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Originally published Tuesday, April 14, 2009 at 9:46 AM

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Travel Troubleshooter

Who pays when rental-car company runs out of vehicles?

A traveler to Austin, Texas, reserves a car but finds Dollar-Rent-A-Car is out of vehicles when she arrives. Who should pay the extra money it costs to rent from another company?

Tribune Media Services

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Q: I have a car rental predicament and need your help. My friend and I recently reserved a car through Dollar Rent A Car in Austin, Texas using Hotwire.com. We were quoted a rate of $37 per day. We arrived a week after a hurricane had hit Texas, only to find that they'd given away all their cars.

The Dollar representative was really rude. She acted as if this wasn't her problem. Even though we had the confirmation printed out, no one from Hotwire or the rental car company had contacted us to tell us we wouldn't have a car.

The Dollar agent pointed to the Advantage counter, saying, "They'll honor your reservation, but not your rate." So we rented one of their cars. But instead of paying $155 for a three-day rental, we ended up being out nearly $400. Shouldn't Dollar have paid the difference in price, since it was their fault and not ours?

Kristin Luna, San Francisco

A: Dollar should have paid for a comparable rental from one of its competitors. If it couldn't make this happen, or if it wouldn't, then Hotwire should have helped you.

Bottom line? You shouldn't have paid an extra $245 to get the car that Hotwire and Dollar confirmed — hurricane or not.

At the same time, I think your negative car rental experience was completely preventable. You could have called your online travel agency or the car rental company to confirm your reservation. Chances are, one of them might have known about the vehicle shortage in Austin.

When a car rental location runs out of cars, the standard industry practice is to pay for a rental from a competitor at no extra cost to you. Dollar didn't follow that rule when you arrived in Austin. I think it should have.

Arguing with a crabby car rental agent is pointless. Instead, I would have taken your complaint up the chain by asking for a supervisor. If that doesn't work, call Dollar's 800-number or Hotwire.

Once you agree to Advantage's rate and drive off into the sunset, the odds that you'll get a refund are not to your advantage.

That's no exaggeration. A review of the email correspondence between you and Hotwire makes it clear the agency had no plans to help. "Since the (car rental) agency was unable to provide a car due to circumstances beyond their control and your reservation not being billed to you previously, we are unable to offer you any form of compensation," Hotwire responded.

Hotwire makes no implicit guarantees that it will take care of you when your car rental company refuses to honor a reservation. But its prominent display of J.D. Power & Associates' award for "Highest in Customer Satisfaction for Independent Travel Web Sites" is enough to leave travelers with the impression that they'll be in good hands when something goes wrong.

I contacted Hotwire to find out if this was the agency's final answer. It wasn't. Hotwire contacted Dollar on your behalf and the car rental company issued a full refund.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His syndicated column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at celliott@ngs.org.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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