Car rental companies fight consumers with fees and hassles

I know that car rental companies are having a hard time with people driving less. Their stocks are falling. But their absolute warfare against their customers fought with ridiculous fees and soul-crushing hassles can't be helping. There's hope that the gas refueling charge will go away, but it seems like Avis is trying to recoup their potential losses with pet hair and other absurd fees.

Last month I wrote about how I had figured out that Avis considers a Vibe a small SUV and in the SUV-hating mania priced it lower than a compact car, even though the it got better gas mileage. I figured that it couldn't work out that easily, surely the folks at Avis would try to force us into another car. And I was right. They did try to get my husband to take a much larger SUV, but lucky for us when they couldn't find it after 20 minutes, they let him take the vehicle we had actually reserved.

My husband and I have a deal: I drive in and out of Manhattan, his ultimate idea of torture. He picks up and returns the rental car, my seventh circle of hell. We both feel like we are getting a bargain. This time, however, since I had run the gas down to the point where the gas light was on, I went with him to return it. We always get the pre-pay fuel option just to avoid their refilling hassles--though once had to pay them when the clerk insisted we didn't. So I was feeling like a consumer champion driving in with the tank so empty. If I could have willed it to run out of gas when I pulled in, I would have.The whole refueling charge racket may be coming to an end. In June Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler forced rental car companies to stop charging exorbitant rates for gas when people return their cars not full in Maryland. Hertz announced they were just going to stop the overcharges nationwide. Instead of charging $7 a gallon, they now charge a $7 refueling fee, then the market rate. So we all hope the practice will end, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

There is one group of customers that the car rental companies feel like they can overcharge with impunity: dog owners. Normally people return rental cars a mess. There's fast food containers, grime, all kinds of gross stuff. And that seems to be fine with car rental agencies. But, if you come back with any trace of dog hair, you can get a fine. Again, we're wise to this scam. So, we return the car in pristine condition. We use a special seat cover in the back, turn all the rugs over before we drive, then thoroughly clean the car with those sticky rollers.

But as we're leaving the guy shouts at us that there was a dog in the car and they will charge us a fee. There was no dog hair on the seat. He did find some in the back corners of the carpet. Four guys came out in succession to look for hair. They pulled the seats forward to look at the underseat rug. They asked how much of the time our dog was in the car. We asked if we could just take the car back and clean it. No, they insisted. We pointed out how clean the car was. "We can charge you for one dog hair," the clerk said. Their sign threatened a minimum $100 fine for dog hair. He cut us a break and charged us $35.

Underneath the dog hair sign was another new sign: they're cutting their one hour grace period to 30 minutes.

Last month the head of Hertz told The New York Times they were going to charge our perception that they are out for fees. "People have a tendency to believe that rental companies have all kinds of hidden charges. We're trying to show people that we don't," Mark P. Frissora, the chairman and chief executive of Hertz Global Holdings said.

Maybe Hertz really is following a completely different strategy from Avis and the rest of the car industry. I just doubt it.

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