August 24, 2006

Watch out for that fee

I was busy writing a post recommending Auto Europe, a car rental agency that I've used successfully a half dozen times, when the mail came. Some envelopes just exude bad vibes -- those with, say, a return address that reads "Internal Revenue Service" -- and in this mail pile I saw one of those bad-vibe envelopes. It was from the Budget car rental office in Zurich, Switzerland.

I'd used Auto Europe to rent a car for our recent trip to Switzerland and France. Auto Europe, which doesn't supply cars itself, acts as a broker and hooks customers up with deals offered through a variety of rental outfits. Our vacation vehicle, a sleek, black Saab wagon that practically drove itself, was a Budget car.

Using the Auto Europe Web site to book the car, I'd specified both me and my husband as drivers, prepaid the entire rental cost with a credit card, and printed out the voucher with the nice, round "$0.00" in the "Balance Due" column. We took that piece of paper with us to Zurich, where we presented it to the Budget agent and were handed the keys to the Saab.

Two weeks later we returned the dirty but otherwise perfect Saab, just filled to the brim with five-dollar-a-gallon gas, to the Zurich airport's Budget return lot. The agent inspected the car and the fuel level, pronounced both satisfactory, noted that we'd prepaid, and bid us a good flight home.

Why, three weeks after our trip, was I getting a letter from Budget? Given that we'd prepaid and had returned the car dent-free and full of some of the world's most expensive gas, Budget should be done with me and I with them. I doubted that the letter, which had one of those serious-looking wax paper address windows, was a customer satisfaction survey. Budget wanted money from me. I could smell it.

It was worse than that. They'd already taken the money.

Budget was writing to inform me that a $130 "Extra Driver Fee" had been charged to my credit card.

I've rented scores of cars in my day and been nickeled, dimed and blindsided in most of the world's major currencies, but this fee's a new one on me. Budget couldn't get us for gas or dings, so they reached into their magic bag of fees, that secret sack of sneaky ways to screw people, and pulled out this doozy.

"Buyer beware" just doesn't cover it anymore. Even if you read all the fine print, follow all the rules, and do everything right, they're gonna get ya -- maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe in three weeks...