“Misled and overcharged” by Budget

When Nickolle Preaseau’s rental car has a flat tire, Budget tells her that they will pick up the car and bring her a new one — but doesn’t warn her about the charges. Then they send her an invoice for $550, which she thinks is unreasonably high. Can our advocates get Budget to eliminate the charge?

Question: I rented a car from Budget, but one of the tires went flat while I was driving it. In accordance with my contract and the instructions on my key fob, I called Budget’s Roadside Assistance telephone number. Budget’s Roadside Assistance representative informed me that Budget would send someone to pick up the car, drive it to another location over an hour away from where I was, and return with a new car.

I had other options available to me, including American Automobile Association (AAA)’s roadside assistance, but Budget’s representative seemed happy to handle the situation.

However, Budget’s representative did not inform me that I would be charged for roadside service provided by Budget. This information was also not made available to me in my contract. I received an invoice from Budget for the flat tire for $550. I don’t think I should have to pay such a high amount with no advance warning, especially since I was prepared to use other options. Can you help me get this charge reduced or eliminated? — Nickolle Preaseau, New York

Answer: I’m very sorry for your experience. Receiving an invoice for car repairs after turning in a rental car is nobody’s idea of a pleasant road trip.

It’s understood in car rental contracts that the renter is responsible for any damages to their rental cars while the cars are in their possession, including flat tires. But the repair rates should have been clearly disclosed to you — if not when you signed the contract, then at the time you were offered Budget’s Roadside Assistance service. You should not have been taken by surprise at Budget’s Roadside Assistance charges.

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It sounds as though Budget’s Roadside Assistance representative subjected you to a hard-sell treatment, which left you feeling obligated to accept it over your other options. Budget’s Roadside Assistance service is a fee-based service, and renters are responsible for flat tires unless they contract for insurance from Budget that offers coverage for flat tires. We’ve noted in recent articles on this site that repair fees constitute a major source of revenue for car rental agencies, which may be why Budget’s representative wanted you to accept it.

You mention that AAA’s 24-hour roadside assistance service was an option. AAA’s OnBoard program requires that members install devices on their cars that sends feedback to AAA as to mileage driven and the conditions of their cars, but it allows this device to be installed on rental cars as well as cars owned by its members. AAA’s website does list some charges for certain types of repairs, but it does not mention any charges for flat tire changes or repairs — and you could have used it with your Budget rental.

Out of curiosity about whether you would have had a similar experience with any other car rental agency, I checked out the websites of the Drive Alliance (Enterprise, National and Alamo), Hertz, and Avis in addition to that of Budget.

Not all car rental agreements are created equal. Of all these rental agencies, Budget and Alamo are the only companies that mention flat tires or roadside assistance on their websites, none of which provide information as to charges for repairs or other roadside assistance. But contacts at Enterprise tell us that renters are only charged for tires in instances of rim damage.  Also, if Enterprise renters are members of AAA and can get the car towed to a Firestone location, Firestone will replace the flat and bill Enterprise for the replacement tire, with no charges to the renter for towing or tire replacement.

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Our advocates contacted Budget on your behalf. Budget reduced the “exorbitant” amount of the charge from $550 to $80, which you agreed to pay.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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