Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reputation Management Collides With Car Rental Giant

     Hit the brakes! Before your next trip there's something you need to know about the car rental business.  An unexpected surprise may be lurking in the fine print of your rental agreement. It could cost you a bundle of bucks. And it may cost at least one car rental company its reputation for being, well, Thrifty.

     I learned the hard way. On a recent trip to Florida I flew into West Palm Beach and rented a convertible from Thrifty. I put the top down and headed for Key West. I was dreaming about snowy white beaches and fruity blue cocktails blissfully unaware of the financial pothole I was about to hit.

     Hurtling past the palm trees I didn't notice that toll booths had disappeared from Florida's turnpike. Not that I missed them. You might have heard that Florida has gone to a cashless toll system. As I understand it, Floridians use the SunPass system -- you buy a transponder and tolls are automatically deducted from your account. If you don't have a transponder a camera snaps a photo of your license plate and you get billed. SunPass costs $25. But it's a whole different ballgame when you rent a car.

     The brain trust at Thrifty car rental apparently sees cashless tolls as a cash cow. Thrifty charges $7.99 per day to use it's "Pass24" system which pays the tolls for you. The maximum charge is 41.99 per week. Keep in mind you can actually buy SunPass for $25. I declined Thrifty's toll paying service along with an offer to prepay my gas at $9.29 a gallon. I also declined the Navigation system for $13.99 per day. Oh, and the rental agent warned that if I returned the car early I'd pay extra. For giving them back their car early?
     I sure missed those old toll booths a few weeks after returning home. Turns out I racked up seven toll charges totaling $2. Thrifty hit me with a $15 fee for each of the tolls -- $105! That's not a typo. I was charged $105 to collect $2 in tolls. I sure didn't feel like a valued customer. I felt like Thrifty pulled a "gotcha". Obviously, Thrifty doesn't see this as a questionable practice for a company that's staked its reputation for providing low cost car rentals.
     I called Thrifty and asked to have the charges removed. A supervisor told me that the Pass24 option is clearly visible on Thrifty's web site. It is -- but you have to read the fine print to find information about the $15 per toll fee. As a courtesy, the supervisor said he'd drop the $105 in fees if I retroactively paid for Thrifty's Pass24 service at the low, low, low weekly price of $41.99. Just so you know, it's not just Florida. Thrifty also offers it's Pass24 system in Texas and Colorado.

     Here's the kicker: According to the SunPass website almost all other car rental agencies are charging  $14.75 per month for their cashless toll systems. That's per MONTH. Of course, you also have to pay the tolls. Here's a link to the rental car rates that are posted on the SunPass web site: 
    Writing about cars had me thinking about the old Ford TV ads. They featured the tag line "Quality is Job 1." Maybe it is, maybe not. But one thing many great companies have in common is the belief that reputation management really is a top job. Good managers understand that when consumers think you're out to get them -- it's bad for business. That's why reputations matter. A ruined reputation can be costly. Ask Charlie Sheen.

     On Thrifty's web site it says "Thrifty Saves You Money." Sounds good. But the best way to save yourself some money may be to rent a car from somebody else.