Sunday, February 20, 2011

Disadvantage Car Rental

In my travels over the last few years, I've found that all car rental agencies offer essentially the same makes and models, so the choice of who to do business with comes down to price and service. Often, I'll book through Hotwire, which doesn't tell you which company you're using until you agree to pay up front. It could be Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Alamo, etc. -- but it doesn't matter because the vehicle choices will be so similar.

One company that's not included in those deals is Advantage Car Rental, which I have used several times (mostly in Las Vegas), because their prices have been consistently lower than even the Hotwire competition. That's why I booked through them for my current trip to Florida.

I'm sorry I did.

When I arrived Thursday at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, I went straight to the Advantage counter, gave my reservation information to the clerk, and was promptly told that they didn't have a car for me. When I showed him the printed confirmation e-mail, he said, "That was for noon. It's now 4pm, and we have given your car to someone else."

True, I had made the reservation from noon that day until noon on Monday because that's when I was going to arrive and depart, but a few weeks ago, I switched my flight to a later Southwest non-stop. Because it was only a matter of a few hours, I didn't even think about updating my car reservation. The Advantage clerk told me that this was not his problem, and that he had no cars available. I asked how long they held the car before giving it away, and he said, "One hour."

I asked what the company does when passengers arrive late through no fault of their own, like a flight that's been delayed due to weather or mechanical problems. He said, "That's not my problem. If you don't pick up the car within an hour of the reservation, your reservation is cancelled and we have the option of giving the car to someone else."

Option. That's an important word here, which I'll explain in a minute.

President's Day weekend is very busy in south Florida because kids are out of school and families from the north and midwest want to get away from the horrid winter they've lived through. Thus, none of the other major car rental agencies had cars available, either. At the Budget counter, they did have a few vehicles, but the price for my four-day rental would be over $1,000 -- way higher than the $163 deal I'd booked with Advantage.

I used my Kayak app to try to locate another rental car in the area at a non-airport location. Nothing, anywhere. So, I went back to the Advantage counter to talk to the manager and plead my case. He was even more of a jerk, adamantly refusing to give me a car. He was also giving the same line to two couples whose Advantage reservations were also not being honored.

At one point, I interrupted him and raised my voice, and he said, "Sir, if you talk to me like that, there's no chance I'll give you a car." Amazed, I replied, "Do you mean that if I calm down, you do have a car for me?" He quickly said, "No, we have no cars." So I responded, "Then it doesn't matter what I say or how loudly I say it, your company is still screwing us."

Here's what he didn't say, but was really going on. The Advantage personnel saw an opportunity to make more money by canceling the cheaper reservations (regardless of how long ago we'd booked them) and re-renting those cars to people who had arrived without reservations but were willing to pay exorbitant prices for those vehicles. I think the word is gouging.

They had us over a barrel. I decided to cough up the extra money, but was certainly not going to do it with Advantage. Instead, I found the counter for a local company, Royal Auto, where a very nice woman told me they had exactly two cars left -- a Lincoln Town Car and a new Volvo SUV, either of which I could have would have for four days at a rate of about $800.

That's a helluva lot of money, but I had to have a car for the weekend, and there were literally no other choices. I wasn't going to chauffeur myself around in a Lincoln Town Car, so I took the Volvo. I figured I'd just have to cover the expense with my winnings from the World Series Of Poker Circuit Event I was here to attend (and I did, thanks to some very juicy cash games on Saturday).

As she was doing the paperwork, I told her what I'd been through with Advantage. She was shocked that they'd given away my car after only a few hours, saying that she used to work for two bigger car rental agencies, and none of them would have treated me like that, nor would the small one that currently employed her. Her best line: "I guess they don't care about their customers, only their money."

Bottom line: I've learned two lessons. One is to make sure that my car reservations match up exactly with when my flight is schedule to arrive. The other is to never do business with Advantage again.