Orbitz Car Rental: Dig deep to find all charges

Booking a rental car online for a European trip is pretty simple; enter your dates and locations and bingo, you’ve got a list of car categories from which to choose. Pick one, enter your name and email address…a credit card is often not required…and you’re all set. Maybe. And maybe you’re all set to get taken to the cleaners when you get to the rental counter…or even before.

This is Stanley’s story. He’s now our customer, but he started at Orbitz where he found a price of $944 for a midsize car from Budget for 31 days from Vienna. He wants to rely on his credit card for collision and theft insurance (LDW, loss damage waiver) but at the Orbitz Website he could have checked a prominent box on the booking page that offered Global Assistance Rental Car Damage Protector insurance from a a third-party, Allianz, for $9 per day for 32 days (this is a 31-day rental but Alliance counts every calendar day). The insurance would thus be an additional $288. Wanting additional info, Stanley decided to click the “Learn More” link where he found these words under the heading Satisfaction Guaranteed: "Within 10 days of purchasing the program, Allianz Global Assistance will process a full refund of premium to you, as long as you have not already departed on your trip or filed a claim. No refunds shall be paid to you after 10 days of purchasing the program.” So, if Stanley had purchased the insurance and then canceled the rental car more than 10 days after booking it, Allianz would keep his $288. Indeed, they would get his money without providing any coverage or taking any risk.

But what does it cover?

When we looked at the site, try as we might, we couldn’t find out what was covered by Allianz and what was not. It is typical for car rental insurance to exclude a laundry list of vehicle items such as wheels, side mirrors, glass, interior, undercarriage, and sometimes even the roof. We tried the “Terms and Conditions” link that leads to a page that asks the user to choose his or her state of residence. That in turns links to a PDF document that describes what the buyer will find in the “letter of confirmation” that “came with your package.” So no info on the Website. You wait for a letter. The buyer must therefor commit to the insurance with knowing much about it…such as what it covers and what it does not…it’s all in the letter of confirmation. (Let’s hope the letter comes before the 10 day cancellation period is over.)

Big cost to travel East

But Stanley smartly chose not to buy the insurance and instead to rely on his credit card which covers nearly everything on the car…with no deductible. Also by this time he was getting a bit worried and began to probe the Website for the boilerplate fine print. He discovered, for example, a 10 euro/per day (310 euros/$335) charge for traveling into Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, or Hungary. Travel to Poland and other eastern counties is not possible. In addition, said the boilerplate, LDW must be purchased if the car is to be driven into any eastern country. So forget the credit card insurance. How much is LDW? For the intermediate (IDMR) sedan the cost is a whopping 26.67 euros per day or 841 euros ($879) for the 31 days, nearly as much as the car costs. Of course there is a 750 euro deductible which means Stanley pays the first $810 of any damage charges.

Purchase of LDW required?

Then the bombshell. Under the “car rental rules” link on the booking page are another 15 links. One of them is ”Collision Damage Waiver.” This page lists the daily prices for LDW (CDW and theft) and ends with this text: “RENTAL CANNOT TAKE PLACE WITHOUT LDW. IF LDW IS NOT INCLUDED INT THE RATE CLIENT HAS TO ACCEPT A LDW AT TIME OF RENTAL.” (sic) There is no reference here to travel east, just the flat statement that without the customer buying LDW (in this case $879 worth) there will be no rental. Where the third-party Allianz insurance figures into the equation is not clear. Is that the LDW “included in the rate”? Not mentioned. From this it appears that whether or not he will drive to Hungary, credit card or not, Stanley must purchase LDW. He wanted a clarification from Orbitz but couldn’t find a phone number on their Website.

Hard realities at the rental counter

It appears that if Stanley had merely booked the car online without spending considerable time to explore the links that lead to the many pages of fine print, he may have found himself at the rental counter being forced to come up with an additional $335 for his Hungary visit and another $879 for LDW insurance. A nice dent in the fender would have meant shelling out $810 for the deductible. His total would have been nearly $3,000. He came to us, however, and paid just over $1600 plus a one-time 42 euro fee for traveling to eastern countries. He was able to rely on his credit card for collision and theft insurance and got much better zero-deductible coverage. Stanley’s not headed for Vienna until early July but he can cancel the rental car for a full refund right up until it’s time to sign the rental contract at the rental counter.

Simple as it seems, renting a car is possibly the most fraught with financial peril of all European travel transactions.

Question from a potential customer: What can I do to protect myself from unethical conduct by car rental companies who can make any claim and charge my credit card after I am back in North America?

Answer: First of all, your credit card protects you against erroneous, improper charges. You can dispute any questionable charge and not pay it until the matter is resolved. The credit card company will require the rental company to prove the charge is correct. That usually means the rental company shows the credit card company a copy of the customer's signature on the rental contract, thereby authorizing the charge.

The suppliers Gemut.com deals with...more than 90% of our bookings are with Hertz, Avis, Europcar...are not unethical. Their employees, however, sometimes make mistakes and a tiny percentage may try to take advantage of unsuspecting and unprepared customers by selling them extra, unnecessary insurance or other services. Our customers are also protected by a voucher which establishes the charges as well as the rental's terms and conditions. In addition, if there are erroneous post-rental charges, we will deal with the supplier on the customer's behalf and obtain a refund. Of course, if the customer signs a contract at the rental counter that, for example, calls for additional insurance, that makes it a legitimate charge and no refund is possible. We urge our customers to be prepared for the European rental transaction by reading the advisory information at our Website. Download What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe (PDF).

Refunds for erroneous charges may be more difficult to obtain if bookings are made via off-shore online-based car rental websites and rental companies that do not maintain North American offices.

It is not possible to rent a car in Europe without the rental company blocking from $500 to $1500 (approximate numbers) on the renter's credit card. If the car is returned with an empty fuel tank, for example, the rental company wants to be assured of a source of funds to pay the additional charge due at the end of the rental. Nothing is charged to the renter's credit card but the block has the effect of reducing the card's credit limit by the amount of the block.

A puzzler for many a Europe-bound auto renter is how much luggage will the rental car's trunk hold?

7 Pax Van-Luggage for 6

Because rental companies guarantee by category rather than by specific make or model, a definitive answer isn't really possible. There can be small differences among vehicles in the same car category, including trunk size. To complicate matters further, rental companies lack consistency of size in their fleet categories. For example, virtually every rental company in Europe puts the Mercedes C-Class and the BMW 3-Series in the Fullsize category. Neither car offers the size or trunk space of the VW Passat, Peugeot 407, Renault Laguna, VW Touran, Opel Insignia, Skoda Octavia and several other Intermediate category rental cars that are much less expensive than several cars in the Fullsize category (wonder how many millions of dollars are spent by renters of Fullsize cars under the mistaken impression they will have more luggage space than an Intermediate car?).

Increase Your Chances for Getting the Right Car

Our best advice is to grab a suitcase or two and visit local car dealers. At your Mercedes dealer you can find out if that C-Class sedan (or similar) will really accommodate your party of four plus luggage or will your five passengers and their luggage work in an Intermediate VW Passat station wagon (unless you want to spend a really lot of money, it's just about the largest station wagon available for rent in Europe)...or do you need a seven-passenger van?

A couple of weeks ago we suggested a customer headed for Italy (where rental car prices are the highest in Europe), who was convinced he needed a Fullsize wagon for his two-week, visit his local BMW and Mercedes dealers. In doing so he discovered that Premium category sedan (BMW 5-Series or similar) would work better for his party of five than the Fullsize Mercedes C-Class station wagon...and also saved him about $500.

Of course, that ever-present rental car phrase “or similar” means you can never be 100% certain.

Click for info about rental car passenger and luggage space.