NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More people are starting to travel again. Not only does that often mean flying to another city, but renting a car once you get there.
But for a woman who recently took a trip to San Francisco, renting a car turned into a month-long ordeal.
Rental car companies have been struggling. Last year, when things shut down, many sold off a lot of their cars, and when travel picked back up again, travelers had trouble reserving cars.
But a woman from Nashville did manage to get a car during her trip to California. Her trouble though started after she returned it.
When Emily Walters and her husband visited San Francisco recently, they decided to spend a day driving down the California coast.
"We went to Santa Cruz and had lunch, some seafood and saw some of the beach cities and had a great time," Walters recalled.
Walters had found a deal online for a one-day car rental through Hertz.
"We got a little economy car. We were in a Chevy Spark," Walters told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
They were supposed to pick up the car from the Hertz office in a downtown San Francisco hotel and then drop it back off there later that night using the hotel's valet service.
"And I guess we rolled into the valet about 9 p.m.," she said. "We pull up and a uniformed valet comes up to me and says, 'Are you returning a car?' I said, 'Yes, I am returning a car. Here, you go.'"
Walters said there wasn't a problem until several days later, after she'd flown back to Nashville and got a call from an investigator working for Hertz.
Walters said the voice on the other end told her, "'I’m calling about the car that never got returned.' And I said, 'Oh, my goodness.' I said, 'I returned it on the second, the same day, and I have ample proof.' I told her, I said, 'I’ve got it all here. I’ve got the valet claim check and everything else.' And she told me, 'This happens all the time.'"
Hertz did finally find the car, but that wasn't the end of it.
"And the next thing I know I get a bill for the balance," Walters said.
"How much were they charging you?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"Nearly $600. A $60 estimate becomes $600 because they claim I delivered it on the ninth," Walters explained.
Tonya Fitzpatrick runs a travel media company and frequently writes and speaks about travel.
"We are in a, what I call, a car apocalypse right now and the demand is incredibly high. And the supply is very low and so a lot of these car rental agencies are churning their cars. They are not necessarily being cleaned properly for the next driver, they’re just kind of thrown out the door. And that very well could be what happened to the couple in Nashville, is that the car because it was just a one-day rental, their car was sent out right away," Fitzpatrick told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
That's why Fitzpatrick says consumers need to be proactive.
"And what I always advise people, other travelers, to do is what we do as travel professionals and that is document everything," Fitzpatrick recommended.
"So when you pick up a car, do you walk around with your phone taking pictures of everything?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"I do and I try to do it or we try to do it with the agent," she replied.
Fitzpatrick said that protects you so you're not later charged for damage to the car you didn't cause. And, she added, don't stop documenting.
"I would certainly get evidence or proof of return of the car, even if it’s a photograph of you giving the keys to the agent," she explained. "If you don’t have documentary or a photographic evidence of that, it becomes your word against the car rental agency."
"I have ample proof that I delivered it on the second," Walters told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
For Walters, it took more than a month to convince Hertz to reverse that nearly $600 charge.
"Last week, I literally spent two full days trying to reclaim this money. And it’s not a fortune, but it’s also not an insignificant amount," Walters said.
She remembers thinking it was funny when a Hertz representative asked her if she had photos. "He said, 'Did you take any pictures when you returned the car?' I said, 'Do you wanna tell people that you should have photographic evidence of when you were in a car?'"
But now Walters realizes that's just the smart thing to do.
"I think it has to be this way and it’s unfortunate, isn’t it?" Walters remarked.
Fitzpatrick recommends that you hang onto all of your receipts and documentation until you see the charges come thru on your credit card and you agree with them. And, make sure you use a credit card rather than a debit card when you're paying for your rental car because it'll give you more protection if you do need to dispute the charges.