A mystery charge on a rental car in Madrid

by Christopher Elliott on January 31, 2008

Question: I’m trying to get a refund for a car rental insurance charge and I could use a hand. My wife rented a car online through Alamo Rent A Car for pickup in Madrid. The agreement clearly stated that the daily charges, taxes and collision damage waiver were included in the quoted rate.

We returned the vehicle without a problem, but weeks later I discovered that we had been charged an extra $300 for something called a “Super Collision Damage Waiver” (Super CDW). We never requested this Super CDW coverage and it wasn’t reflected in the original rental agreement.

In fact, I didn’t think insurance of any kind was necessary, since my credit card offers coverage. After a lengthy argument to try to remove the regular CDW feature, the Madrid counter staff insisted that I retain it. And they never said I would be charged for another policy, which, strangely, was submitted as a separate, unsigned credit card slip.

I’ve contested this bogus Super CDW charge with my credit card company, but it won’t help because the company doesn’t dispute foreign transactions. I think travelers should be made aware of hidden charges, especially when they are fraudulently imposed because of language barriers. But more to the point, am I stuck with this extra insurance charge?

– Richard Murai, Penn Valley, Calif.

Answer: You’re not stuck with it. Unless someone from Alamo can explain these Super CDW fees, and unless you agreed to buy the coverage, the charges need to be removed from your bill. Right away.

I went through the reservation process for an Alamo car in Madrid through the company’s Web site, hoping to learn more about your mystery charge. I found that when you book a car, collision damage waiver insurance and theft protection are included in the total price. But “Super CDW” is listed as an optional “additional” item, charged at 11.50 euros a day. In order to buy it, you would have to check a box.

You wouldn’t know what “Super CDW” is by reading the Web site. Its hotlink to the option takes you to a page about child booster seats. Its comprehensive page on insurance products is unhelpful, too.

When you have a question about insurance, don’t allow language barriers to stand in the way of getting a clear answer. Ask an agent to explain unexpected charges or to remove them, and if that’s not possible, call a manager. That’s particularly important when you’re overseas, and a credit card company can’t or won’t get involved in a dispute. Once you sign that bill, you’re finished.

Well, almost.

I contacted Alamo on your behalf, and it turns out that your bill was more messed up than you thought. After the company reviewed your case, it found that your original reservation was for 11 days, but that you returned the car a day early. The original 384-euro rate included insurance and taxes, but for some reason, the insurance charges were removed at the time of the rental. “The location should have honored the original rental agreement,” says Diane Wilson, a company spokeswoman.

Alamo has issued a refund of $198 for the extra insurance and the unused day.

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  • M Hooper

    Christopher, I want you in my corner when i need a pit bull. You are amazing. Well done.

  • Richard Gonzalez-Hogan

    Chris: Based on the many times you “go to bat” for the consumer it appears as if you have job security for the rest of your life!

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