I usually have good luck with rental cars.

I generally rent from a company I’m familiar with, like Enterprise, National, or Hertz (it seems like they all rental car companies have the same owner anymore anyway), and I rarely run into issues. I’m not picky about cars, and I more-often-than-not rent from a company that allows renters to pick their own car off the lot.

I needed a rental car for one day in Whitefish, Montana, and I was pleased to find that there were rental agencies at the Amtrak station.

Hertz, for some reason, was sold out, so I ended up renting with Dollar, which isn’t normally my preference, but I liked that I could arrange to drop the car off at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, where I was staying, instead of having to return the car to the train station.

Once confirmed, my reservation total came to $81.42 for a Compact Car. Around 48 hours prior to arrival, I got a voicemail from the rental location. They said they’d tried multiple times to contact me and had more information about my rental. Well, sorry, I was out of the country.

I called them, and they seemed to need an exhaustive amount of information that I had already provided during the reservation process. Slightly irritating, but not a showstopper. They then mentioned that the Dollar location at the Amtrak Station in Whitefish wasn’t staffed. They explained that my rental contract and the key would be in a lockbox in the station, which they gave me the combination to. They said to inspect the car, sign the rental contract, and call the office in nearby Columbia Falls, MT if I had any questions.

Ok, that doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll try it.

The Amtrak station in Whitefish.

When I arrived in Whitefish on Amtrak the next morning, I went into the tiny station and found the lock box. In it was a carbon paper contract filled in by hand and a key, but upon reading the contract I found a total of $500 and began to panic. Upon further inspection, I found it was a return from another rental. But where was my contract?

Deciding to leave it until later, I went outside to wait for my checked bag to come off the train. The train was early, I thought, so maybe they haven’t arrived yet.

I was right. Just moments after collecting my bag, I got a call from an agent who was inside the station. I went inside and found him, and he had my contract—another carbon paper affair. Upon inspection, the total on the contract was around $220, for two days. Rather startling, considering my reservation was for one day.

“We’ll just charge you for one day when you return it,” said the agent.

“All right, fine, I said,” doing the math in my head, “But when I cut this rate in half in my head it’s still about $50 more than what’s noted on my reservation.

“Oh,” he said, “That’s an authorization, it will just fall off.”

As we were standing at a lock box in a train station with a paper contract and a borrowed pen, and he seemed anxious to get back to his location in Columbia Falls, I did what you should never do when renting a car—I took him at his word and signed the contract.

I had a lovely drive through Glacier National Park, and dropped the key off at the front desk of the Lodge and Whitefish Lake to an agent who shrugged and dropped the key in a desk drawer without another mention.

When the charge hit my American Express card for $124.79, I called the location.

“You agreed to a $35 delivery fee to drop the car off at the train station. It’s on your contract.” They explained.

Ok, couple problems with that:

  1. The rental agreement had other errors, so it was difficult to determine the estimated total.
  2. The $35 delivery fee was not disclosed in the estimated total at the time of the reservation, so even if the rental contract had been correct, it would have amounted to a flagrant bait-and-switch. I was at the train station in need of a rental car—what other choice would I have had?

They didn’t seem in a mood to discuss the matter further, so I just explained I would dispute the discrepancy with American Express.

I did that later in the day. The Amex dispute process is really easy, and they removed the difference pending investigation.

In the mean time, I wanted Dollar’s corporate office to know that the bait-and-switch had occurred. So I tweeted and got a link to a form.

Dollar’s corporate office sent the details to the location, and about two weeks later I received a response from Hertz (Dollar’s parent company) that they had not heard back from the location, so they issued a refund in the amount of $35.

That’s satisfactory. Hertz knows the Dollar location in Columbia Falls is engaging in shenanigans (oddly enough, the “sold out” Hertz lot at the Amtrak station was full of vehicles when I drove past), and I have my $35 back.

American Express later obtained a copy of the rental agreement from the agent in Columbia Falls and reinstated the charge, but as the corporate office had already made it right I consider the resolution to be fair.

I won’t be renting with Dollar again, and I learned the consequences of breaking one of my own rules: you’re never in too much of a hurry to read something before you sign it, and never trust anybody who’s trying to get you to sign something in a rush.