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Rental car companies: Where you never get the same answer twice

As much as I enjoy renting cars instead of owning one, car rental companies are not the most delightful organizations to deal with. So often one customer service rep at these companies will tell you one thing, and the next rep tells you a whole other story.

Two such situations happened to me and some friends in the past month:

A few weeks ago, some friends rented a car. I advised them on how to wrangle a larger vehicle for the price of a standard one, they did so, and I paid the small upgrade fee and got approved as an extra driver. We hopped in this minivan with all our collective kids and headed for San Francisco. On the way to the Bay Bridge, I flipped open the car’s electronic toll box. When we went through the toll, the electronic sign said “toll not paid.” My friend called the car company, and was given some confusing advice about calling the local toll authorities ourselves to deal with this problem on our own. She was also told that the car company would assess a fee for every time we used the electronic box, but that we could not opt to pay cash because the box would automatically pay the toll anyway.

We were a bit confused, but went ahead and went through the auto-pay lane on several other bridges throughout their visit. We didn’t call the toll authorities because we thought that sounded dumb. When my friends returned their car, they tried to ask the employees at the rental car company about the situation, and also didn’t get a satisfactory answer.

Then, this past weekend, I rented another car from the same company. I asked how to handle tolls and was told that the car I am renting did not have an auto-pay transponder, so I should pay cash. This employee also told me that if I rented a car with a transponder in it, I would be charged $2.99 for every day that the box was opened, whether I used it or not.

I said, “Um, WHAT?”

I remembered flipping the box open on my friend’s rental car, and then leaving it open for their entire two-week rental. Oops. If this employee was right — and she seemed to know her stuff — that would add up to more than $30 for the 13 days or so we left the box open.

Meanwhile, my friend got a charge of about $30 on her credit card from the car company. That number doens’t exactly correspond to either the number of tolls we went through OR the number of days we had the box open, so I’m going to have to call yet again to try to figure out what we’re getting charged for, what we may still be charged for, etc.

One thing I know: From now on, I’m not opening a transponder on a rental car if I can avoid it. I’m paying cash tolls where possible.

My second experience with answer roulette happened just this weekend. On the last day of my travel writing conference, I stopped at a grocery store on my way home. It was getting toward the time when I was going to have to drop off my car, so I called the company to make sure I had enough time.

The first employee told me there would be a 29-minute grace period, after which I would be charged $20 for an extra rental day (the rate I had gotten through Priceline). Later, I called back to ask if it was possible to simply extend the rental for one hour. This employee told me I would actually be charged $50, for an extra hour, if I was more than 29 minutes late.

“But what if I want to pay $20 for an extra day instead of $50 for an extra hour?” I asked. He told me to ask the staff when I turned it in.

At this point, I thought I might as well try to race the clock back. Of course, I had to stop to fill up the tank which slowed me down. I pulled into the rental lot about five minutes after the grace period expired, and, being Sunday evening, there was a long line of cars. When the employee got around to me about 10 minutes later, I told him I was late and asked if I would be charged extra. He said “There is no grace period, but we’ll see what happens.”

He scanned the car’s bar code, printed out a receipt, and took a look. No extra hour, no extra day.

While I was totally relieved that I didn’t have to pay extra, I couldn’t help chuckling and shaking my head. Three employees, three different answers re: grace periods and late return costs. I didn’t even bother asking him for his take on the toll situation — I’ll let you know what customer service says about that when I call.