How can I make Avis refund this surprise $4,228 car rental charge?

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By Christopher Elliott

Avis blindsided Claudia Lockwood with a $4,228 surprise charge after her last car rental experience.

She thought she’d done everything right and expected no problems. She brought the car back to the correct lot and left the keys in the vehicle, as instructed. Lockwood even saved her gas receipt that showed she had filled the tank before returning the Ford Edge SUV.

Not much good it did her. One month later, Avis claimed she still had the rental car in her possession. This, even though she had proof that she’d flown to Germany (without the car, of course) soon after the end of her car rental contract.

So will she just be stuck paying Avis this $4,228 upcharge?

Lockwood’s case pulls back the curtain on how we operate here at Elliott Advocacy. Behind the scenes, we don’t always agree on how to advocate a case. That’s good for Lockwood because it made us take a second, third, and even a fourth look at the specifics of her grievance with Avis — and to come up with an improbable resolution.

Here’s how Avis gave its customer a $4,228 surprise

Lockwood returned her rental car to Tweed New Haven Airport in Connecticut after driving up from Washington, D.C.

“The Avis counter was closed,” she explains. “So I called them and did the rental handover by phone. A representative asked me for the number on the key. I asked if he needed anything else from me, and he said no.”

Lockwood didn’t hear back from Avis for a few days — no receipt, no verbal confirmation — so she called the company again.

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“Once again, a representative assured me that Avis had closed my contract,” she says.

But Lockwood wanted something in writing, so she followed up a few more times. But the car rental company sent her nothing.

Then, the shocker. A month later, Avis sent her a $4,228 bill, “because it claims I kept the car for 34 days.”

But did she?

“No, Avis, I did not fly to Germany with this rental car!”

Lockwood did not have the rental car. In fact, she moved to Berlin two weeks after returning the Avis vehicle.

“Also, the odometer from the rental closure invoice reads as if the vehicle has been sitting in the New Haven airport rental car lot this entire time,” she says.

Lockwood submitted gas receipts showing she filled the tank in New Haven before returning the car.

“But the evidence doesn’t seem to be enough for Avis,” she adds. “Can you help me?”

Good news! Avis is going to refund your charges. But …

This looked like a simple misunderstanding. Lockwood had done everything she could to return her vehicle according to Avis’ instructions. The fact that its system didn’t register the car as returned wasn’t her problem.

So I reached out to Avis. And within a day, I heard back from the car rental company with what seemed like good news:

We have received a reply from our Operations Manager. By way of explanation, our customers are responsible for all rental charges until the car and keys are checked in with an authorized ABG employee.

We have been advised that the car keys were dropped in the vehicle. The car was not parked in an Avis Budget parking lot. The vehicle was found on January 18, 2022. At that time the contract was closed.

As a gesture of goodwill our Customer Service Team refunded the late fee billed on the rental and discounted the rental. The credit of $614.21 has been issued to the client’s Visa account. The credit will post to the account within 3-5 days.

Then an Avis representative contacted Lockwood with even better news. The company would issue a full refund.

Or at least that’s what she thought.

This Avis refund is not quite what it appears

But someone somewhere got their wires crossed. Only a day after receiving the good news, Lockwood was back to square one.

She writes,

There has been an unfortunate turn of events with my refund with Avis. Apparently, [my refund] was rejected the day after I received email confirmation that my refund would be issued in 5-7 business days.

After an hour on the call with an Avis supervisor, the only refund they can offer me is $614.21, which I accepted because I felt backed into a corner and it seemed like the only option at this point.

Avis told me the refund will show up in 3-5 business days, however, I do not trust it based on my last experience. Avis is adamant that my case is closed and there is no further action on their end because the car was not returned to their lot. This is not accurate because there is only one rental car location with no differentiation between rental car companies.

At this point, is there anything else I can do to negotiate a refund? From my perspective, it seems like Avis is not being honest with the process and information they need, taking way too long to respond, and trying to take my money when I’ve done everything they’ve told me to do. Do you recommend I dispute the charge with my credit card company?

This “resolution” still left a balance of about $3,614. And Avis wasn’t going to let this go, even after my team asked. (Related: He got into an accident in his Avis car. Why won’t the company take back the vehicle?)

“We have reviewed your case,” a representative told her in a follow-up email. “Unfortunately, we were unable to find any discrepancies in our system regarding the return date. At this time we are unable to make any corrections or issue any further credit to your account.”

What should we do?

If the records at Avis show that she didn’t return her rental car to the correct lot a goodwill refund of $614 seemed like a decent gesture. Should we just let this one go?

Our team got into a little bit of a debate behind the scenes. Avis has a reputation for being unyielding in a situation like this, so I felt that Lockwood wouldn’t get more than the initial refund.

First, does Avis allow after-hours returns? Turns out this location does not.

So we’re already operating outside of Avis policies. But Lockwood’s rental car contract with Avis confirmed a return after hours. How did the reservation system even allow this?

Why did Avis allow this customer to book a reservation to return the car rental before hours?
This location doesn’t allow after/before hours drop off according to its website. So why did Avis allow this confirmed return of the rental car before the location opened at 1 pm?

And did she return the vehicle to Avis when she says she did? Her gas receipt says yes. And a screenshot of her phone suggests she did, too.

After requesting additional details from Lockwood, we decided to press Avis for further review. (We’ll get to the result of that inquiry in a moment)

How to return a car after hours

You might be wondering: How do you return a rental car after hours?

The quick answer is: You shouldn’t. Returning a vehicle to a closed location increases the risk of something going wrong — like the rental company losing the car and charging you.

Beyond that, here are a few pointers:

  • Bookmark my ultimate guide to renting a car. To reduce any chance that you’ll get blindsided by surprise charges, review all the information in my comprehensive guide to car rentals.
  • Blaze a paper trail. Make sure you get gas receipts, photos of the car in the lot (Lockwood didn’t have any, unfortunately) and phone records that show you returned the vehicle when you said you did.
  • Take a picture of the odometer. An image of the odometer at the moment you returned it would go a long way toward proving you returned the vehicle when you claim you did.
  • Get a receipt in writing as soon as possible. A return receipt also proves you returned the car when you said you did. You may have to call the company to ask for the receipt, as Lockwood did, but you need evidence that you returned the car. Without it, the company could keep charging you.

As with so many situations we encounter in the travel industry, you are guilty until proven innocent. So if the car rental company can’t find your rental (even if it merely makes a minimal effort), it can and will charge you until it finds the vehicle.

But back to Lockwood’s problem.

Elliott Advocacy investigates: It looks like this Avis location made a mistake

So we sent an additional request for review over to our executive contact at Avis. We included an image of the parking lot where she had returned the car. Kinda hard to lose car here, don’t you think?

How could Avis be unable to find a rental car on this lot for over a month?
Why was Avis unable to find its rental car for over a month on this tiny lot?

The really good news! Here’s your full Avis refund

When Avis reviewed this additional evidence, it decided to reverse course and refund all of Lockwood’s late charges.

None of this should have been necessary. The Avis reservation system shouldn’t have allowed her to return the vehicle during off-hours. It should have registered her car as returned and sent her a receipt, as she requested. But these days, when you rent a car, you can’t assume anything will happen as it is supposed to.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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