Topic of the Week: What Would You Do With a “Lost” Rental Car?


I was a great event in Raleigh/Durham this week (Travelport Ignite), and I had a very strange experience with National Car Rental. I received an email saying that 9 hours after I had picked the car up at RDU, I had returned it in Boston. I was charged $80 for extra mileage. My first instinct was to fight them to get my money back and get it all straightened. But after a few beers, I realized that for $80 I now had a car that National didn’t realize was gone.

A few of us strategized on what we could do. Should I go “Superbad” and shoot guns at it and then burn it? Should I just drive myself home? What about taking the car to Mexico and selling it on the black market? There’s no question we had way too much fun with this, and in the end, National cleared it up but not after some confusion on their end.

Have you ever had this happen to you? And what would you do if it did? (Tongue in cheek answers highly encouraged.)

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45 comments on “Topic of the Week: What Would You Do With a “Lost” Rental Car?

  1. I used to work for a rental car company, and have never heard of this happening. First, you would have made very good time from RDU to Boston…
    If you drove it home, perhaps it would have spawned a sequel to “Where the Hell am I Going?”. And of course, push it off a cliff once you did get home… Or enter a demolition derby…

  2. It’s been a while since I rented at BOS but the National lot was a complete mess last time I was there, i.e. not surprised. Still head scratching since it’s all bar codes and computers these days.

    At YUL about a year + ago National and Hertz changed spots at the airport. Anyway the National counter was all chaos and they didn’t have Emerald Aisle set up yet. The guy pulls out a handful of keys and says what do you want…Nissan, Kia, etc. I just grabbed a pair and started wandering around pushing the panic button looking for the car. <- That happened to be the rental that got keyed to the tune of $500 damage. It had Ont. plates and I was driving to rural Quebec so I chalked it up to some Francophile aggression.

    I do have a friend that pulled a "Tommy Boy" on a rental when he overshot the gas pump and backed it up. Still has me chuckling today.

    1. Logan International Airport in Boston this summer consolidated all on airport and off airport car rentals into a single location so the quality of service between the car rental companies is kind of gone now. Big difference is the huge drop in number of buses and vans tooling around the airport – which was a big consideration in the planning.

  3. On another blog somewhere, some guy just published a story about how he returned a car in Boston on time and then subsequently got escalating and threatening emails from National indicating that they will send the cops if he doesn’t return the car NOW and pay the hundreds of dollars of late return fees.

  4. I think the main thing is, before we go any further in regards to strategizing what we would do with the car, we need to know what kind of car it was. If it was a 2015 Impala, I would have shot that thing to pieces.

  5. I guess if you were having a particularly bad day, you could do the last scene from Thelma and Louise…

  6. Call Chevy Chase, time for ‘National Lampoon’s: Lost Rental Car Vacation’. Just think of the things the Griswolds could do to a ‘free’ car.

  7. 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts. Rented a car for the weekend from a downtown location (major chain, don’t remember which). Drive back to return it 3 days later, can’t find the place: no signs, nothing. After driving up and down the street several times I finally recognize the place I picked up the car just 3 days before, but it’s all boarded up and all the markings on the building are gone. Panic. Call and get an automated message. Go on the web. Finally manage to find some reference (don’t remember if on phone or on web) to a location on a parallel street a few blocks away. Make it there about 5 minutes before the car is due, and make a comment about how difficult it was for me to find them. Clerk’s response: “Oh yes, I guess we should have told you that we were moving this weekend.”

  8. Never had one lost…but did have one funny episode….Rented car many years ago in the dark of night in Jamaica. Drove to Ocho Rios and checked into hotel. Bell hop parked car…..2 days later….go out looking for car….hop in a white car and drive around town. Go to dinner that night. Next day….white car gone. I reported it stolen. Bell hop tells me car in parking lot. Points to it…It is baby blue. I insist my car is white….Only for him to walk over with me and show me tag number on key chain matches the baby blue car. So…guess I drove someone else’s car around the island on day and then to dinner!

  9. 1) Cannonball run
    2) Gasoline fight a la Zoolander
    3) Take it to Maaco, paint it in the A-Team scheme and solve crime around Raleigh

  10. I did have that happen as well, the bad thing is I was returning my car in Las Vegas and the lady said, you’ve already returned this car in San Diego. She then accused me of having the wrong car. Questioned me asking if I was sure this was the same car I had gotten when I left the rental place a few days earlier. I was looking at her “really?” How would I get in the wrong car, somehow I also ended up with the wrong keys? Or maybe myself and another car renter were messing with National, we decided it would be fun to swap cars and return them to different car rental facilities. She wanted me to wait while she tried to figure it out.. I walked away and said send me my invoice for my 3 day car rental when you get this figured out… oh boy!!

  11. Haven’t rented from National in a long time, although experiences I had with them years ago were always favorable. On the other hand, I’d be especially leery of any outfit under the same umbrella as Alamo or Enterprise.

  12. “But after a few beers, I realized that for $80 I now had a car that National didn’t realize was gone.”

    My favorite sentence you’ve ever written.

  13. Spray paint “POLITICAL PROMISES” on the car (or something similar that attacks the political group of your choice) and attach some powerful fireworks to the roof with a long fuse. Then put on a Haz-Mat suit and fill the car with as much manure as you can fit in it, taking care to cover the outside of the car in manure as well.

    Drive the manure-filled car and park it in a very conspicuous spot near Congress, the White House, or your local statehouse, taking care to make sure that the news cameras will be able to see the government building in the background. Then light the fuze to the fireworks (so that the car draws a lot of attention) and RUN.

  14. Dude, where’ my car??

    Ok, so I’ve never had anything like what was described above happen to me, but I did keep getting stray NJ Turnpike tolls charged to my credit card weeks after I returned a car to the EWR Avis.

  15. Never had a lost car problem, but did have a rather amusing experience once with Alamo (I think) at ATL many years ago. I showed up at the rental counter after flying in from Dallas, and the clerk sure looked confused. She and her manage then asked, “didn’t you just pick up your car a few hours ago?” No, I was still in Dallas a few hours ago and most certainly didn’t pick up the car. Turns out a guy with my exact same first name and last name, but from Dubai instead of Dallas, also had a reservation at that same ATL Alamo for the same day. My name being very common in South India but very uncommon here, they just assumed that we were the same person and that they must have been duplicate reservations. Luckily they did still have plenty of cars, and we had a good laugh about it.

    As far as what you should have done with the car – definitely agree with Jeremy that this screams for an entry in the 24 Hours of LeMons.

  16. Returned a four door to Hertz in Louisville KY after an 8 hour rental, no one ther so dropped the keys in their drop box. Two weeks later i get a call from the locaiotn asking me if i am going to return the vehicle, or they ar egoing to file a vehicle theft report against me! Well, thank goodness i take a phot of the odometer with a date time stamp when i drop when no one is there, immediately escalated to Hertz corporate and sent them a picture, recieved an apology several days later. Never did hear where the car ended up. Same as getting Denver Hertz trying to charge me five days afetr the drop off for a full tank of fuel, when i sent teh fuel reciept dated and times 12 minutes before i droppped the car . . . someone was getting free gas on me, NOT. Take pictures, of cars and reeciepts!

    1. My parents had the same thing happen with Avis in Bozeman, MT. Returned the car full early morning and they later claimed it was empty and tried to charge them for a full tank.

  17. By the way, it is Le Mans. Not a mons. They are on Mars, and even there America insist to re-name them to suit themselves. But, geography has never been a strong point. If you watch any geographic questions on Jeopardy, you know why well over 80% cannot point a finger on a map at the country they are at war with at the time…

    1. Click on the link. I thought it was a typo at first before realizing that the LeMans website probably wouldn’t use the word “hours” in the URL. Now I’m wishing I’d kept my last car instead of selling it for $800.

      1. Well, when it comes to general ignorance, we all know which greatest and most powerful country in the world takes the top prize. They also always have an excuse, no matter what. Of course it is not exclusive. By probably one to 100 gazillion…

    2. Nice try, but the 24 Hours of LeMons is a parody of the real thing. Click on the link. You take the oldest, ugliest car you can find and race it around for 24 hours, if it makes it that long.

  18. I used to work in fleet management for a major rental company and “losing cars” is a bigger issues than one might think despite todays technology. Though what always surprised me more than the company misplacing cars is how many people think they can get away with simply not returning their cars.

  19. A friend of mine rented a car in Florida from National. Returned it on time. Next thing you know, they are hitting him for an unpaid parking ticket in Massachusetts, even though the odometer clearly indicated that the car could not have been in Mass. unless it got there on a plane. They did not want to listen to reason, so a lawyer friend of ours sent them a letter. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a simple lawyer letter.

  20. Several years ago I rented a BMW from Hertz in Geneva. I was on a wine-buying trip for my company and decided to splurge. Anyway, I drove it around for about ten days and dropped it off in Milan as planned. I’m home for maybe a week and my telephone rings at about 4:00am. A very cheerful voice on the other end says “Bonjour, this is Hertz in Geneva calling, where is our car?” Got my attention very quickly. I said the last time I saw it was at the Hertz lot at Malpensa. “Ah, ok, thank you” she replied and hung up. For the next few months I watched my American Express bill very carefully to make sure I wasn’t charged for new BMW. Never heard another word about it.

  21. As the owner of a small shop that rents cars and motorbike, we usually know where our cars and bikes are. 99.5% of the time. However if someone played games with us and walked or drove away with one of our rentals, it would be financially devastating. Some cars each month we break even on, others, make a little profit after paying everything.

  22. A similar event happened to me in Calgary last month. After using a National rental for 3 days, I dropped it at YYC where I picked it up. I got a receipt from the attendant’s printer but did not receive the customary email receipt after a few minutes. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the next day at the office, I received an email saying my rental was overdue at YYC. I called National and told them about this and they apologized and said something about a system problem. Then the next day, I received an email with a receipt which charged me for an extra day and a drop charge at Edmonton (YEG)! Again I called National and they did correct the error and refund the extra charges. Still, it was puzzling.

    1. National seems to be a theme.

      I returned a car after a month long rental at our corporate rate with the standard process of scan the bar-code in the window and a hand-held printed receipt for about $1000.

      I’m glad I looked closer. Instead of the 1 month = about $1k, it was actually a TWO day rental out of Tampa with a out-rageous one-way charge. We were returning the car in Indianapolis.

  23. I had a similar experience to MeanMeosh, but the team I was working with at Avis didn’t figure it out – I pieced it together a few days later:

    I arrived late into DTW from overseas on my way to a funeral. When I was dropped off at Avis preferred I saw my name on the screen, but there was no car in my assigned spot. The agent apologized and tried to find something else at that late hour and gave me a huge ridiculous SUV with three rows (Lincoln MKT). I said “Don’t they check your license at the exit?” and the agent made some vague comment about it being late. When I get to the exit the agent says “Wow, we had someone just come through earlier with your exact same name.” (And Cranky knows my name isn’t particularly common). I feel a little uneasy at the time, but it is midnight, I’m jetlagged, and I still have another 90 minute drive to the hotel for the funeral so I just leave.

    Fast forward to a few days later when I decide I am going to change my ticket to fly out of TVC and I call Avis to change my drop off. They proceed to tell me that I have already returned my car to DTW and I don’t have the loaded $50,000 SUV that I’ve been driving around. This is when I tell them I think that they let someone else leave with my car and I confirm via the internet that they had charged my credit card on file for the rental. The DTW Avis team was absolutely useless, they would credit me and continued to tell me that I didn’t have a contract out with them. I gave myself extra time when I went to TVC and the agents at that small site were great and went to great lengths (and creative measures) to straighten the situation out. But they did tell me to keep all the paperwork they gave me in case DTW came calling again….

    1. oops that was supposed to be: ” The DTW Avis team was absolutely useless, they **wouldn’t** credit me and continued to tell me that I didn’t have a contract out with them.

  24. Some years ago before things were as computerized as they are now, I picked up a rental in Jacksonville for the day. The counter was busy when I returned it so I did the keys in the box drop off. A few days later I received a statement in the mail telling me I had exceeded the 100 free miles and was being charged for 2083 miles. I called and explained there had to be a mistake, possibly in entering the miles into their system. They kept insisting there was no mistake and that I would be charged several hundred doLlars. Finally after talking to several “supervisors” I invited one to pull out a calculator and divide 2100 miles by the 8 hours I had the car. I explained in order to put 2100 miles on a car in 8 hours I would have had to drive 280 MPH up and down I-95. Unless they knew something I didn’t, this was unlikely in a rented Plymouth.

    The charge was removed.

    1. Funny, a similar thing happened to me, though I don’t remember which airport this was. They couldn’t check me in on the handheld machine when I pulled up, and had me go to the counter. Turns out when I checked the car out, the clerk had transposed the odometer reading from “21000” something to “12000” something when I took the car. So, when I showed back up 2 days later, the computer didn’t like it that I’d driven nearly 10,000 miles in less than 48 hours. Luckily in my case, the clerk immediately recognized it as a screw-up and fixed it on the spot.

      1. AVIS’s system is particularly bad in dealing with cars that have odometers in KM’s. I’ve continually had to correct AVIS staff’s math on one-way rentals of Canadian cars (often SEA->YVR) where there was a per-mile charge. Repeat after me: “It’s per MILE, not per whatever is on the odometer.”

  25. Oh how I love the snipes and the silliness, sort of. Especially when costs matter and/or one is paying hos/her own business expenses, there IS a better way… If you have the time, to the necessary research. Find an Off-Airport rental agency of the brand that you want, use public transportation to get to their shop and politely request a much better deal. (The off-airport and price details should have been done, long before you ever left home…) One may ask, “why bother?” Is a 40% or 50% up-charge sufficient reason?
    Many Airport Authorities and Local Governments impose simply HUGE taxes on car rentals made at on-airport sites. Most branded rental companies also have rental stores close to the airport, but that avoid those miserable fees.
    Whenever possible, ask the rental agency for details or Google the off-airport location(s) yourself. and overlay with public transportation routes. This is not rocket science!! How fussy are you about your time? If you can read a simple map and a basic Bus Sign, why not save 50% or more? Most savings are closer to the 30% – 40% range, but Dollars Remaining in Pocket (DRP?) are important to me. In one city that I used to visit often, the nearest technically ‘off-airport’ rental location was ~0.85 mile distant and typically saved me about 40% before any volume/frequency benefits were applied. The city bus took ten minutes and I carried my own bags. Was the time and effort worth it? You’ll have to make your own judgment, here. For a small business that paid all of its own expenses, a quick 40% off the car rental fee was darn sure worth that whopping ten minutes. Your mileage may vary, but you get the point… Until your own (owned, leased or rented) jet is waiting at the FBO, and the car delivers you directly to the air-stair, consider going a bit earlier, using public transport to collect your offsite rental car, drive to your offsite hotel and then compose yourself a bit before conducting your business. Save some bucks, appear in a semi-composed state and present your pitch with grace – and without breaking the bank. When the business is your own baby and budget management is critical to your very survival, even the difference between on-airport and off-airport car rental rates CAN make a difference. Will it be pasta next week – or will it be meat? -C.

  26. That was quite an interesting story. I’ve never had an experience like that in car rentals, but if it happens to me, exactly like that.. I would take it to the extra miles as I’ve been already charged of it and just leave it there.. or maybe take it on the ship going to Antarctica. The car would probably have a great time there. I’ve never been to Antarctica.

  27. My experience was with Hertz at LAX. I rented for 3 days and when I returned the car, Hertz had no record of ever having rented it. Their records showed that the car was still in the lot. The Hertz rep said (a joke, I think) that I could have driven away with a new car. While flying home, I had all sorts of thoughts of what I could have done. The evil gremlin on my left shoulder kept feeding me ideas and I mentally spent all of the $30,000 I could have gotten on the black market.

  28. I had a similar thing happen with another major rental car chain in 2008. I rented a minivan one-way from NYC to SF for a three week trip. Was expecting the total to be about $2700. When I dropped the car at SFO three weeks later, they told me that car had already been returned to the local where I picked it up in NYC about 2 weeks prior, and that my card was charged $900 for the week and everything was settled. (Since I was traveling I didn’t see the charge on my card at the time.)

    Dude working the return lane didn’t really know what to do, so he just told me to not worry about it. (Which I didn’t, of course! :)

  29. New Year’s 2012 Hertz gave me a Mustang at TUS that I was to have for 2 days. Upon return the Gold Service agent couldn’t produce a receipt “for an unknown reason” and directed me to the counter. The man at the counter, who had given me the car 2 days before, couldn’t produce a receipt. Enter the Manager who determines they have no record that I had ever taken the car. She looks at me and says, “Mr. A, apparently Hertz just gave you a free car for the last 2 days. Enjoy your flight back to ABQ!” While that was great I was disappointed I wouldn’t get my Southwest points!

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