DEAR TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER: Budget charged me a $450 cleaning fee for a vehicle that had dog hair in the back seat. I only had the rental car for one day. I traveled from the airport to my meeting, then to the hotel and back to the airport the following day. I never had an animal in the vehicle at any time. Can you help?
— Russ DeVries, Midlothian, Virginia
ANSWER: If you didn’t bring a dog with you, then you should not have to pay a cleaning fee.
Car rental companies have been clamping down on customers who trash their vehicles. I reviewed the correspondence between you and Budget, and here’s how it justified the fee.
“Charges for cleaning vehicles that are returned in such poor condition that the vehicle must be sent out for detailing will be charged in proportion to the level of cleaning that is needed,” it said in an email. “This includes, but is not limited to, vehicles returned with food stains on the seats, dog or animal hair that cannot be removed through normal vacuuming of the car, excessive odor, smoke odor and cigarette burns. We find that the location has provided documentation of the condition of the vehicle at return.”
Budget said it would gladly remove the charge if you could show the condition of the car before you rented it. That’s a valid request. You should always take a picture of your car — inside and outside — before you leave the lot. If someone forgot to clean the vehicle, or if it has dings or dents on the outside, ask for a different car.
Budget then told you about the dog hair, which you vehemently denied. You were on a business trip and did not bring a dog with you.
In the end, it’s difficult to prove you didn’t have a dog. I see cases like this all the time. Among the car rental companies’ favorite fees is charging nonsmokers a cleaning fee for “smoking” in a rental vehicle. But pet cleaning fees seem to be a close second. And it’s not limited to car rental companies. A few years ago, a vacation rental management company in Sedona, Arizona, tried to charge me for dog hair in my vacation rental. Yet, I don’t have a dog. When I pointed that out, the company dropped the fee.
I would have pressed Budget for more proof. In your email correspondence, the company insisted it had the evidence. But it couldn’t show you any evidence that proves you (or your non-existent dog) messed up the back seat of your rental. I wonder why? If a car rental company wants to charge you an extra $450, it should at least have something to show for it.
Here’s another problem with your case: Budget didn’t notify you of the cleaning fee. Instead, it simply charged your credit card. You had to ask the car rental company about a mysterious $450 charge on your card. Come on. At least the company could have let you know it was billing you — and maybe ask for your side of the story.
A brief, polite email to one of the executives at Budget might have produced more evidence. Or it might have convinced the powers that be of your innocence. There was no dog and, therefore, no dog hair.
I contacted Budget on your behalf. It refunded the $450 it charged your card.
Christopher Elliott is the chief advocacy officer of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers resolve their problems. Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). Contact him at elliott.org/help or [email protected]
(c) 2022 Christopher Elliott
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.