Before a recent trip to New Mexico, I did what people do before a trip: I reserved a rental car. In this case, it was an economy-class car from Budget for $282. It seemed a reasonable cost for 11 days in the desert.
My electronic confirmation said I would be getting a "Hyundai Accent or similar." The "or similar," of course, is an important asterisk when you're renting a car; it makes plain that you might not be getting the exact car suggested at the time of booking. But no problem. A Hyundai Accent, or something truly similar, would have been plenty of space for two people, two suitcases and a couple of backpacks.
But in the increasingly maddening sport that is renting a car, things were not so simple.
The gentleman at the Albuquerque airport Budget counter suggested we might want to upgrade. Though we had reserved an economy car, the only car available in that class was a Smart car, he told us. However, good news! He could upgrade us to a compact car for just an extra $150!
Let us pause in the narrative for a moment to take stock of the situation. I had reserved a car that Budget had promised would be a "Hyundai Accent or similar." The only "similar" car available was a Smart car. Smart cars are wonderfully responsible little modes of transportation, but they are nothing like Hyundai Accents. With no back seat and just an iota of baggage space, they are literally half the size of a Hyundai Accent.
I explained this to the Budget employee — of course, he already knew it — and told him that the car I had reserved — a "Hyundai Accent or similar" — was of value to me because it would hold me, my companion and our luggage. The Smart car had literally no value to us because it did not have room for our bags. It, therefore, was not "similar" to a Hyundai Accent.
The man explained that Budget had no other economy cars available and again offered the upgrade for $150, adding, "In my opinion, we're hooking you up." In my opinion, I said, he should upgrade me to whatever most resembled the car I had reserved and do it at no extra cost.
It was about then that I noticed a long line forming behind me. I felt bad for those people. I didn't want to be standing in line any more than they did. But I wasn't going to be manipulated into paying more than the amount Budget had already agreed to.
I told the man that I wanted to speak to the manager. He disappeared into the back office for about three minutes, then returned to say the manager was in a meeting. Though the manager could not come out, he did authorize the upgrade free of charge. I thanked the man for doing the right thing, drove off in my Hyundai Elantra and had a splendid 11 days in the Southwest.
I was ready to chalk the incident up to bad rental-fleet management, but travel industry consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler," wasn't feeling quite as charitable.
"I think they were trying to pull a fast one on you," Elliott said. "I think it was all part of an elaborate pitch to get you to upgrade."
Elliott explained that the desk agent was likely being evaluated on his ability to sell me and everyone else who stepped up to the counter a more expensive car — not to mention a prepaid tank of gas, insurance, a GPS, a car seat and whatever else he could tack on.
"He's being evaluated on the upsell," Elliott said. "Scale that $150 up for all the other people who rent cars, and you're talking not just millions of dollars but hundreds of millions of dollars."
Upsells are happening increasingly across the travel industry. Airlines do it (checked bags, food, selling bonus frequent-flier miles), hotels do it (Wi-Fi and the dreaded "resort fee"), and cruise lines do it ("all-inclusive" often isn't all that inclusive).
"The industry is taking advantage of a widespread perception among inexperienced travelers that it is in the hospitality business, and they are going to take care of the customer," Elliott said. "Those things aren't true anymore. They will nickel and dime you and stick it to you when they can."
Car rental counters seem particularly guilty of this. When I rented another car a few weeks after the Albuquerque incident, I listened keenly to the language of the woman on the other side of the counter. When she offered insurance (which I always refuse), she asked, "Do you generally opt for the basic coverage or the premium?"
It was a classic sales tactic: not asking if I wanted the insurance but which insurance I wanted. After declining, I asked if she was paid commission for selling insurance. No, she said, but she acknowledged that it would be impossible to get promoted without making such sales.
I appreciated her candor, and it made me realize the pressure she is under.
I explained my situation at the Albuquerque airport to John Mattes, a journalist and lawyer who has two lawsuits pending against a car rental company, claiming it had charged customers for insurance after the customers verbally declined.
"I've dealt with consumer issues for a decade, and it has turned nastier and more aggressive," Mattes said. "Consumers literally tell me that they get the same sense walking into a rental car place as walking onto a used-car lot. As long as that's the case, you need to advocate for yourself and demand honesty right there."
I asked a Budget spokeswoman by email whether employees are encouraged to upsell customers at the rental counter. She didn't answer the question but did address whether a Smart car could possibly be considered comparable to a car twice its size.
"We have looked into the matter and have not been able to verify how or why an employee would have offered you a Smart car," she wrote, adding that Budget never considered the Smart car in the same class as the Hyundai Accent.
"As a matter of policy, customer service agents extend a free upgrade to a customer when the car size that the customer reserved is not available. According to our records, this occurred when you rented with us. As such, you received a free upgrade — to a midsize vehicle."
Yes, I sure did — but only after 20 minutes of argument.
How to deal with rental car conflicts.
Stand your ground: If you have a reservation guaranteeing a particular size of vehicle, don't settle for less. Don't be manipulated into a needless upgrade. Be firm, but —
Be polite: As with anything, being polite will almost always get you a better result.
Be reasonable: I could have demanded a convertible and a voucher for a future rental, but I didn't. I simply demanded the car that Budget had already promised. Asking for a reasonable outcome enhances the odds you'll get it.
Know what to expect: Sometimes you can expect a switcheroo of some sort at the rental counter. If it doesn't happen, great. But don't be caught off guard. Also, know that the rental car companies will offer GPS and insurance. Can you use your phone as a GPS? Does your car insurance at home cover rentals? Find out in advance. Also, be aware that when you are offered to prepay for gas, you're being offered the opportunity to prepay for a full tank of gas — not just the amount below "full." I've never heard a rental car agent take the time to explain that rather significant wrinkle.