Travel Troubleshooter: Charged twice for prepaid fuel after returning a rental car

Q: I am hoping you can assist with an issue I had with my car rental for my son's wedding.

Last August, I rented a car from Payless Car Rental in Denver. It was move­in time for the surrounding colleges, and after waiting in line for almost two hours to rent the car, I was worried about returning the car, since I had a long drive to get back to the airport and a limited amount of time to catch my return flight.

So, I decided to prepay for my fuel, at a charge of $35. I also allowed them to talk me into an "upgrade" because I was worried about the cargo space needed for luggage and wedding items.

When I returned the car, I was thrilled with my decision to prepay because, as expected, my schedule was tight and I used pretty much all the gas. I did not receive an invoice when I returned the car.

I was not thrilled when I noticed an extra $44 charge on my credit card - effectively billing me twice for the prepaid fuel. I immediately contacted Payless via email, and they were quick to respond when I asked for the invoice. However, that was the last time they have responded to any of my inquiries. I have emailed them numerous times and have been ignored each time. I tried to call them, too, but could get no one to help me.

I would like the erroneous prepay charge, plus associated taxes and fees, refunded.

- M.H., Lodi, Calif.

A. Payless should have only charged you once for the prepaid fuel. If it wanted to charge you again, it should have at least explained why you had to pay more. To you - and to me - this looked like an erroneous charge.

Errors can happen with any car-rental company. Based on your description, there may have been an overworked agent at the end of the long line. The error could have also happened at the end of your transaction, which you described as a little hectic.

Good customer service is about an effective recovery, and here's where Payless proved to be worthless. You received an invoice followed by a long radio silence.

You could have disputed the $44 charge on your credit card. It appears you didn't swipe your card or sign your receipt, so the dispute would almost certainly go your way. You could also appeal this to a Payless customer-service manager. I list their names, numbers, and email addresses on my site: elliott.org/company­contacts/payless

By the way, the fuel-purchase option can be a good deal if you return the tank on "empty." But if you don't drive the car enough, you're overpaying for your fuel. So, nice work.

After I contacted Payless on your behalf, the company refunded your $44.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler." You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, and email him at chris@elliott.org.