A stalled rental, a refund denied

by Christopher Elliott on December 31, 2008

Question: Can you help me get my money back for a rental car? I recently prepaid for a car in Vancouver through Priceline using my debit card. But when I checked in at the Avis counter, I was told that I couldn’t get a car because I didn’t have a credit card. I had notified Priceline that I didn’t have a card when I made my reservation.

I was treated like a deadbeat. I tried to cancel my reservation, but when I called Priceline, I was told that my rental was nonrefundable. For the next eight days, I had no transportation and was forced to remain in the vicinity of the airport. This was more than an inconvenience; it was an outrage.

I insist that my money be returned. Don’t you think I deserve a refund? — Linda Kirby, Wichita, Kan.

Answer: Without a question, yes. Priceline should have either refunded your rental immediately or found you a comparable car. Preferably both.

Priceline offers two different ways of booking a car. The first is pretty conventional: You find a good rate and you reserve a car that you can cancel anytime without penalty. No prepayment is necessary.

The second is called the “Name Your Own Price” method. That’s where you bid on a rental and if it’s accepted, your debit card or credit card is billed immediately. Although there are no refunds, naming your own price can be a good deal. I’ve personally saved 20 percent off the lowest published rate by using this Priceline service.

When I booked my “Name Your Own Price” rental I noted a box that lets you tell Priceline you’re using a debit card. But Priceline also warns that some car rental companies might not let you rent unless you have a credit card. You may not have seen that notice. Priceline’s booking screens are a little busy.

This could easily be avoided. Priceline could stop accepting debit cards as payment for its rental cars. It might also consider simplifying or clarifying its booking system. And customers need to remember to scroll down and read everything when they’re making a reservation.

I contacted Priceline on your behalf. It refunded the full amount of your rental.

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  • mindy

    Strange – Avis is one of the two rental car companies that does take debit cards! (Athough not at every airport/location.) They do, however, block a minimum of $500 before you take the car. A live Travel Agent could have advised this kind lady better than the automated Priceline, don’t you think?

    I suspect that had this lady used the first method of Priceline’s that you delineate above, there would have been no problem. My guess is that she used the latter method and that because it will be Priceline actually paying for the rental (she pays Priceline, Priceline pays Avis) there is then a “problem” with the debit card.

    Still, all avoidable had she used an actual Agent or called Avis directly.

  • Robert

    This also point out the perils of using a debit ard for travel. When you use a debit card you give up many of your rights that you would have with a credit card. As a matter of fact prepaying anything on line with a debit card is probably a bad idea because you can’t dispute a charge if you don’t receive the service or product for which you paid.

  • Carlo

    True. But not everyone can have a credit card. A problem that will only be compounded in the coming year.

  • JOANN MORAN

    You do have recourse if you use a debit card. You can file a dispute of service and the company that services your card can get you a refund

  • Stock

    Robert is wrong, you can dispute a charge on a debit card just like you can with a credit card. And just like a credit card, the merchant must prove their case or you _will_ get your money back.

    I had a similar experience with Alamo after booking through Priceline. I checked the box saying that I would only have a debit card, which is a complete waste of time and has no effect whatsoever on what Priceline does, as far as I can tell.

    I showed up at the counter with the rental paid for and was refused a car. I stood right at the head of the line taking up counter space until I could get a manager to talk to me. At first, he treated me like I was both stupid and a monstrous inconvenience to him, personally. I stated quite clearly that he already had my money and I was not leaving without a car. I can’t seriously imagine how he thought Alamo was going to keep my money, which he admitted was the case, and simultaneously get me to leave without a car. Eventually, he agreed to accept my friend’s return-flight information (apparently, you can use a debit card if you have round-trip tickets for whatever reason), which we had to have faxed over from the airline. The manager acted like I was ripping out his toenails, but I left in a vehicle instead of on foot.

    In the end, my friend and I had a bit of luck in that we found a 305 horsepower Chevy Impala SS in the full-size area; best rental car, ever.

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