Please find above attached documents: original car rental reservation showing $226.18 booked via Expedia and Firefly Rent a Car charge at the Costa Rica airport showing $699.61, nearly a $500 overcharge!
As a road tripper, this is my biggest nightmare because an American customer has no rights to complain abroad, nowhere to run, you are at the mercy of these foreign companies in the travel industry. Nothing can prepare you for what can happen to you abroad so I am going to share my wisdom and own experience to prepare you the best I can for your next car rental overseas.
You fly many hours overnight, cross oceans and time zones and arrive with a lot of excitement to discover a new country. You have your hotels booked and activities lined up for the next few days or weeks, got your maps and GPS ready. You pick up your luggages, pass customs and immigration then take a shuttle to pick up your rental car. You line up at the counter and are informed that they can’t honor your original rental quote and the rate has now tripled!
These people know you came from the USA (or western countries), the word “TOURIST” is written all over your forehead, they know you came with credit cards and US dollars. You just became a victim of a scam. There you are, tired and jet lagged, frustrated trying to solve your transportation problem and re-think your entire road trip.
- Taxi is too expensive for a 10 day road trip and most likely you won’t find any cabs in remote locations near volcanoes, jungles, waterfalls, national parks, etc. You need transportation multiple times a day because you not only need to get from one city to another but also need to go out for either grocery shopping or to dine out. So taxi is out.
- Buses and trains only travel between certain cities and please keep in mind that traveling on buses can take double, if not triple the amount of time versus driving a car on a shorter route with higher speed and fewer breaks; buses stop everywhere and take detours to pick up passengers from many remote locations. You may have to transfer buses and trains and wait for connections. When you arrive at a bus stop you will still need to take a cab to your hotel and then you still have to get to a national park somehow or wherever you go next from your accommodation. You will greatly depend on bus or train schedules and routes, given they even go to the cities you are heading next. If you do decide to take this option then you seriously have to reconsider your road trip and perhaps eliminate a few cities and activities, in that case you have to re-plan your entire trip based on train/bus routes and schedules. If you have already paid for hotels and activities then you might have a loss if you need to cancel those.
- You look for other car rental companies in the hope of finding lower or the same prices. Chances are slim that you will find reasonable rates at that time (without prior booking) especially during peak travel seasons or holidays or on certain remote islands, like Sardinia, Corsica or Iceland where they only have limited availability due to destination.
So, what can you do to prevent getting into this situation?
- Always book your rental car to be picked up at an airport, big or small but make sure it is an airport. It doesn’t mean you will never get scammed at an airport but chances are smaller that they will rip you off there.
- Choose a big name, preferably American or European chain. Again, it does not mean that you will never get scammed at brand name car rental office but the chances are smaller. Please note that car rental offices can be sold and they can become privately owned and operated businesses, meaning no franchise rules will apply.
- Use an American website for the car rental reservation, either book directly with an American car rental company (Hertz, Avis, Sixt, Thrifty, etc.) or a registered American travel agency. You just have more rights there as a damaged US customer abroad. I am a faithful and loyal customer of Expedia so I am only booking with them; I can recommend them to any traveler.
- Pick an option where you can prepay for the car. Again, it does not mean that the car rental agency will never increase the original booking rate and asks you for a difference due to higher prices but the chances are smaller. Besides, if all goes well, prepaying for a rental car normally gives you an even better deal (5-10% discount).
- Stay away from Firefly Rent a Car in Costa Rica and pretty much anywhere else. That was the company I rented from overcharging me $500 but looking at their Italian branches, they have a lot of negative feedback in Europe as well. They simply do not respond to inquiries, ignore all emails and phone calls and you certainly can’t argue with them onsite. They won’t give you the rental car until you pay the increased rate so it is their way or the high way!
- Use your American credit card for payment. Now, if you do agree to pay the increased amount for the rental car (simply because you don’t have any other option) and sign the contract, furthermore you initial it on multiple places, your bank cannot reverse the charge, they are bound by that contract even if it is on a foreign language and nobody understands it, the numbers (currency amount) speak for themself. It will not be considered as fraud either because nobody stole your credit card number in this case and you actually used the car. Most likely you will end up with the charge but at least your bank will investigate the case and they may give a few dollars back as a goodwill if your account is in good standing.
- You can report the incident to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and file a claim by submitting your documents at www.cfpb.gov. That only helps you if the rental car company abroad is an American franchise.
- You can also report the incident to the foreign consumer protection agency if you find out who they are. You may not recover your money but at least you can help future travelers and have your voice heard.