Orbitz Car Rental: Dig deep to find all charges

Booking a rental car online for a European trip is pretty simple; enter your dates and locations and bingo, you’ve got a list of car categories from which to choose. Pick one, enter your name and email address…a credit card is often not required…and you’re all set. Maybe. And maybe you’re all set to get taken to the cleaners when you get to the rental counter…or even before.

This is Stanley’s story. He’s now our customer, but he started at Orbitz where he found a price of $944 for a midsize car from Budget for 31 days from Vienna. He wants to rely on his credit card for collision and theft insurance (LDW, loss damage waiver) but at the Orbitz Website he could have checked a prominent box on the booking page that offered Global Assistance Rental Car Damage Protector insurance from a a third-party, Allianz, for $9 per day for 32 days (this is a 31-day rental but Alliance counts every calendar day). The insurance would thus be an additional $288. Wanting additional info, Stanley decided to click the “Learn More” link where he found these words under the heading Satisfaction Guaranteed: "Within 10 days of purchasing the program, Allianz Global Assistance will process a full refund of premium to you, as long as you have not already departed on your trip or filed a claim. No refunds shall be paid to you after 10 days of purchasing the program.” So, if Stanley had purchased the insurance and then canceled the rental car more than 10 days after booking it, Allianz would keep his $288. Indeed, they would get his money without providing any coverage or taking any risk.

But what does it cover?

When we looked at the site, try as we might, we couldn’t find out what was covered by Allianz and what was not. It is typical for car rental insurance to exclude a laundry list of vehicle items such as wheels, side mirrors, glass, interior, undercarriage, and sometimes even the roof. We tried the “Terms and Conditions” link that leads to a page that asks the user to choose his or her state of residence. That in turns links to a PDF document that describes what the buyer will find in the “letter of confirmation” that “came with your package.” So no info on the Website. You wait for a letter. The buyer must therefor commit to the insurance with knowing much about it…such as what it covers and what it does not…it’s all in the letter of confirmation. (Let’s hope the letter comes before the 10 day cancellation period is over.)

Big cost to travel East

But Stanley smartly chose not to buy the insurance and instead to rely on his credit card which covers nearly everything on the car…with no deductible. Also by this time he was getting a bit worried and began to probe the Website for the boilerplate fine print. He discovered, for example, a 10 euro/per day (310 euros/$335) charge for traveling into Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, or Hungary. Travel to Poland and other eastern counties is not possible. In addition, said the boilerplate, LDW must be purchased if the car is to be driven into any eastern country. So forget the credit card insurance. How much is LDW? For the intermediate (IDMR) sedan the cost is a whopping 26.67 euros per day or 841 euros ($879) for the 31 days, nearly as much as the car costs. Of course there is a 750 euro deductible which means Stanley pays the first $810 of any damage charges.

Purchase of LDW required?

Then the bombshell. Under the “car rental rules” link on the booking page are another 15 links. One of them is ”Collision Damage Waiver.” This page lists the daily prices for LDW (CDW and theft) and ends with this text: “RENTAL CANNOT TAKE PLACE WITHOUT LDW. IF LDW IS NOT INCLUDED INT THE RATE CLIENT HAS TO ACCEPT A LDW AT TIME OF RENTAL.” (sic) There is no reference here to travel east, just the flat statement that without the customer buying LDW (in this case $879 worth) there will be no rental. Where the third-party Allianz insurance figures into the equation is not clear. Is that the LDW “included in the rate”? Not mentioned. From this it appears that whether or not he will drive to Hungary, credit card or not, Stanley must purchase LDW. He wanted a clarification from Orbitz but couldn’t find a phone number on their Website.

Hard realities at the rental counter

It appears that if Stanley had merely booked the car online without spending considerable time to explore the links that lead to the many pages of fine print, he may have found himself at the rental counter being forced to come up with an additional $335 for his Hungary visit and another $879 for LDW insurance. A nice dent in the fender would have meant shelling out $810 for the deductible. His total would have been nearly $3,000. He came to us, however, and paid just over $1600 plus a one-time 42 euro fee for traveling to eastern countries. He was able to rely on his credit card for collision and theft insurance and got much better zero-deductible coverage. Stanley’s not headed for Vienna until early July but he can cancel the rental car for a full refund right up until it’s time to sign the rental contract at the rental counter.

Simple as it seems, renting a car is possibly the most fraught with financial peril of all European travel transactions.

In Saturday's mail came a promo piece from the Citibank AAdvantage credit card people. The back of the outer envelope proclaimed “Big News.” On the front, “Things are about to change for the better.” Yeah sure, was my brain's cynical response. Nonetheless I took a look inside. Surprisingly, the envelope's claim comes pretty close to being true.creditcard

Starting November 23, 2014, the Citibank AAdvantage credit card will cover collision damage waiver (CDW) and theft insurance on ANY RENTAL CAR, including luxury models, in ANY COUNTRY, for losses up to $100,000 on rentals as long as 31 days. A key bit of fine print says that if the rental company requires the purchase of CDW and theft insurance, then the card will cover any deductible charged to the cardholder.

Indeed, this is a change for the better. First, it solves a big problem for Italy travelers. In that country renters are required to purchase CDW and theft insurance, but with a €1000 to €2000 deductible or “excess.” To reduce that deductible to zero they must purchase expensive “Super CDW and Theft.” For example, you can now rent a midsize Hertz car in Italy for two weeks from Gemut.com for $580. The deductible, however, is €1,800 or nearly $2,300. If the car is damaged you pay the first $2,300 of the repair costs. In order to get that same car with zero deductible the rental price jumps from $580 to $667. But after November 23, Citibank AAdvantage will reimburse cardholders for any out-of-pocket deductible costs thereby making the purchase of Super CDW unnecessary.

The same goes for Ireland, another country with confusing rental insurance requirements. Currently, only holders of MasterCard World Card, MasterCard Business Card, and Diners can decline the purchase of insurance...provided they also present a letter from MasterCard certifying coverage. Though it remains to be seen if Irish rental companies will allow customers with the Citibank AAdvantage card to decline insurance, cardholders can take a pass on the purchase of Super CDW/theft.

Citibank has also closed the luxury car and nine-passenger van insurance loophole. Currently, Visa, MasterCard, and most American Express cards don't cover vehicles valued at more than $50,000, nor do they cover nine-passenger vans.

For rentals in Europe, the AAdvantage card is “primary,” meaning it provides coverage even if you have other insurance. With most other credit cards, if you decide to buy insurance at the rental counter in, say, Germany or France, your credit card insurance steps out of the picture and you have no coverage other than what you purchased from the rental company...with its high deductible and many exclusions (wheels, glass, interior, side mirror, undercarriage, roof).

Another credit card that provides “primary” coverage is American Express enrollees in its Premium Protection program. Its coverage is broader than the Amex regular CDWTheft insurance because it is, as previously noted, primary. It also covers rentals up to 42 days in length and provides coverage of many expensive cars, as well as nine-passenger vans. What it won't cover, however, is the deductible in Italy or Ireland. It also isn't free; costing from $19 to $25 per rental, depending on your state of residence.

If you're a frequent European car rental customer, it might not be a bad idea to carry both cards.

Question from a potential customer: What can I do to protect myself from unethical conduct by car rental companies who can make any claim and charge my credit card after I am back in North America?

Answer: First of all, your credit card protects you against erroneous, improper charges. You can dispute any questionable charge and not pay it until the matter is resolved. The credit card company will require the rental company to prove the charge is correct. That usually means the rental company shows the credit card company a copy of the customer's signature on the rental contract, thereby authorizing the charge.

The suppliers Gemut.com deals with...more than 90% of our bookings are with Hertz, Avis, Europcar...are not unethical. Their employees, however, sometimes make mistakes and a tiny percentage may try to take advantage of unsuspecting and unprepared customers by selling them extra, unnecessary insurance or other services. Our customers are also protected by a voucher which establishes the charges as well as the rental's terms and conditions. In addition, if there are erroneous post-rental charges, we will deal with the supplier on the customer's behalf and obtain a refund. Of course, if the customer signs a contract at the rental counter that, for example, calls for additional insurance, that makes it a legitimate charge and no refund is possible. We urge our customers to be prepared for the European rental transaction by reading the advisory information at our Website. Download What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe (PDF).

Refunds for erroneous charges may be more difficult to obtain if bookings are made via off-shore online-based car rental websites and rental companies that do not maintain North American offices.

It is not possible to rent a car in Europe without the rental company blocking from $500 to $1500 (approximate numbers) on the renter's credit card. If the car is returned with an empty fuel tank, for example, the rental company wants to be assured of a source of funds to pay the additional charge due at the end of the rental. Nothing is charged to the renter's credit card but the block has the effect of reducing the card's credit limit by the amount of the block.