Why do I have to pay $308 for my rental car?

Tanya Panetti and her father-in-law reserved rental cars for a family trip to Orlando, Fla., at the same time – but were charged amounts that differed wildly from the confirmations they received.

Panetti doesn’t understand why. She’s asked our advocates to help her find out – and to make the difference go away.

Panetti’s story is yet another example of why car rental customers need to pay close attention to the contracts they sign, down to the tiniest print. We were able to help her with the first part of her request, but not the second.

So why were the rental car charges so far apart? And why can’t we get rid of the price differential for her?

Panetti and her father-in-law made their reservations two months in advance with the Orlando International Airport location of Signature Car Rental through Kayak.com, an online travel website that is geared toward helping travelers find great deals on airfares, hotel costs, and car rentals. Both reservations were for $105.

On the day of arrival in Orlando, Panetti called Signature to confirm her family’s reservations and was told that “everything was in good order.” But when they arrived at the Signature facility to pick up their cars, there were no cars available. Instead, Signature’s agent offered the Panettis vehicles from another car rental company at the Orlando airport for the same price and gave them a number to call.

When Panetti called the number, the agent to whom she spoke offered her a vehicle from Firefly, another car rental agency, after a 30-minute discussion. She informed Panetti that she would “pay a small amount more” but would be reimbursed for the extra cost within 24 hours. The agent also provided Panetti with the email address for the president of Firefly, Clark Girges.

Firefly, it turned out, charged more than “a small amount more” than Signature had confirmed to the Panettis. Their rates had gone up to $308 and $309 respectively — a financial hardship for the family.

Panetti called Firefly and requested to speak to a manager about the price differential, but was not permitted to do so. She then emailed Girges to request assistance. He responded promptly, asking for copies of the Panettis’ receipts. Panetti sent him the copies — and never heard from him again.

She then filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but her case was closed as “unresolved.” In addition, she continued to call Firefly with no success. At that point, Panetti turned to our advocates.

We can’t blame Panetti for believing that she and her father-in-law shouldn’t have had to pay more for their cars from Firefly. It’s standard car rental industry practice not to charge customers extra for replacement rental cars when the cars they reserved turned out to be unavailable.

Unfortunately, Signature’s rental agreement terms and conditions contain no language at all legally obligating Signature to provide rental cars in accordance with confirmed reservations – or to charge the rates listed in those confirmations.

And Firefly’s qualifications and requirements emphasize that Firefly is not legally obligated to “fulfill confirmed reservations, subject to … vehicle availability and satisfaction by renters of the relevant Renting Company’s then-applicable rental qualifications and requirements” among other conditions.

So neither Signature nor Firefly was legally required to limit its rental charges to the amounts in the confirmations.

Our advocates reached out to Signature on Panetti’s behalf, and learned that Firefly had upsold Panetti and her father-in-law for additional items. That raised the charges from the original rates, which were very close to the rates the Panettis had confirmed with Signature.

We also learned that Panetti disputed the additional charges on her credit card.

In the meantime, Signature has refused to respond to our contacts. So for now at least, her story is going in the “Case Dismissed” file.

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