By Wendy Perrin
Of all the items in the Wendy's InBox section of The Perrin Report, my column in Conde Nast Traveler, the one that has sparked the most reader feedback is the one about Auto Europe that ran in the February 2006 issue:
"I plan to rent a car in Italy. Which agency would you recommend, and what hidden charges should I watch out for?
— Kimberly Kros, Scottsdale, Arizona
Wendy's reply: I often use Auto Europe, a wholesaler that rents vehicles from other companies' fleets, because its rates for cars with automatic transmission can be hundreds of dollars cheaper. In Europe, however, no matter which agency I use, I almost always encounter unexpected charges. I reserved a car through Auto Europe in Florence last fall, paying $710 in advance for an eight-day rental of a four-door Mercedes E280 compact from Europcar. When I returned the car to the lot at the Florence airport, there was no one on hand to provide a final receipt. About a month after I got home, I was billed a refueling fee of $43 for 3.2 gallons of gas--yet I had filled the tank myself just before dropping the car off. (My mother, who rented through Auto Europe at the Pisa airport last fall, had the same problem: Although she'd filled up just before returning the vehicle, she was hit with a $51 refueling charge.) When I called Auto Europe to dispute the charge, its agent said that she would remove it if I could provide my final gas receipt. Alas, I couldn't find it. She acknowledged that other travelers have suffered mystery gas charges, which is why the company's voucher advises keeping copies of gas receipts.
Postscript: I heard from Kros after her trip and learned that she did indeed rent through Auto Europe. Although she was not billed for gas, she still incurred unexpected fees, which she disputed with American Express. It investigated and refunded the charges. The moral? Keep your final gas receipt, and pay with your AmEx."
After this anecdote was published, several readers wrote to me that the same thing had happened to them. One, however, shared some good news:
"We just came back from a three-week driving trip through Central and Eastern Europe. I booked the rental car through a service that I've used twice now and would recommend to anyone renting in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland: gemut.com. Andy Bestor there promises the best price and the best service. I comparison-shopped among Web sites, and, sure enough, his price was the lowest. We even got a free upgrade. Bestor uses the big-name rental agencies, charges no cancellation or change fees, and will handle any unexpected post-trip charges."
— Linda Libertucci, Redondo Beach, California
Yesterday I received another interesting e-mail:
"I use Auto Europe 15 to 20 times per year. Since the refueling thing seems to be a regular issue, I always charge the gas and attach the gas receipt to my copy of the rental contract. If an erroneous gas charge shows up on my credit-card statement, I have easy access to the gas receipt that always has the date and time on it, proving that I refilled just before returning the car. To get the gas charge refunded, it also helps to have the rental agent to whom you return the car write "FULL" on the contract.
My biggest recent problem was a tiny 1/4-inch scratch on my rental-car hubcap. I thoroughly check every inch of a car when picking it up but, honestly, I had never checked the hubcaps. Now I do! That unscrupulous agency said I had to replace the whole tire for $700! Fortunately, I took photos of the scratch and contacted AmEx, which removed the $700 charge. So be sure to check your hubcaps when you pick up an Auto Europe car."
— Liz Duffy, St. Thomas
Anyone else have Auto Europe advice to share? Please click on "Comments" and post it here.