Should travel companies be allowed to practice age discrimination?

Gordon White is 79. Kevin Chang is 24. Both recently tried to rent cars but ran into trouble because of their age.

White’s online travel agency warned him that he might be too old, and Chang had to pay more for his vehicle because of his youth.

A quirk of the auto rental business? Hardly.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Other parts of the travel industry, from airlines to hotels, routinely segment their customers by age. The experiences of White and Chang underscore an often overlooked detail for anyone traveling: Age matters more than you might think.

White, a writer who lives in Deltaville, Va., reserved a car in Glasgow, Scotland, through Expedia. After he finished the transaction online, a window popped up on his computer screen warning him that some international car rental agencies do not rent vehicles to older drivers.

“That just about floored me,” he says. “I can understand that some older people probably shouldn’t be driving, but honestly, I am not one of them.”

Chang, an engineer based in Chicago, has the reverse problem: When he called his travel agency, he was told that his car rental company, Budget, added an underage fee. It doesn’t rent to drivers younger than 21, and renters younger than 25 have to pay a surcharge. But, a representative told him, the travel agency had made special arrangements to have the fee waived.

Nevertheless, when Chang picked up the vehicle in Buffalo, Budget tacked an $80 fee onto his bill. He protested, to no avail. “They denied our request to waive the underage fee,” he says.

The subject of age is a touchy one for car rental companies, according to Sharon Faulkner, the executive director of the American Car Rental Association. Companies don’t have formal age limits in the United States, because they would violate discrimination laws. “But they do for the underage driver, citing insurance regulations,” she adds. (New York, with its “must rent” laws for drivers 18 and older, is one exception.)

If you’re renting a car, it’s difficult to get around the rules. Faulkner says that every rental car company will ask to see a valid license and will punch the holder’s name, address, age and license number, with the expiration date, into its system. “If there is an age limit — under or over — and the rental company has added these limitations to their Web site and therefore loaded that into their computers, then the computer will alert the rental representative that the contract cannot be completed unless a fee or a manager overrides the system,” she says.

To make sure that you’re not affected, she advises that you call your car rental company before you pick up your vehicle. That’s what White did when he rented in Glasgow. When he reached the location by phone, a representative told him that there was no age limit, and he rented from it without incident.

Chang received only a $50 refund from his travel agency.

This kind of discrimination happens so often when we travel that we hardly notice it. Some of it is helpful, such as lap children flying free on planes or senior citizens receiving discounts on restaurants, national parks and other attractions.

But much of it is also discriminatory. Try renting a hotel room if you’re under 21. Many hotels won’t rent you a room, and some state laws allow them to show young people the door. Likewise, some package tours are off-limits to people over a certain age, although tour operators are reluctant to say so. Usually, they just steer elderly travelers toward another trip, hoping that they’ll take the hint.

Even the federal government is in the age discrimination business when it comes to travel. The TSA recently adopted special screening procedures for children younger than 12 and adults older than 75, allowing them to keep their shoes and light jackets on at the checkpoint. How do agents know that you qualify? They conduct a “visual assessment.” Good luck with that.

Of course, there are good reasons for discriminating, at least from the perspective of a business. Any innkeeper can tell you that younger hotel guests — especially those checking in during spring break — can be trouble. Or that the under-21s have a greater chance of getting into a fender-bender in a rental car. But it’s also true that many younger and older travelers are safe and responsible. Do they deserve to be treated differently?

If there’s a takeaway for the rest of us, it’s this: Age matters when you travel. It may save you money, but more often, it will be used as an excuse to charge you more, or deny you a service to which you should have access.

42 thoughts on “Should travel companies be allowed to practice age discrimination?

  1. Until auto insurance companies aren’t allowed to charge different rates based on age, this will continue with car rentals. Chris, you are probably in the age group that gets charged the least, would you be willing to have your rates raised substantially in order to subsidize an 18 year old kid down the block so he can pay what you pay?

    1. When I check average insurance rates by age, it’s true that a 20-24 year old pays about 15%-20% more for auto insurance than a 25-29 year old. But then why stop the discrimination at 25? A 25-29 year old pays about 40%-50% more for auto insurance than a 60-64 year old.

      And if there is an underage surcharge, I would expect it to be on just the insurance portion. When I was under 25, I recall being quoted double the normal-age amount for the entire bill. But if I used my employer’s corporate discount number, I could rent at a lower cost than the general public with no underage surcharges whatsoever.

    2. But younger drivers are already paying higher auto insurance rates.

      From the car rental place’s perspective, as long as the young driver has insurance, what difference does it make to them if the driver wrecks the car?

      1. Car rental companies don’t want the cars damaged…period, regardless of who pays. Their primary business model is to rent cars to travelers…not deal with insurance companies, repair shops and salvage yards on wrecked and damaged vehicles.

        The point of the post is when an auto insurance company charges differently for rates based on age, is that discrimination? If other companies can do it, why not a car rental company, especially when they have the statistics to back up that younger people are more likely to be involved in an accident?

  2. I am 19 years old, a Silver Preferred with US Airways and therefore within the Star Alliance. I have over 195,000 frequent flier miles in my lifetime too. I see age discrimination 85% of the time when I travel, even by air. Airline representatives dont believe I deserve compensation values as other traveleres for reasons th

  3. I am only 19 years old, hold Silver Preferred Status with US Airways therefore also with Star Alliance and I cannot say how many times I have been treated differently than older travelers across the 195,000 miles by air that I have traveled. Airline representatives both over the phone and behind the counter do not recognize that I know acceptable compensation values, the old yet sometimes useful rule 240, bump mandated cash compensation rights, and overnight situations due to aircraft maintenance or “crew unrest”. At 19, I’m fierce when it comes to passenger rights, especially when the passenger who was sitting next to me until we had to de-plane due to a mechanical received $150 more in airline vouchers than I did.

    1. Did the person sitting next to you have a higher status (Gold or whatever) than you? Airlines do compensate their more frequent flyers at higher rates than the lower level flyers.

      That said, it is good that you do know the rules and push the airlines to follow them. More travelers should educate themselves.

      1. Why should elite flyers get LESS? They should get more because they are ELITE. Correct? For as long as everyone gets the minimum mandated by law or promised by the COCs then those who get MORE because they are more important to the airlines are just lucky.

        1. Not stating the Elites got less or should get less. Dan mentioned he is Silver and the person next to him got more compensation than he did. I was just wondering if the one who got more was a higher level in the program.

          1. Also not all discrimination is illegal, unethical, or immoral.
            As you said, who knows how important those older looking folks were to the airline compared to Dan? For as long as Dan got was what due HIM (by law or by contract) then what the airlines gave the others [above what they gave Dan] is not of our or Dan’s concern.

  4. Well, they shouldn’t be able to discriminate. That said, my father is 90 years old with macular degeneration and should never drive, but does all the time, and recently rented a car. My mother is suffering mild dementia, and still drives. I don’t want them on the road in their own car, much less in a rental car in a strange city.

    And like most kids lacking experience, my kids were not great drivers until they grew up some.

    so if the point is safety and how the insurance and rental companies charge, I do see the argument for discrimination. The liberal in me just won’t go along with it.

    1. Sorry, but YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING about that. We faced it with my mother when she was driving to her bank 6 blocks away in a tiny town, and got lost. It’s awful to loose that part of your independence, but it’d bores to find they drove into a building or busy crosswalk and killed people.

      1. What would you propose? We took their keys. They bought new ones. We took the car. No kidding, they bought a new one. There is nothing you can do, as long as they have licenses and aren’t incarcerated. And unfortunately, they’re not crazy and can’t be declared incompetent.

        1. How do they still have licenses? Call their doctor and ask him/her to report to the DMV that they cannot drive. The DMV should send them a letter revoking the licenses and telling them they have to come to a hearing. I know you’ll say they’ll drive without licenses but something needs to be done. Call the police when they get in the car. Something. If they hurt or kill someone else, they’ll be facing jail time.

  5. It is an unfortunate fact that younger people and older people as groups both are a higher risk for travel companies, especially car rental agencies. The younger drivers because they don’t have the experience and the older ones because they don’t realize their abilities are diminished. But then there are some drivers in every age group that shouldn’t be driving as well as younger and older drivers that probably drive better than the average person and will never have an accident. Until the age groups improve their overall risk factors, rental car companies and insurance companies both will continue to charge more. If this is seen as discrimination by some, too bad because the world isn’t fair to everyone.

    My own mother, who is 82, still drives everywhere she needs and wants to. Since her cataract surgery, her vision is once again 20/20. She is in good health overall and has no signs of dementia or anything else that would reduce her alertness and ability to focus on driving. Because of this, I have complete confidence in her driving. On the other hand, a friend of hers who is only 68 scares me a lot. She has major medical issues and takes more different prescription drugs than can be counted every day and will fall asleep at random times even during a conversation. She feels this does not impact her driving ability. The state apparently agrees since she just renewed her license after she fell asleep at the counter when they were taking her picture!

    I feel it is just too easy to get and keep a driver license in the US and about half the people out there should not be driving anything at any time.

    1. But are they actually higher risk? They are certainly a higher risk to the insurance company but purchasing insurance is a separate transaction from renting the car itself. So the optional insurance should cost a little more but that is priced so high anyway that it probably would be somewhat insignificant. Certainly not $80/week

        1. It is optional to buy from the Rental Car agency, in most states it is NOT optional to drive a car without insurance. Certainly for states that do allow you to drive without insurance, I suspect it is NOT optional to rent a car that way. I’d say the rental company is covered either way

      1. Risk is risk. Insurance covers the loss, but doesn’t prevent the damage from occurring. Rental agencies only make money when they can rent the vehicles, not when they are sitting in the shop getting worked on. So if they are renting to someone who is statistically more likely to damage the vehicle, they have to charge for the risk involved.

        The optional insurance is designed to protect you the renter from any ridiculous claims the rental company makes.

    2. Do physicians in the U.S. not have a duty to report health conditions that will interfere with a person’s ability to drive safely? It is truly difficult when people’s sense of responsibility that should make them relinquish the keys voluntarily does not kick in.

      Two years ago, I drove a friend to the MOT to take the test for driver’s licence renewal for people over 80. I had prepared him rigorously for the test even teaching him how to use a computer. First, there was a class for 10 people with oral Q&As after, then a computer test, ending with a personal interview to find out about his lifestyle. He passed with flying colours and the interviewer commended him for his serious approach to the matter. Only then was he given the permit to go and renew his licence. This year when he came up for renewal again, he told me that he did not think he should be driving any longer and so he has retired from driving.

      While waiting for him that day, there were several 80+ people waiting their turn. They were talking about their reasons for needing renewals. There was one man of 88 who said that he was the only driver in the family. His wife had never had a licence and his son, in his 40s, was wheelchair bound. The father mentioned that the son used to be a high-powered advertising exec. who drove a Porsche. He was now back at home suffering from ALS and his elderly parents were taking care of him. The man vowed that that would be his last renewal.

      So I agree with you, age should not be the only determining factor.

  6. I would not want to share the road with 18 year olds and 80 year olds, operating cars with which they are unfamiliar. Where is the horn? How do I turn on the windshield wipers? Where is the bright light beam switch to get an oncoming vehicle to lower theirs? Add this rental car unfamiliarity to these high-risk age categories and it is an accident that is going to happen.

    I had elderly parents on the road. I know how dangerous it was. Age discrimination is a natural as making teens wait until 17 or 18 to drive a car by themselves.

  7. They don’t seem to put age discrimmination where one would want it, such as no babies in first/business class or no children in the business class lounges.

  8. Auto insurance companies work by associating risks. In general, there is more risk with an 18 yr old than a 30 yr old. I was also one of those people whose company had to pay a surcharge when I rented a car under 25. I also used to be treated differently than the gray-haired elites when I was in my early 20s. At one point, when I was doing a lot of flying on Delta, I had a red coat come up to me in ATL and ask “Are you a medallion?” I replied, “Yup. Gold.” She insisted on seeing my card to let me in the line.

  9. WOW – discrimination – It sounds almost evil.

    What it means is they look at facts and decide a course of action that makes sense for business.

    If they decide based on color, language spoken, or age, in this country we feel that’s bad but in many cultures it’s the norm.

    For a business, there are clues to likely outcomes in all sorts of criteria. Ever rent a car without a credit card? How about no Photo I.D.? Experience has shown, people without a credit card are more likely to be a problem for the rental agency.

    Ever fly with no I.D.? It’s a fact there were bad outcomes when passengers board without I.D.

    Remember, these are companies who are in business for profit (oops, that’s evil too according to some folks). and loose money on customers who crash cars.

  10. Oh, I voted no… but couldn’t see how others voted unless I made a choice. I have a mixed opinion.

    The underlying idea of insurance (whether self-insured or purchased by the rental agency) is a business which uses actuarial data. I must admit prejudice against youth and for age (I’m 79), but fair is fair. If the rental agencies/insurance companies can justify high rates based upon age, then
    rentals should be permitted but a premium paid.

    That’s what I did when my kids began to drive, and while there are
    always injustices when treating individuals as members of a heterogenic group,
    charging more to justify an increased group risk seems fair.

    I must say I’m delighted with TSA’s new rule that people over 75 need not take off their shoes. How that squares with terroristic risk I’m not sure. Israel border guards caught a pregnant woman trying to cross the border loaded with an explosive belt, and another time caught a mentally-challenged 12 year old trying to do the same thing.

  11. I haven’t seen any comments yet addressing the issue of package tours that discriminate based on age. Is it fair to not sell a tour to a fit, active, and healthy senior because the stereotype of age says they’re probably not going to fit in? or be able to keep up?

    As a volunteer trip leader for an environmental service organization I have seen 30 and 40 somethings who could not keep up with the work or hiking of some 60 and 70 year olds. Just goes to show you that putting blanket restrictions on package tour participation based on age are unfair and can keep people who have something to contribute from being on those trips.

    1. I agree.

      I have taken several trips with a tour company that stresses on every page of documentation, on every web page, and even makes you sign a form that states you are aware that you will walk a lot and have to stay in multi floor hotels that have no elevators. And still many people I have met on these trips, both older and younger than me, always say they weren’t told there would be so much walking or they thought they could walk X miles per day without problem. It is those people I feel the tour companies are truly trying to direct elsewhere, not the fit ones.
      As I get older, I am actually getting in better condition. I can walk three times as far today than I could 5 years ago before I get winded. Why? I got tired of being out of shape and the medical conditions I was starting to suffer from finally woke me up to the fact that I had to do something or I would be stuck at home alone missing out of travel. Am I a marathon runner? No. Never was and never will be. And I have probably reached a peak where I will not improve my conditioning no matter how much I work at it (after all age does eventually slow you down at some point). But I can now keep up with any walking tour I choose to join.

  12. To be honest, with so much out there in the public domain, I feel a person’s driving record could be a factor. Insurance companies can get their hands on our driving records in seconds, why not rental agencies?

    Someone can be 25 years or older but still be hell on wheels while someone who’s 24 can be one of the safest drivers out there.

    Just yesterday, I was sitting at an intersection just putting my foot on the gas pedal to turn left when an older man on a motocycle shot past me and three other cars on the left to beat me to the turn. Had I not been as aware as I was, I would have hit him. Had he not been such a narcissistic jerk, he wouldn’t have put me in that position.

    Age doesn’t negate stupidity.

  13. IMO, if there are financial implications associated with differences in age then the provider should be able to take that into account (a principal which I recognize is becoming less and less acceptable). BTW when I get a senior discount (I am now over 62), is that age discrimination?

    1. No. The senior discount is designed to get seniors to spend money they wouldn’t normally.

      Many seniors would not have dinner at some restaurants or go to movies or shop at certain retailers because they feel it is too expensive. The senior discount makes up for that.

  14. A couple thoughts….

    The term discrimination is a loaded word. Most of us have an instinctive gut reaction, and rightfully so. However, discrimination by itself isn’t a problem, its when the discrimination has no bearing to the target activity or has an evil purpose then it must be squashed. However, as I mentioned, because of the appropriately negative association with the term, we generally don’t make the difference.

    Some example of socially and legally permission discrimination: Women pay more for health insurance but less for auto insurance. Young people pay less in health insurance but more in automobile insurance.

    In both scenarios, the discrimination works for you one time, in another against you. Its just pure statistical data. No evil motives. Discrimination is generally socially and legally bad when it has three criteria.1) the group is well defined (race, gender,e tc.), 2) leaving the group is hard, and 3) the group is often discriminated against.

    So, I have no problem with a travel provider “disciminating” against travelers as long as its for a legitimate business purpose and doesn’t our American sensibilities, i.e. never based on race, national original, religion, etc.

  15. If car rental companies cared about their customers, then they would implement a refund policy on their insurance if you do not incur any damage during your rental..
    Sure, charge the additional fees. But when the underage customer returns the vehicle with no damage, refund most or all of the “insurance”. Otherwise it’s just gambling.

    1. Insurance doesn’t work that way. Everyone pays the given rate and the resulting pool of funds is used to pay for those who have damage that is covered. If insurance was refunded to those not having damage, then the pool of funds would not exist and you would have to pay the full cost of repairing the damage. Yes, insurance is a gamble, but it is reversed from Vegas style gambling – you are betting you WILL have an accident when you take out insurance and the insurance company is betting you won’t.

      Maybe the rental companies could institute a frequent renter benefit where if you rented X number of times a year from them and did not have damage claims they could give you full coverage at no extra cost or highly reduced cost. Since they know you and your driving style, they can assume you won’t wreck their vehicles if you haven’t so far.

  16. When I first started working in the UK for a large well known computer company I often had to rent a car, and I was 18 (working before university). I don’t think there should be a minimum (or maximum) age as long as the person is legally allowed to drive.

    1. If you company was signed up for a corporate account with a car company, you could have been on the account and able to rent a car. If this was a well known computer company, I would be surprised if they didn’t have this set up and you just didn’t know about it or were not advised about it.
      I wouldn ‘t let an 18 year old drive my car…including my own 18 year old kids, so I fully understand the reason for age requirements.

      1. My parents let me drive their cars when I was 17. In fact that was the only way I would get to drive a car since they wouldn’t spoil me by buying me my own car and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy one. That was in the UK by the way and the rules may have been different there and then. I am nearly 50 and I remember that this age restriction was added sometime in the last 30 years.

    1. Can you share the risk ladder you are referring to?

      According to the ones I found (linked below) a 20 to 24 year old pays (on average) almost 20% more for their own auto insurance than a 25 to 29 year old.

      But when renting a car, the 24 year-old can incur daily surcharges that correspond to triple the cost of LDW+SLI for a 25 year-old.

      Meanwhile, a 25 to 29 year old pays (on average) 45+% more for their own auto insurance than a 60 to 64 year old and 40+% more than a 75+ year old. Yet, when renting a car, those age groups all pay exactly the same rate for a rental car in the U.S. (and it’s actually the 75+ year old who is often discriminated against outside the U.S.).

  17. We cannot lay too much blame at the doors of car rental companies. Nor can we blame the insurance underwriters. Facts are facts. Both groups present increased risks for insurers and someone has to pay. Who, you might ask? The consumer will always pay to cover any additional risk.

    We can only hope that someday the insurance industry as a whole will find some other way to handle discrimination of all kinds – on the basis of age, weight, health status, etc.

  18. I feel that car rental companies are providing a public service, in this case a conveyance; and it should be handled/regulate as any other transportation method–buses or trains. Risk should be factored in across the board. If we choose another type of business, say, a restaurant; are young people more likely to tear up it up? Can you surcharge them for that additional risk? And the old folks? They sit too long and linger after their meal costing the restaurant money. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a bus has 100 seats and is at capacity with 100-lb people; if we compare how efficiently the bus runs then as opposed to when it is filled with 300-lb people then we might be persuaded to charge the heavier people more. Should buses, taxis, and trains have scales? Some will say that we’re really talking about risk to property and therefore the companies’ policies stand, but risk always translates into money (it’s the only way to measure it!) and so that is a bogus argument. Further, the outright denial of service because of age should be ruled illegal in every instance. There exist any number of 23-year-olds who are far better drivers than any number of 77-year-olds, and besides, we’re essentially talking about insurance here. The main principle of all insurance is to share risk and it should be employed here–fully.

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