Christopher Elliott writes in the New York Times about rental car companies claiming to be out of the class of car a customer reserves and attempting to charge an upgrade fee for the next level vehicle.
This has never happened to me, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone.
After all, that’s the very idea of a reservation, a point hammered home in an episode of Seinfeld
Agent: I’m sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.
Jerry: I don’t understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?
Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.
Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the
Agent: I know why we have reservations.
Jerry: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation and
that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody
can just take them.
This hasn’t ever happened to anyone that I know, but if it should happen to you, first insist on receiving the next higher car class at the same price — the company has committed to provide you with X car type or better for Y dollars, that’s well what they should deliver. Second, call the company’s 800 number for assistance, you may get better help from the central office. Finally, consider taking the car and disputing the higher charge in writing with the car company and then with your credit card company.
The best prophylactic measure, as Elliott suggests, is to be a member of the car company’s frequent renter program (e.g. Avis Preferred, Hertz #1 Gold) which is usually free. By having your membership number in the reservation, a car should be pre-assigned and you should be able to skip the checkin process altogether.
Avis Preferred is always free, and Preferred Select is available to anyone with an American Express Platinum card. I have one, though Avis didn’t verify that fact when I called to upgrade my membership. Hertz charges a nominal fee for membership, but waives it for just about everyone (see here and here).