Maybe you should have walked away from that Mexican rental car

Ah, the ol’ Mexican car rental scam.

You show up at the car rental counter with a confirmed reservation, only to learn that you have to buy mandatory insurance. And before long, you’re paying 20 to 30 percent more than you expected.

It happened to Sheldon Rittenberg when he rented a car through Hotwire at the San Jose del Cabo airport recently.

The rental for was for one week at a rate of $492 including taxes and fees. At the Thrifty counter, I presented my Gold Visa card and declined all insurance as well as my personal insurance to cover the liability.

I was told these instruments were not acceptable and I would have to take Mexican liability insurance or go elsewhere to rent a car. This additional cost that was not accounted for in the Hotwire agreement and came as a shock when I learned it would be an extra $314.

On my return to the U.S.A., I promptly e-mailed Hotwire and Thrifty. I have yet to receive an answer from Thrifty and have had a response from Hotwire refusing any co-operation.

Here’s Hotwire’s non-answer:

I understand that you were billed by the Thrifty agency for insurance and feel this was not correct. I regret any inconvenience this may have caused you.

Car-rental bookings and reservations available through this site are subject to the published rules of the applicable rental agency and Hotwire’s Terms of Use. The following Terms will apply:

Optional items, such as the insurance coverage or optional equipment, or the addition of drivers or days to your rental, must be requested and paid for at the rental counter. Such optional items are not included in Hotwire’s quoted rate and will be charged by the rental agency as an additional expense.

You can find our full Terms of Use for your review by clicking the link below:

http://www.hotwire.com/travel-information/terms.jsp

If we can be of further assistance, please feel free to reply to this email or contact us directly at 1-866-HOTWIRE (468-9473). Thank you for choosing Hotwire.

But insurance wasn’t optional. I thought I would ask Hotwire to take a second look. So I did. Here’s what it had to say:

As it turns out, this booking was a “retail” reservation, not opaque. Hotwire did not collect any booking costs prior to the car’s pick-up, and the customer could have cancelled it at any time without penalty. Based on the circumstances here, it seems like that may have been the best course of action.

In the case of retail bookings, Hotwire is providing a direct connection between the supplier (Thrifty in this case) and the customer. The policies of that particular provider hold true for that reservation, and in our Terms of Use, we note that as well.

We do understand that different rental agencies have different policies on insurance requirements, especially in Mexico, so it can be confusing. That’s why it’s always a good idea to check a supplier’s policies before traveling.

Thrifty is one of the agencies that does require some form of insurance in Mexico now, but if the customer can prove in writing that he has his own insurance that will cover him in Mexico, then the additional Thrifty insurance can be waived. If Sheldon was able to meet that requirement in-person, the Thrifty representative should have accepted it based on their own policies. Unfortunately, it looks like that requirement wasn’t met at the time, and the customer chose to accept the Thrifty insurance.

We’ve reached out to Sheldon to help explain Thrifty’s policies better and to help with future trip planning. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to work on his behalf for a refund in this case, as Thrifty was operating within its own policies.

How interesting. So Hotwire is in effect saying it isn’t a travel agent, but simply a “connection” between Thrifty and the customer. It also seems to be suggesting that while its opaque prices (the ones where you don’t know the company you’re dealing with until after the purchase) are more “all-inclusive” in terms of price, than a retail reservation.

In Hotwire’s view, Rittenberg had an option when he rented the car — he could have walked away from the car. I wonder if he knew that?

I also wonder what the car rental companies would think of Hotwire advising its customers to simply not use a reservation. The car rental industry desperately wants to add cancellation fees to its cars, to prevent people from walking away from their reservations.

Seems the lesson here is to ensure your credit card or car rental insurance policy covers your rental before you show up at the counter.

(Photo: Lucy Nieto/Flickr Creative Commons)

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