunately, this account had already been handed over to our fraud department to help resolve the credit card company’s research, so there wasn’t much we could do for Mr. Robinson at that point.

I don’t think Robinson will be getting his money back from Hotwire, unless he can persuade a judge to see this his way.

Lessons learned? If you use an opaque site to make a reservation, make sure you get it right the first time. If you need flexibility, rent the car any other way — you’ll always have the option of canceling the booking with no penalty.

Also, since a company like Hotwire is under no obligation to share its taped phone conversations with a customer, it’s best to either tape your calls (where it’s legal) or to keep a copy of your email with the company.

(Photo: Sun Down/Flickr Creative Commons)