Dollar didn’t have my rental car — but it still charged me $82!

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By Christopher Elliott

Dollar doesn’t have the rental car Beth Bonness reserved in Atlanta, but that’s not stopping it from charging her $82. Can it do that? And how does she get a refund?


I recently rented a car from Dollar at the Atlanta airport. When I arrived at the airport, there was a four-hour wait for a car. There were no computer or weather issues. If I had continued waiting, I would have missed my wedding rehearsal. I tried to resolve the problem by calling the 800-number, but I could not. So I left and rented from a different company. 

Since I had prepaid for the rental, Dollar charged me $82 for the car, anyway.

I reached out to Dollar on Twitter, and a representative offered me a $50 coupon and a credit for the rental that expires in just a few months. I’d rather get my $82 back. I paid for a rental car at a certain time, and Dollar could not deliver it. I should not have to pay for the car. Can you help me? — Beth Bonness, Portland, Ore.


Dollar shouldn’t have charged you for a car it couldn’t deliver. And when you pointed out the problem, the company should have promptly refunded the $82 — not offered you an expiring credit.

What happened to your rental? I wasn’t there when you arrived at the airport. But there have been widespread reports of car rental shortages, especially on busy weekends and holidays. The reason: Car rental companies routinely accept more reservations than they have cars, anticipating that some customers will be no-shows. When everyone shows up, they have a problem. (Related: Dollar raised my rate from $105 to $431 — but why?)

What’s especially problematic is when you prepay for your rental. That means you pay Dollar for the car when you reserve it, and in exchange for a lower rate, your reservation becomes nonrefundable (the discount is usually 15 to 20 percent). You should reasonably expect Dollar to hold a car for you, since it has already received your money. But this time, with a four-hour wait, it simply ran out of vehicles.

What you need to know about nonrefundable car rental reservations

Nonrefundable car rental reservations have become common in the last decade. Many rental companies offer discounted rates for prepayment. While these deals may seem appealing, they come with strict policies that could make you pay for a car you can’t use. (Related: Oh no! Thrifty charged me an extra $250 for a car rental upgrade. Can I get a refund?)

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Here are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  • What is “nonrefundable”? A nonrefundable reservation means that you won’t receive a refund if you cancel or modify your booking. Even if you need to change your plans because of unforeseen circumstances, the car rental company may still charge you the entire amount.
  • There are exceptions in the fine print. Some rental companies might allow changes to your reservation, such as modifying the dates or vehicle type. But you may have to pay extra. Check the company’s policy before you make your booking to determine if there are any such loopholes. (Here’s our guide to renting a car.)
  • The cancellation policy may be different, too. Review the cancellation policy carefully. It may differ from the nonrefundable policy. Some rental companies charge a cancellation fee, which can range from a percentage of the total cost to a flat rate. (Related: A bizarre Thrifty car rental damage bribe: $35 to make this chipped windshield go away!)
  • Everything is a negotiation. Life is unpredictable. Sometimes, your plans change. If you must alter your itinerary, check with the rental agency to see if it can accommodate your new schedule. You might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal.
  • Beware of third-party booking sites. Companies like Expedia or may have different policies and fees than direct bookings with the rental company. Review the terms and conditions before finalizing your reservation

Bottom line: Yes, you can save money with a nonrefundable reservation, but significant restrictions may apply. If you can’t live with that, prepare to negotiate — or accept the extra fees or a total loss of your rental.

How you could have avoided this

How do you avoid a situation like this? First, consider booking a non-pre-paid reservation. You might be able to get the same savings by shopping around for a better rate. You can also find discounts through AAA or your favorite club warehouse. To ensure your car is available, consider renting a car at a less busy time (Friday afternoons tend to get crowded, for example, and Wednesday mornings are quieter). 

But for you, letting a representative know that you couldn’t wait four hours — and getting that representative’s name — would have probably saved you a world of trouble. Dollar marked you as a no-show and kept your money, which it is allowed to do. If you had spoken with an employee at the Atlanta location, they might have authorized a refund. (If you booked through an online travel agency or travel advisor, you could also contact them to handle the refund.) I wouldn’t have just walked away from the rental location knowing that Dollar had $82 of my hard-earned money.

Will you get a refund?

It looks like you appealed this to an executive at Hertz, the parent company of Dollar. (I list the Hertz executive contacts on my consumer advocacy site, But the company would not issue a refund. Sometimes, even a meticulous paper trail and a polite request aren’t enough. And while my methods for resolving a customer service dispute are highly effective, they don’t work every time. (Related: Got a customer complaint? Here’s how to contact the CEO directly.)

You reached out to my consumer advocacy organization, and I contacted Hertz on your behalf. The company apologized to you, issued a full refund for the $82 and let you keep the $50 credit as a “goodwill gesture.” 

About this story

I have to admit, this was a new kind of case. Bonness had a nonrefundable reservation, but how long did Dollar expect her to wait for her car? And that made me wonder: Is there a reasonable amount of time to wait for a car? (See poll below.) I researched, wrote and fact-checked this story. Many thanks to Andy Smith and his team for the editing help and to Dustin Elliott for the art.

If you have a nonrefundable car rental reservation, how long should you wait before receiving a refund?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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