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Renting a car? Stand firm against reservation changes, insurance offers

In the increasingly maddening sport that is renting a car, things are not simple

Before a recent trip to New Mexico, I reserved a rental car, in this case, an economy-class car from Budget for $282. That seemed reasonable for 11 days in the desert.

My electronic confirmation said I would get a "Hyundai Accent or similar." The "or similar," of course, is an important asterisk when you're renting a car; it makes it plain that you might not be getting the exact car suggested at the time of booking. But no problem. A Hyundai Accent or something truly similar would have been plenty of space for two people, two suitcases and a couple of backpacks.

But in the increasingly maddening sport that is renting a car, things were not as simple.

The man at the Budget counter at the Albuquerque airport suggested that we might want to upgrade. Although we had reserved an economy vehicle, the only one available in that class was a Smart car, he told us. However, good news — he could upgrade us to a compact car for an extra $150.

Let us pause in the narrative for a moment to take stock of the situation. I had reserved a car that Budget had promised would be a "Hyundai Accent or similar." The only "similar" vehicle available was a Smart car. Smart cars are wonderfully responsible little modes of transportation, but they are nothing like Hyundai Accents. With no back seat and just an iota of baggage space, they are about half the size of a Hyundai Accent.

I explained this to the Budget employee — of course, he already knew it — and told him that the car I had reserved, that "Hyundai Accent or similar," was of value to me because it would hold me, my companion and our luggage. The Smart car had no value to us because it did not have room for our bags. It, therefore, was not "similar" to a Hyundai Accent.

The man explained that Budget had no other economy cars available and again offered the upgrade for $150, adding, "In my opinion, we're hooking you up." In my opinion, I said, he should upgrade me to whatever most resembled the car I had reserved and do it at no extra cost.

I told the man that I wanted to speak with the manager. He disappeared into the back office for about three minutes, then returned to say the manager was in a meeting. Although the manager could not come out, he did authorize the upgrade free of charge. I thanked the man for doing the right thing, drove off in my Hyundai Elantra and had a splendid 11 days in the Southwest.

Later, I asked a Budget spokeswoman by email whether employees were encouraged to upsell customers at the rental counter. She didn't answer the question but did address whether a Smart car could be considered comparable to a car twice its size.

"We have looked into the matter and have not been able to verify how or why an employee would have offered you a Smart car," she wrote, adding that Budget never considered the Smart car in the same class as the Hyundai Accent.

"As a matter of policy, customer service agents extend a free upgrade to a customer when the car size that the customer reserved is not available. According to our records, this occurred when you rented with us. As such, you received a free upgrade — to a midsize vehicle."

Yes, I surely did, but only after 20 minutes of argument.

I later explained my situation to John Mattes, a journalist and lawyer who has two lawsuits pending against a car rental company, claiming it had charged customers for insurance after the customers orally declined.

"I've dealt with consumer issues for a decade, and it has turned nastier and more aggressive," Mattes said. "Consumers literally tell me that they get the same sense walking into a rental car place as walking onto a used-car lot.

"As long as that's the case, you need to advocate for yourself and demand honesty right there."

I got it when I rented another car a few weeks after the Albuquerque incident. I listened keenly to the language of the woman on the other side of the counter. When she offered insurance (which I always refuse), she asked, "Do you generally opt for the basic coverage or the premium?"

It was a classic sales tactic: not asking whether I wanted the insurance but which insurance I wanted. After declining, I asked whether she was paid a commission for selling insurance. No, she said, but she acknowledged that it would be impossible to get promoted without making such sales.

I appreciated her candor.

travel@latimes.com

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