Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Expedia And The Rental Car....

Travel today is filled with vastly more challenges than what those of us who recall the pre-911 Vagabond days. As I have detailed in two prior posts, technology can play a positive role in the planning and execution of business and personal journeys. (If you missed the first two installments and want to catch up, here is a direct link to my TripIt review. I discuss some of my favorite travel discovery and planning tools in a second "On The Road" post which serves as a direct prelude to this post's discussion.)

One compelling reason for using what I consider primary tier online travel services such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity, is the expectation that your agreement with the air carrier, hotel, or rental company is fully backed by the weight of these travel Goliaths.....

This fact certainly played a role in my use of these sites for certain aspects of trips past. I relied upon Expedia for one specific aspect of my recent travel abroad. Candidly, I wasn't focused on, or overly concerned, about securing a lower price, I simply wanted a "signed, sealed, and delivered" car rental agreement at a pre-defined price.

To that end, I searched for "full size" rental cars for the appropriate time period using Expedia. In the end I selected a boring but functional four door through Dollar Rental Car (a US corporation with a decent, if not spectacular, reputation). Through Expedia, I agreed to what I thought to be a very competitive weekly rate and noted the additional day charges bringing my total to about $200 US. Expedia dutifully provided an e-confirmation of the agreement including a Contract Number. TripIt found the email and added it to my itinerary! "That's that" I proudly announced to my dog as I ticked yet another "to do" off of my Travel Planning list on Remember The Milk!

Expedia's pricing guarantee is filled with caveats but the prevailing promise is, "If you find a lower price within 24 hours of booking, we'll rebate the difference." Again, I wasn't about to spend another minute hunting for a way of shaving a few bucks off this bill after making the commitment; I just wanted to "book it, Dano" and continue packing.

To be fair, here's the direct price guarantee taken from the Expedia site at the time of this writing:

We're so confident you’ll find the best price for your trip here on Expedia that we guarantee it. Find a cheaper trip within 24 hours of booking and we'll refund the difference-and give you a travel coupon worth $50.

Expedia's Best Price Guarantee covers virtually every part of your trip: flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, and activities. Here's how to tell if your Expedia reservation qualifies:Are travel dates the same?

  • Is the hotel, room type and rate plan and cancellation policy the same?

  • Is the airline, class, fare and cancellation policy the same?

  • Is the car class and cancellation policy the same?

  • Is the cruise line, cabin, class, fare, and cancellation policy the same?

  • Does each part of your package match?

  • Is the other fare from a U.S.-based website and quoted in dollars?

  • If everything matches, here’s how to take advantage of the Best Price Guarantee.

I will premise the next events with a personal observation. Travel is tough, international travel has gotten down right brutal. In addition to US TSA security which is far from a model of efficiency, fairness, or frankly effectiveness (they have yet to "save us" from a single terrorist event), the Customs and Immigration Processes here and abroad add a multitude of tedious lines, checkpoints, and frustrations, to the travel process. There is no going back to the relative freedom of travel in the pre-911 era. Travelers, including myself,  willingly resign ourselves to these added "hoops" in order to reach our destination.

This preceding paragraph is easier to write than live. If you have never had the "joy" of being part of the mayhem brought about by five (possibly more) international flights landing within a thirty minute period in Mexico, all of which amazingly used the same baggage carousel (leaving five others dead and unmoving as if they had been sucked into a Stephen King novel) only to then wait two hours!!! to get through the first immigration station, you haven't truly enjoyed the thrill of international travel lately! (The return through our very own US Customs in Atlanta frankly wasn't a heck of a lot better, but that's a tale I will spare you at this point.)

Which leads me back to Expedia/Dollar Rental and a new travel hell. Toting luggage, backpack, jet lag, and a passport into a van leading to Cancun Airport's Rental Car Row, the day of taxis, planes, airports, security and hours of waiting to get from baggage claim to rental agency to continue the next leg of the trip were taking a toll.....

A friendly, attractive, Dollar Rep was outside the door to greet arriving Touristas. She spoke excellent English and I had hopes of signing some paperwork, swiping my AMEX, and finding my hotel and a cold alcoholic beverage to help wash away the stress of getting "to paradise." No deal, senior! (A bit later I learned that this greeter wearing a Dollar Uniform didn't even work for the company and was in fact a shill.)

I met Fernando (I am not making up the name) who seemed assigned to me (likely because his English was also quite good and my college Spanish was decidedly rusty.) We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him my Contract Number and other details on my trusty iPad. He looked at it briefly, typed some data into his computer while conducting a conversation with someone on his cell phone (my Spanish is good enough to know it was a girlfriend, or chica, and they weren't discussing rental rates!).  After hanging up, he looked at me and said here is what I am going to do. He said, I will have this car for you in a few minutes. I said, "Great!, Mucho Gracias!" (I could envision the stress leaving as I was just "minutes" from sitting at the pool side bar with a glass of something with a parasol and LOTS of rum!)

He slid the paperwork toward me, clearly expecting that I fill out the majority of the form. I skimmed down and said, I don't need supplemental insurance. I use American Express. (If you aren't aware, many AMEX Memberships include "free" travel premiums. One of the best is the promise that American Express will cover any insurance costs incurred on car rentals which are not covered by your primary insurance as long as you use your card to pay for the rental. I have never had to make a claim but have used this umbrella policy to deny supplemental rental insurance coverage all over the world for twenty-five years.

Fernando looked at me with a blank expression. I thought we may be having a communication problem and was reaching for my iPhone and Google Translate (LINK), when he slid a small piece of paper across the desk to me with only one number, $462. I instantly realized it wasn't a communication "problem" it was a contract "problem....."

Calmly, I explained I booked through Expedia (showed him the confirmation again, contract number, total cost of $202, etc.) and that is what I intended to pay. I also explained I didn't want, or need, any "supplemental" insurance. Fernando looked at me and said, "This is the price. Also senior, you are no longer in the United States; you are in Mexico. American Express insurance doesn't work here.'" There I stood, tired, non-plussed, feeling like a Pavlovian Dog who had heard a bell (in my case, one more "hoop" to jump before a cool down lounge chair and cocktail).

I slid the paper back to him and said, a deal is a deal. He said call Expedia, call American Express, the car will cost you $462 US. He added insult by saying I would be paying in Pesos and quoting an exchange rate of 10 to 1 against the prevailing 12.5 to 1 rate at the time. Could I, or should I, have said "screw it," paid the additional $250 and hit the road? Possibly, but I was raised to respect the value of a dollar and the sanctity of a contract. Both were falling victim. I called Fernando's bluff. Pulling out my iPhone and knowing I was about to go on a 49 Cent a Minute marathon (and that is the pre-agreed price with AT&T if you buy a package of minutes prior to heading south) I was ready to find someone at Expedia to put an end to this and get me back on track.

Call it coincidence, perhaps karma, allow for the possibility that cell towers around a major, international airport, are terrible (yeah, right), but after an HOUR of trying various national numbers (using Google Voice) and International Numbers using my direct minutes via the local carrier, I was unable to ever even here an Expedia call center recording in English..... Perhaps there was another possibility, rental companies block out cell towers around their offices to discourage mad touristas such as yours truly....

Mad and tired, I told Fernando and his greeter, "Hasta Luego." Unhappy, the entire caravan of luggage and tired souls re-entered the Dollar van for the return trek to the airport departure area and transfer to a cab.
Those of you who have followed along this far realize that the issue rapidly was devolving from one of finance to pure principal. A fifty dollar cab ride later, I waded through the Westin check in procedure only to be told that the room wasn't ready (Check In time is 3 PM; local time was 5 PM). I probably looked and acted every bit the hagered tourist that I felt which yielded several free drinks at the pool bar while the room was readied.

After my first cocktail I was re-energized and ready to try and resolve the car issue once again. Firing up Google Voice on the hotel's wi-fi yielded a gratifying immediate connection to Expedia Customer Support! About fifteen minutes (at 49 cents/minute) later, I was finally speaking to a bonafide, English speaking, customer service rep!

I explained my situation and provided contract numbers and all relevant information. After an additional fifteen minutes "on hold" while the rep called the actual Dollar Rental Office at the local airport, she returned. Conciliatory, the rep stated, "The situation isn't good. The car you want actually costs $725 for ten days!" I may have dropped my iPhone. Involving Expedia ADDED over $300 to the $200 overage "offered" when I was at the desk a couple of hours earlier (and one expensive cab ride and equally expensive international call later I was decidedly not getting my issue resolved).

I asked to escalate the matter. Twenty minutes later a supervisor had some grasp of my situation and frustration. Ultimately, his solution.... Expedia would pay the taxes (about $30 US) and the rest of this problem wasn't going to get addressed. You may notice, he didn't even offer me the "$50 Gift Certificate so proudly part of the company's guarantee (this wouldn't have mollified me, but it is another point worth noting). He asked what would "satisfy me." Exasperated, I said for the sake of my sanity and trip, I would accept a rental car for $350 including all taxes, insurance, everything (and I would pay via AMEX). Silence. More 49 Cent a minute silence...... Final answer..... "No can do!"

I proceeded to get a Case #, name, etc., and assured him I would draft a comment/complaint upon returning to the States. My next call was to American Express Customer Service. I asked if the car supplemental insurance benefit had been cancelled, or was no longer enforce while in Mexico. After a few minutes on hold while the agent consulted with a company car rental expert, she explained that AMEX does indeed still honor this benefit and it IS honored while in Mexico. (She did say there were a handful of international countries including Israel where the benefit was not currently available.) No matter how else you may feel about American Express, this company has consistently been far superior to other credit card companies whenever and wherever I have been in need of answers or assistance. This fact alone will keep me a cardholder for the rest of my life.

After finally getting settled in a room and relaxing for an evening, I tackled the car rental problem the old fashioned way, up close and personal. Directly across the street from the Westin was a high end mall filled with Gucci, an Apple Store, too many sun glass stores, high end clothing boutiques, and restaurants, to count.  Most importantly for my needs,  some newly minted rental car offices were lined up on one of the outer edges of the mall. Taking the offensive, I bartered with a couple agencies (not Dollar). Avis "tried harder" and offered a similar vehicle (four door Jetta) for $320 for nine days "all inclusive." A portion of this fee went to $0 Insurance and I simply was too tired to argue. I still used AMEX and figured even if the Jetta and I parted ways in the middle of Mayan ruins someone would pay for the debacle before December 22, 2012 (and it wouldn't be me!).

To safeguard against any potential misunderstanding, I had the Avis Agent write in English, "$320 US All Inclusive" atop my contract form. Ironically, when I finally deposited the vehicle with the Avis Airport Office, we handed the kid who checked in the car "the paperwork." I walked into the office to settle up and was greeted with a bill for $450 US. (billed in Pesos making the billing error more challenging to spot). You may not be surprised to hear that when I explained my price and that it was clearly stated on the contract, the amigo out front who reviewed the car, took the paperwork and drove around back, shook his head and said, Sin papeleo." (No paperwork.)

I said, "Bullshit." (No additional translation was necessary.) Her boss called the office where I negotiated the deal and they faxed a copy of the rental agreement over. (The price was indeed clearly stated in multiple locations.) Thirty minutes later I got an apology and properly billed charge.)

International travel is fraught with more "opportunities" than domestic getaways. I am sure this is true for companies like Expedia too. Still, for these first tier travel companies to have credibility, their contracts must be enforceable. This seems especially important between a service and another US incorporated entity such as Dollar Car Rental. The result may be very different even in another area of Mexico (but I doubt it). I cannot ever recommend Expedia again; their unwillingness to stand behind their deal (and their customer! me), especially where I am more vulnerable, in a foreign country with limited recourse is at least troubling. Picking up the tab on taxes isn't even worthy of my first five minutes on hold. I certainly expected more; the phone call alone cost me $20 more than the company's "solution."

If you're anxious to head to Akumal, skip the beach side flea markets and prepare to use your negotiating skills for a car rental. You are far more likely to get a fair deal looking face-to-face with an agent and bartering than relying on Expedia or its brethren. As the first guy so quickly pointed out, "Amigo, you aren't in the US. You are in Mexico now....." Technology isn't always the solution; good old honest, face to face negotiation certainly still has a place in this age of SmartPhones and touristas....

Hola....... And safe travels.

Enjoy! If you find this post of interest, please share through Google+, Twitter and Facebook! We welcome your comments (which you can provide via the comment form below).

I currently participate in Associate Programs and certain item links included within this post may tie to these affiliate programs. By using these links, you help support Music Row Tech, We appreciate your support.

Companies: American Express;  American Express; Kayak; Expedia; Orbitz; Travelocity

This commentary is not meant as an endorsement of any company or to provide financial advice.  If the author has any financial interest in any company mentioned at the time of this article’s posting, it will be explicitly noted. I welcome feedback and comments. 


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