FISHERS — A Fishers man is sharing his experience after he says a rental car company hit him with a nearly $1,000 surcharge when he had to cut his vacation short due to COVID-19.
Brian Sweany, who is vaccinated and boosted, flew to Tampa with his wife and two children.
“We packed our bags and actually flew out on Christmas day down to Tampa,” Sweany said.
When they landed, they rented a car from Thrifty—the estimated cost was nearly $700 for the week, according to his contract.
The family settled at their beach house when Sweany started feeling sick.
Sweany took a rapid test, which was positive for COVID-19, so he quarantined inside a hotel.
“That was pretty depressing,” Sweany said.
Sweany then waited in line at a drive-up clinic in Florida.
“It was confirmed by a medical technician that I was indeed COVID positive,” Sweany said.
By then, his family was sick with the virus too.
So, they canceled their flight home and decided to drive the rental car back to Indianapolis.
“They said it was company protocol to come pick the car up, and I’m like ‘that leaves me in Florida by myself with no vehicle,'” Sweany said. “The woman on the phone call said ‘well, let’s pretend we didn’t have this phone call and let’s have this conversation when you get to where you need to be getting.’ So, she knew the predicament I was in.”
After a more than 1,000 mile drive all the way from Tampa to Indianapolis with sick family members, Sweany dropped off the car at the Indianapolis airport.
“They said ‘go home, get better we will worry about this later’,” Sweany said.
The next morning, Sweany woke up to an email from Thrifty with a bill for $1,639, nearly $1,000 more than he planned.
A closer look revealed Thrifty increased his rate from $515 to $1295, plus fees and tax.
Sweany appealed the nearly $1,000 charge.
Hertz, which owns Thrifty denied his claim, saying, “the vehicle had returned to a different location, which caused a change to the Terms and Conditions of the rental agreement.”
The denial also said the added charge “allows Thrifty to provide ‘rent-it-here/leave-it-there’ service to our customers, regardless of the vehicle’s own city or state.”
Sweany admits he did not read the fine print on the contract that says they can charge you extra if you return the vehicle more than 24 hours early or late, or to a different airport.
“I looked and it and I was like contractually, you know Thrifty can do this, but ethically, should they?” Sweany said. “Essentially, I was punished for making sure I didn’t infect anybody on my air airline flight.”
Sweany acknowledged many people would have flown with COVID-19.
“I knew that the four of us getting on an airplane and flying back to Indianapolis just wasn’t an option because it would be a hot zone on any plane we stepped into,” Sweany said. “Not only did I feel I did the right thing, I did the only thing I could do. There was no other choice and I feel they punished me for that.”
WRTV Investigates reached out to Hertz Media Relations, which initially told us they had no record of Sweany calling about his predicament.
However, Sweany produced phone records to prove he had contacted the rental car company while he was in Florida with COVID-19.
“Upon further review, we were able to locate phone records into our rental extensions department where the new rate was quoted to Mr. Sweany for returning in Indiana,” the statement from Hertz read. “As a goodwill gesture, we will discount the rate by 20%.”
Sweany filed complaints with the Attorney General and Better Business Bureau—both good steps for consumers to take, according to Consumer Action, a national advocacy organization.
“I think Hertz executives should have been a lot more helpful with the complaint because this was someone who was really trying to spare a lot of people exposure to COVID,” Linda Sherry, director of National Priorities at Consumer Action, said. And of itself deserves not to be charged an excessive amount, more than double, to drive a rental with his family home safely.”
Rental car companies have been hit hard by the pandemic and chip shortage.
“It was a perfect storm for the car rental companies,” Sherry said. “However, we really don’t feel that is a reason to gauge your customers, your loyal customers. It’s very ill advised for rental car companies to alienate customers at this point in time “
Sweany travels for business and says he’s rented cars from Thrifty and Hertz hundreds of times.
He doesn’t plan to give them his business ever again.
“The rental car companies are financially incentivizing you to travel sick,” Sweany said. “That’s what I took out of my situation.”
WRTV reached out to the American Car Rental Association, and several rental car companies to find out how others are handling these types of situations.
ACRA did not provide WRTV with any information nor someone to speak with on the topic of COVID-19 and travel.
A spokesperson for Enterprise Holdings, which owns Alamo Enterprise and National, told WRTV they don’t have a specific policy for every situation that would arise.
“In such cases where a customer encounters an issue, they can work with their branch to determine the best path forward,” Lisa Martini with Enterprise Holdings said. “I can tell you that we urge travelers to follow leading health authority guidance and stay home, if they are ill and/or if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19.”
The Better Business Bureau offers the following tips when renting a car:
- Shop around. Car rental rates can vary depending on the company or the amount of lead time, so it pays to shop around and compare prices. You may get a better rate through a motor club, credit card, or other membership organization. One of the most important factors to consider is mileage. Is the rate quoted for unlimited mileage, or for a certain number of miles a day? Although most rental rates do include mileage, some still charge for every mile you drive.
- Do your homework. Before finalizing your selection, check out BBB.org. Try to find the exact location, because while a BBB Business Profile on a headquarters may contain a great deal of information, complaints and customer reviews specific to a location and its management can be telling. Review complaints for similarities, such as controversial cleaning fees, or bills for damage received long after the rental occurred.
- Understand insurance. Before you leave home, check with your insurance agent or carrier to see if your existing policy covers damage to a rental vehicle or your liability as a driver. If so, you can skip buying insurance from the rental car company. If you are traveling for business, you may be covered by an employer’s policy. You may also have coverage from a motor club or credit card used for the transaction.
- Consider location. Renting from an airport-based rental facility may be more expensive than an off-airport location. Also, many rentals have an extra drop-off fee if you are returning the vehicle to a different location than where you picked it up.
- Look for package deals and discounts. Senior citizens, members of an auto club, and certain credit card holders may be eligible for discounts. You may also find discounted prices for certain dates, weekends, or longer rental periods. Some airlines and travel sites offer discounts if you book your plane and rental car together, but don’t assume those bundled rates are the best.
- Ask about late or early return fees. Some renters have been surprised at big late fees for returning a car late… or even early! Double check on the hours of operation.
- Get the company’s policy and fees on tolls. More and more cashless toll roads are popping up. Most companies charge a daily convenience fee for use of their electronic toll systems. Many charge a daily fee even if toll roads are not traveled.
- Choosing a vehicle. Choose the vehicle that is right for your needs. Rental car terms such as “subcompact,” “compact,” and “sedan” may vary from one company to the next. If you are traveling solo for a short business trip, a subcompact may be plenty of room. If you are traveling with kids, car seats, luggage and lots of gear, a larger sedan or SUV might be preferable. If you are looking to “go green,” ask about hybrids or other eco-friendly vehicles. Most rental vehicles come with automatic transmission, but some sports cars are manual. If you can’t drive stick shift, be sure to ask.
- Think about extras. Many car rental companies let you pre-purchase a full tank of gas so you don’t have to top it off right before you return the car. While this can be a convenience, it’s rarely the best deal for the consumer. One fairly standard fee is for additional drivers (don’t let anyone drive your rental car unless they are on the agreement). Additional “upsell” offers may include a GPS device, Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or “bumper-to-bumper” warranty, roadside assistance, a convertible or other luxury upgrade, etc. Decide before you get to the counter what you need and what you don’t. Many car rental companies also charge an underage-driver fee for those between 21-24 years of age.
- Read the fine print. Before you initial and sign the contract, read it and make sure you understand the terms. Check that the final price reflects what you understood the fees to be based on the advertising or your reservation. Note any additional fees or charges that you can incur.
- Inspect the vehicle. Thoroughly inspect your rental car before you drive away. Note any damage such as scratches or dents in the body; stains or tears in the interior; cracks in the windshield or other windows, etc. If you see any damage or defect, make the company representative aware of it immediately so that it’s noted on the car condition form. Take pictures of the damage or make a video and describe the damage as you record. Also check to see that the mileage is the same as what is recorded on your rental agreement.
- Returning the vehicle. Before leaving the vehicle, be sure that the check-in attendant inspects the car’s body in your presence and that you agree about any damage. Get a final print-out of the charges that will be made on your credit card, and check your statement later to make sure there are no unexpected charges. Whenever possible, avoid dropping off your vehicle off-hours and leaving the keys in a drop-box. It’s hard to dispute damage charges if you are not there when the vehicle is inspected.
- Keep receipts and watch your credit card bill. Look for unexpected charges, such as damage to the vehicle, third-party toll bills, cleaning charges alleging you smoked in the car, etc. If you opt to return your rental with a full tank of gas, keep your receipt and record the mileage at the time of the fill.