Dear Tripped Up,
My husband and I often fly to Atlanta and rent a car at the airport for the 90-mile final leg to our lake house. Two weeks before our Dec. 6 trip, I made a reservation through Alamo. But when we got to the counter, an employee told me they were totally out of cars. I thought he was joking — I had a reservation — but he wasn’t. So I got on my phone, saw Avis had cars available, and reserved with them. After a wait at the Avis counter, an employee told me he couldn’t give me a car because they were prioritizing people who had booked in advance. We ended up in an expensive Uber. Can you explain how car rental companies can take a reservation and then not have a car waiting for you? Shouldn’t they at least alert us in advance, so we could make other arrangements? Renee, Carmel, Ind.
Car rental companies have frustratingly variable definitions of the word “reservation,” ranging from “whimsical notion” to “binding agreement.” Something is out of whack here, and has been at least since the Dec. 4, 1991, episode of “Seinfeld,” when Jerry steps up to the counter to find the midsize vehicle he has reserved is unavailable.
“You know how to take the reservation,” he berates the poor attendant. “You just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding.”
In the end, Jerry’s predicament turned out to be nothing compared with yours: The clerk offers him a compact car and he accepts. That’s a dime-a-dozen inconvenience that anyone who rents cars regularly has experienced, but it is a result of the same quirky industry practice: Unlike hotels and airlines, car rental companies typically allow customers to reserve a car with no prepayment or even a credit card. That means there is usually no penalty for no-shows, making it harder for companies to predict fleet availability, sometimes relegating large families to small sedans and occasionally leading to experiences like yours.
So I beg to differ with Jerry: Rental car companies don’t know how to take a reservation. And I agree with you — the least companies could do is get in touch with customers when they are running out of cars and suggest they make other arrangements.
I reached out to Alamo and Avis to discuss your issue, and for good measure spoke with Hertz, so all three American car rental conglomerates were represented. (Alamo is owned by Enterprise Holdings.)
That led a manager at the Atlanta Alamo agency to get in touch with you and offer to pay for your Uber from the airport, which, as Mike Wilmering, an Alamo spokesman, told me via email, is what the company did for other customers that day.
Beth Gibson, vice president for customer experience at Avis, was a bit befuddled, telling me that, according to company records, Avis did not run out of cars that day and in fact took 70 walk-in customers, far more than usual. Ms. Gibson did say that on rare occasions, the Avis system implements a “hard suspend” of reservations for a period of time when demand is too high, but there was no record of that happening the day you tried to get a car.
So what happened that day at Alamo? “We have a team that closely monitors our bookings and inventory to ensure vehicles are available for those who reserved one,” wrote Mr. Wilmering, “but extenuating circumstances can, at times, disrupt this.” On Dec. 6, the company experienced “an unexpected surge in demand, coupled with multiple vehicles not returned, we also had several vehicles that were due for maintenance and/or repair.”
That doesn’t explain why Alamo would run out of cars. Nothing was forcing the company to accept those additional reservations. Having cars “due for maintenance” also strikes me as an odd excuse, since it seems highly foreseeable. Mr. Wilmering did not specify how many cars were not returned or were in for repair, but it must have been a lot more than usual or it doesn’t make sense for Alamo not to have cut off reservations as well. (Dec. 6 was the day of the Senate runoff election in Georgia, which both companies suggested may have contributed to the spike in demand.)
Alamo would typically be able to source cars from other Enterprise brands with agencies at the airport, but “we exhausted all possible options to provide vehicles to customers who needed them,” Mr. Wilmering wrote. He said Alamo has no centralized system to alert customers if no cars are available, and that individual branches would be responsible for communicating with customers.
This left me with two nagging questions: What can consumers do to ensure a car is waiting for them? And, if hotels and airlines require payment in advance (or at least a penalty for no-shows), why not car rental companies?
Jonathan Weinberg, the founder and chief executive of AutoSlash, a car rental site that searches for the best deals, told me that the car rental agencies originally offered risk-free reservations as a consumer-friendly policy and now are reluctant to drop a perk consumers have come to expect.
“Certainly, it’s a failure on the rental car companies’ part to both predict and manage the inventory properly,” he said. “It becomes more challenging for them in times of high demand.” The problem worsened, he said, coming out of the pandemic, as both fleets and maintenance staff had shrunk, but he said the problem is very rare, occurring in well under 1 percent of the rentals his company handles.
To seek advice on how customers can be sure a car — and preferably the one they reserved — is there, I asked not only company representatives, but also called customer service lines to ask whoever answered. Advice was all over the place and frustratingly devoid of promises, leaving me with the sneaking suspicion that companies simply give cars away in the order people show up, no matter who they are or how or when they reserved.
The best advice came from a customer service representative from Alamo, who recommended calling the branch directly as your travel date approaches. (It’s easy to find the branch numbers by clicking on “Locations” on alamo.com.) They can let you know if there is an increase in demand for your dates that might mean it’s worth having a plan B, he said.
An Avis representative had a different take, telling me the best way to ensure you get a car is to register for Avis Preferred, a loyalty program. She told me it was easy and free, and she was right. (I’m their latest member.) Ms. Gibson agreed, and added that prepaying would also make you a higher priority. Another pro tip: She recommended taking the extra minute or two to provide your flight information when you book a car, which allows the agency to automatically adjust your arrival time if your plane is late.
The biggest news came from Hertz, which now requires that renters provide a credit-card number when making a reservation. Customers who do not cancel before their pickup time are charged for one day’s rental. Lauren Luster, a Hertz spokeswoman, said that the new policy was put in place last February at all corporate branches in the United States, in part to better control inventory and reduce the chances a customer would arrive and not find an appropriate car waiting. Kudos to Hertz, which took the leap a mere 31 years after that “Seinfeld” episode first aired. Progress, nonetheless.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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