How my rental went from $0 to $1,200 — reader mistake story

Nov 25, 2019

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Greg, who was surprised with an unexpected charge when picking up a rental car:

This past summer, I took my recently retired parents on a cruise through Alaska. Once we ported in Seward and made our way up to Anchorage, the plan was to pick up a rental car from Avis and travel onward to Denali for a few days. I had made a reservation months in advance using 5,600 Avis Preferred points for a full-sized SUV.

Once I arrived at the Avis counter in the Anchorage airport, the agent confirmed the dates of my reservation and asked me to confirm the details on the screen. Luckily, I reviewed the information closely and saw the total for the rental was almost $1,200 — not the $0 charge I was expecting. I thought it might just be a formality to show how much the rental would have cost if I had not used points, so I asked the agent about it before signing. She told me that Avis location was a franchise office and did not participate in the Avis Preferred program.

Confused, I pulled up my reservation on my phone to confirm that I had used points and the total owed was $0. The agent then said this happens all the time; their system does not accept points reservations, and instead converts them to the full rate. She said my options were to cancel the reservation and ask for my points back from Avis or to accept the price of the rental. After a few moments of panic, I began checking other options on my phone. Luckily, I was able to reserve a car with a different agency for about one third of the cost. That was still a $400 charge I was not expecting, but I was happy for us to be on our way.

Once I returned from Alaska, I spent nearly a month of back and forth with Avis attempting to get my points credited to my account. I had no idea there are franchise Avis locations that do not accept points, and would not have been able to anticipate a problem just by looking at my confirmation. I still rent with Avis, but I have learned to double and triple check any points reservations.

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Greg’s mistake (if you want to call it that) is failing to thoroughly check the terms of Avis Preferred award rentals. Loyalty programs have rules, and it’s incumbent upon us as members and travelers to understand them. Avis does keep a (not easy to find) list of non-participating locations that includes the Anchorage airport office, so the relevant information was available if Greg wanted to dig for it. That said, this story illustrates some level of dysfunction on Avis’ part, as you simply shouldn’t be able to book with points at locations where booking with points isn’t allowed. Confirming such reservations in the first place is asinine.

Greg deserves credit for reviewing the rental contract and not simply signing what was presented to him. Looking over the terms is a tedious but crucial step, and foregoing it can be costly. Even if you’re in a hurry, you should take time to examine agreements put in front of you by travel providers (or anyone really). Make sure they appear as you expect with no hidden fees or restrictions, and don’t be shy about voicing objections and pointing out when something is amiss. You’ll have greater leverage before you sign to address concerns or walk away if you’re getting a raw deal.

One strategy that may have helped Greg is to make a backup reservation, which I do whenever I book a rental car — since rental agencies seem to feel no compunction over failing to honor reservations, neither do I. Having a backup gives you options at a prenegotiated price; if one agency tries to pull shenanigans, you can simply take your business elsewhere without having to panic about paying last-minute rates. Even when you don’t have a backup, Greg’s story is a good reminder to shop around if the deal in front of you has gone sour.

Related: How to save money on car rentals with Autoslash

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Greg a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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