Markup madness: Boston taxes still chafe

Thinking of renting a car while traveling? You may want to bring a glossary– and some very deep pockets. In what some veteran travelers might consider an understatement, the Federal Trade Commission declares that renting a car can be "confusing and expensive." Greg Wood recently learned exactly how confusing and expensive.

"My son and I rented a car from Avis while visiting family in New England," Greg Wood's email began. "I booked this reservation through Orbitz, and was quoted a rate of $28.99 per day. My expectation was a bill of $144.95 plus tax."

Instead, the bill was $306.77, or more than twice what he expected to pay for the use of a Buick Century for five days, since the deal included unlimited mileage.

Understanding how that happened is no easy undertaking, as the bill is almost indecipherable without that glossary.

To complicate matters, Wood was accidentally charged $32.79 a day, which brought the base charge to $163.95. (He later caught this and called Avis, which refunded the difference.)

Wood needed a child safety seat, which cost $40. His comment: "My three-year-old agreed that the car seat was comfy, but probably not worth $8 [a day] or 28 percent of the daily car-rental fee." He hadn't filled the tank before returning the car, so he paid a fuel-service charge of $45.55, which is billed at $4.90 a gallon, an amount Wood guesses (and who could disagree) contains plenty of mark-up.

Next, there's a 3.55 percent "title, registration, and excise tax fee." "I can only assume," Wood remarked, "that at 3.55 percent per rental, Avis is adequately covering their registration fees with a surplus for management bonuses."

Because he picked up the car at Logan Airport, Wood was also charged a 11.11 percent "concession recovery fee." He also had to pay a $10 "convention center surcharge." Add in a couple of miscellaneous taxes, and you arrive at a total very different from what Wood was expecting at Orbitz.

I spoke with Ted Deutsch, Vice President for Public Affairs at Avis, who gave me some background on Wood's bill.

For starters, he pointed out that Wood could have avoided the $40 charge for a car seat by bringing his own, which some people do. In any case, the seats are required by Massachusetts law, and Avis prides itself on having "the best seats in the industry" for children.

That may be so, but even the priciest seats from the most upscale retailers max out around $150. In other words, at $8 a day (with a maximum per-rental charge of $50), an Avis car seat probably begins turning a profit on car seats on or before three weekly rentals.

When it comes to gas, customers have three options. The first is to return the car with a full tank.

The second is to do what Wood did– "And yes," Deutsch says, "there is a premium."

The third is the "fuel-service option," which means you pay for a full tank at market value when you rent the car, and whether it comes back with an empty tank or one that's almost full, the charge remains.

As for the convention center surcharge, that's a sore point not just with the consumer.

"We think it's an unfair burden to visitors," Deutsch says. Boston isn't the only city that funds civic projects this way, and rental-car customers aren't the only unwilling donors; for instance, anyone who stays in a hotel in such a town also contributes.

Finally, Deutsch stated that if Wood had reserved the car at Avis' website, avis.com, he would have been able to see the total price for the rental and not just the per-day rate he was shown on Orbitz.

"Our website will always have as good a price as anywhere else," says Deutsch, adding that "sometimes you have to dig around a little bit." (The exception, he notes, is sites such as Priceline.com, where the customer specifies the price he's willing to pay and accepts what the website offers in response.)

Deutsch's advice? "Look for total cost, and do expect that in some localities, there'll be a lot of extra fees"– in Wood's case, the "concession recovery fee" set by Logan and the "convention center surcharge" demanded by the City of Boston.

Wood would probably add a further tip: Go over your bill closely, and make sure the company hasn't mysteriously inflated the daily rate.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.