Why a Car Rental Change Was Almost a $1,700 Mistake

Most rental car companies can change the rate after you've booked if you make any changes to the reservation.
Sally FrenchAug 18, 2021

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If you decide to extend your next trip by a couple of days — or even a couple of hours — and that trip involves a rental car, be careful. Rental cars are in short supply, and because of that, rental car prices have skyrocketed. In some cases, even a limo is cheaper.

And in the case of NerdWallet editor Sheri Gordon, riding in on a golden chariot might have been cheaper. That’s because she made a small change to her rental car reservation for a 10-day trip to Hawaii. When she checked her reservation — which she initially booked at $570 — the price had ballooned to over $2,300.

A small reservation change could mean a big price difference

Most rental car companies allow you to reserve in advance, and most don’t require upfront payment. Typically, your rate is locked in when you book.

That is, unless you change your reservation.

Most rental car companies guarantee the rate quoted when you reserve your car, but a tiny piece of fine print on most contracts stipulates that the rate can change if you make a change to your reservation. Changes that can affect your rate include extending or shortening your trip, changing the rental location, or even something as simple as adding a child seat.

Here’s an example of fine print from Hertz’s policy (though most major rental companies have similar terms):

“Any change to a booking made online or through the call center will be recalculated based on the availability and prices at the time the change is made. This may be greater or lesser than the price originally booked.”

This summer, those recalculations are often shaping up to be big, as was the case for Gordon, who rented a car from Hertz for her trip in Maui around the Fourth of July. When she reserved it in early April, she was set to pay about $570 to rent a car for 10 days.

A couple of weeks later, her airline informed her that her flight would be pushed back a few hours. Not wanting to sacrifice precious Hawaii time sitting in an airport terminal when she could be lounging by the water, she extended her rental car reservation.

Upon making that change, her rental car cost increased to nearly $640, about $70 extra. She said there was no pop-up or notification that the price would go up, aside from an email she received after the fact.

But it didn’t stop there. A few weeks before her trip, she checked her Hertz account again, and the price had skyrocketed up to $2,309.85. She says she has no idea how it went from $640 to nearly four times that.

We reached out to Hertz to find out what happened. A Hertz spokesperson confirmed they “were looking into this,” but would honor the $640 rate. Hertz did not respond to further NerdWallet requests.

How to ensure your rental car rate doesn’t go up

Most rental car companies won’t change your quoted rate for reservations made directly through them, as long as you don’t change anything.

“When a customer books a reservation directly through us, the rates and all applicable fees are listed on the confirmation,” says Lisa Martini, a spokesperson for Enterprise Holdings, which is the parent company of Enterprise, National and Alamo. “The only instance when the rate would change is if the customer changes something.”

An Avis Budget group spokesperson also confirmed a similar policy: “Once you book a reservation with Avis or Budget, the rate is locked in, regardless of whether you choose to prepay or pay later at the counter, as long as the parameters of the reservation do not change — for example, the dates of the reservation or the car class.”

Some rental car companies will present the new rate quote before confirming your reservation change, so if you need to make a change, look carefully at whether the price has changed. But others might not — as was the case with Gordon’s rental.

Other tips to skip car rental sticker shock

There are other steps you can take when booking to guarantee your rate won’t go up at the counter.

Avoid booking through third parties

Many policies will guarantee reservations booked directly with the rental car company. But they don’t provide that same guarantee for rental cars booked through online travel agencies or other third-party travel providers.

Book a few more hours than you need

It likely won’t cost you much more at reservation time to return your rental car at 11 a.m. versus 9 a.m. You can always return the car early, but returning it late will likely incur extra charges.

Whether your airline delays your flight or you opt to make a spontaneous detour on a road trip, it won’t hurt too badly to book for a longer period than you anticipate needing the car versus extending your rental last minute out of necessity — only to get dinged with a huge fee.

Look to rental car alternatives

While many traditional rentals are sold out, that doesn’t mean you can’t still get your hands on the wheel of a car. New rental car alternatives have popped up in recent years including peer-to-peer rentals, in which everyday people post their cars for rent online.

Consider a rideshare or taxi

If you only need a car intermittently, you might skip the car rental completely, instead hailing a taxi, shuttle or rideshare to get you from the airport to your hotel, or between tourist destinations. In hindsight, Gordon says she wishes she had opted for that route.

“I wound up hardly using my rental car because the nearby beach was so enticing,” she says. “We really needed the car only for the drive from Kahului Airport to where we were staying in Napili Bay and then back for our return. I know rideshares are expensive, but not $640 expensive.”

Double (and triple) check your reservation

As long as you’re not making changes, you should be checking in on your reservation to make sure something hasn’t gone awry like it did for Gordon when the price jumped to over $2,300. If she hadn’t been rechecking her reservation, she may not have uncovered the issue until arriving at the rental car center in Maui, which makes resolving the pricing issue more difficult — and is certainly not the way you want to start a vacation.

The bottom line

In recent months, travel has picked up at rates faster than even some travel experts anticipated. And as the already short supply of rental cars struggles to keep up with ever-increasing demand, some car rental companies are looking for ways to charge you even more. After all, they have customers willing to pay for it.

If you’ve already reserved a rental car and have locked in your rate, don’t change your reservation without confirming that the new rate isn’t more than you’re willing to pay. At booking, do everything you can to ensure you won’t need to make changes. Select the GPS and booster seat add-ons if you need them, and confirm you have the car as long as you’ll possibly need it.

Next, don’t wait until you arrive at the airport to check your reservation. You don’t want to discover a mysterious multi-thousand-dollar charge that you have to deal with on the spot.

Finally, if your flight gets delayed and the cost to extend your car reservation is more than you bargained for, it might make more sense to just return the car at your regularly scheduled time and kill a few extra hours in the airport. After all, that’s what the lounge is for.


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