Larger than they appear: Alamo wants you to pay big for little cars

Here's some creative super-sizing: If you want to rent a Volkswagen Beetle from Alamo Rent A Car, you'll pay the price of a midsize car, despite the fact that VW itself calls the vehicle a compact.

Customers have it bad enough at the rental car counter now that the big companies are slashing inventory to create scarcity and drive up prices. They're also playing fast and loose with definitions.

Christopher Elliott called out the company for re-classifying the Beetle in contradiction of its manufacturer, yet in a way that pumps up Alamo's bottom line. The car rental outfit also considers the Toyota Corolla to be a midsize car, and not a compact or subcompact, the way pretty much everyone else does. The difference between the two categories starts at about $8 per day.

That's not the only questionable trick that Alamo has used. Yesterday, I reported that in early June, Alamo sent the media an announcement of a big "Florida Drive-Out" sale that was to offer $17 rates through July 18. When I called Alamo's toll-free number on June 28 to validate the rate, the operator said she didn't know what I was talking about, but asked, "Would you like to go ahead and begin pricing a rental anyway?"

It turns out Alamo had pulled the sale nearly a month early (for "extremely high customer demand," I was told), but it didn't alert the media that it had so freely used to promote the sale to begin with. An hour after I pressed Alamo over whether I somehow missed the media announcement that retracted the sale, I was sent a brief message saying the company would send one out soon. Still hasn't.

Meanwhile, countless customers are still plugging dates into the Alamo Rent A Car website under the assumption that the final figures will reflect a discount. Excuse the pun, but I find it, well, shifty.

Elliott has also uncovered instances of some renters in off-airport locations charging customers the hefty airport concession fees ($30 or $40 per rental) even though they weren't entitled to do so. Because the charge comes when you return your car, not when you get your quote, renters are missing it, and the only way to get it removed from your bill is to take up the matter with the corporate office (in this case, Avis).

You may not succeed at driving a car off the rental lot for a good price, but you may well be driven crazy.

Update: Alamo Rent A Car responded to this post and addressed the Beetle classification issue, but didn't explain the reasoning behind it: "The car rental industry does not just automatically classify cars based on the manufacturer's designations. The process ... varies a bit from company to company -- but in the end, each car rental company classifies vehicles based on their own criteria. Sometimes those critieria match up exactly with manufacturers' criteria and sometimes not." The rep also reiterated that the company intended to release a retraction of the Florida Drive-Out sale soon, which it finally did, four days after WalletPop's initial queries.

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