Lost my rental in a hurricane

by Christopher Elliott on October 21, 2004

Q: I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Gainesville, Fla., in September. But the meeting was cancelled because most of the delegates in the area were still without electricity after the recent hurricanes.

I had booked my airline ticket through Orbitz and a car rental on Hotwire back in August. Both Orbitz and Delta, the airline I was flying on, were extremely accommodating about waiving their rebooking penalties. But Hotwire was adamant – no changes, no refunds, no nothing. I spoke with a support representative and a manager, and they both told me the same thing.

Now I’m out $105.19 for a four-day car rental. Can you help me?

– Sandy Soule

A: The manager and supervisor you spoke with were technically correct. According to Hotwire’s terms of use, all car rental bookings are final and can’t be changed. That means your reservation can’t be cancelled, refunded, exchanged or transferred to anyone else.

What’s more, once you make a Hotwire reservation, your credit card is charged for the full amount shown, whether you use it or not. You can’t even get a credit if for some reason you aren’t able to pick the car up.

So why would you rent a car through Hotwire? Because it’s often significantly cheaper than renting through a travel agent or directly through the car rental agency.

But there’s a tradeoff. You can’t use the car-rental company’s express service and you can’t collect frequent flier miles. Plus, there’s the whole nonrefundable thing. Basically, if you don’t make your trip, you’re out of luck.

To read Hotwire’s fine print, you would think there are no exceptions. But as I’ve seen in past cases, there are certain times when these rules, no matter how black-and-white, can be bent.

You mentioned how helpful Delta and Orbitz were after the storm. In fact, Delta was extremely accommodating to passengers, even though many of them were traveling on completely nonrefundable tickets.

I was one of them. I was supposed to fly from Orlando to New York on its low-fare unit Song and my flight was cancelled after hurricane Jean struck.

Delta allowed passengers to rebook their flights during a certain time period without paying a penalty. If your flight was cancelled, you could even get a full refund. I got my $145.20 back – even though, under Delta’s contract of carriage, it could have kept my money.

You should consider calling Delta again. You might be able to get a full refund instead of a credit for your flight.

I checked with Hotwire to find out about its hurricane policy. And yes, it has one.

The site will allow you to rebook if your trip is directly affected by the hurricane – in other words, it can’t be taken. If the trip falls outside the dates of the hurricane, which yours apparently does, then Hotwire would need some sort of proof that the trip can no longer be taken (for example, confirmation that a hotel is closed for repairs or that your flight has been changed).

“It appears that when Ms. Soule spoke with our customer care representative, it wasn’t clear to us that her corresponding flight was being changed to a later date,” spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky told me.

A Hotwire representative called you and helped you rebook your rental car to correspond with your new travel dates.

Why didn’t Hotwire offer to reschedule you in the first place? The company’s records suggest you had only asked for a refund and didn’t mention that you’d be open to rescheduling the trip. Bohutinsky says if you had described the circumstances more fully, you would have been able to reschedule, no questions asked.

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