Currency confusion and the car

Q: Avis overcharged me for a one-month car rental in England, and I’ve had absolutely no luck in getting the error removed. I’m hoping you can help.

I booked the car rental through the British Airways Web site. When I arrived at the rental counter, I gave the employee my U.S. driver’s license and my U.K. credit card.

Avis’ computers were down when I returned the car, so the agent couldn’t give me a receipt. You can imagine my surprise when I checked my Visa statement and found that Avis had converted my U.K. pounds into dollars because I had used my U.S. license. As a result, I paid an extra $124 for my car.

I called Avis’ customer service number, which was a complete waste of time. I also sent them an e-mail, but I have heard nothing back from them, nor have I even received an acknowledgment of my message. Can you get my money back?

— Laura Cattell, Houston

A: Avis should have charged you in the currency it specified when you signed your car rental contract. But what did you agree to?

The Avis contract should have offered a choice of currencies — yours or theirs. But if you didn’t make a selection, and there is no record that you did, its reservations system would have defaulted to the currency of your country of residence. So if you live in America, you would be charged in American dollars even if you are a British citizen renting a car in Britain with a credit card issued in the United Kingdom, which pays the bill in pounds.

That would mean your pounds would be converted into dollars and then back into pounds, incurring a processing fee of up to 3 percent each time. That doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t think any reasonable person would expect you to pay that.

Determining the Avis policy on currency conversions is maddeningly difficult. The terms and conditions on its Web site contain separate contracts for different parts of the world, and it is utterly confusing when it comes to the subject of currency conversion.

According to the European contract, the rate of exchange used for any currency conversion will be “conclusively determined by Avis.” I take that to mean the company can basically do whatever it wants, but I’ve been assured that it doesn’t. In fact, Avis’ policy in Britain is to give renters a choice of paying in the currency of their native country or in pounds. An agent should have reviewed those options with you when you picked up your car.

Currency conversions are a tricky business in the best of circumstances. Credit cards charge a fee, and travel companies often do, too. If you don’t pay attention, you could rack up a lot of surcharges without realizing it. Any time you plan to cross the border, it is important to check with your credit card and travel company to make sure you’re using the payment option that allows you to avoid unnecessary surcharges.

I checked with Avis to get its side of the story. According to its records, an agent explained the charges to you in a phone conversation a few weeks ago, but that you “then hung up the phone on one of our representatives,” according to a spokeswoman. That may be why Avis never responded to your follow-up e-mail.

Needless to say, hanging up on a phone agent doesn’t help your case. Travel companies can attach notes to your reservation that follow you around like a rap sheet. A little politeness sometimes dramatically improves your chances of resolving a dispute.

Avis refunded the $124 in fees as a gesture of good will.

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