My Prepaid Rental Car Was Unavailable — Reader Mistake Story

Mar 29, 2019

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Jessica, who had trouble with a last-minute booking:

After Christmas, my husband and I decided to take a last-minute road trip in Oregon. Having Chase Ultimate Rewards, I used the online travel portal to book a last-minute rental car at an Enterprise Rent-A-Car conveniently located a couple miles away. I redeemed about 24,000 points for a one-week rental.

About an hour later, we arrived at the agency and were dismayed to find no cars on the lot. All cars were booked due to the holidays; the agent didn’t know when one would return and couldn’t give us a definite wait time. Eager to begin our road trip, we found a second Enterprise agency with an available car and paid directly with my credit card. I figured the first reservation would be canceled since the agency could not fulfill it.

When I later called Chase to check about reinstating my points, I found out that the first Enterprise agency refused to issue a refund because I “walked away” from the reservation. Fortunately, I had used the same card to pay for the second car reservation, so the Chase agent could see what happened on my account. All was eventually resolved, but only after contacting a manager at the Enterprise corporate office to explain the double reservation and waive the first charge. Eight days later, the points were reinstated to my Ultimate Rewards account.

Car rental companies don’t always show up-to-date availability online. For a last-minute booking, I should have called the car rental agency directly to confirm the car was available in real time, especially before redeeming points, which are deducted immediately. When a problem arose, I should have taken the time to first contact the reservation platform (in this case, Chase Ultimate Rewards) to find out how best to proceed, instead of assuming the rental car agency would take care of it. Lesson learned!

One common misconception about rental cars is that making a reservation means a vehicle will be set aside for you. In reality, a reservation guarantees the advertised rate, but not that a vehicle will be available for you to rent. Surprisingly, this is true even of prepaid reservations, and while prepaying should give your priority over someone who hasn’t paid, it still may not guarantee availability. Rental car companies can overextend their fleets with impunity, since they don’t have the same obligation as airlines to compensate passengers for overbooking. The end result is that there’s little reason to pay in advance unless the rate is much lower, and even then you may be better off looking for discounts via Autoslash.

Because Jessica booked through the Ultimate Rewards portal, she had no choice but to prepay. In that scenario (booking through a third party and at the last minute), I agree that calling to confirm availability first would have been prudent. Rather than call the general reservations line, I recommend you try reaching the rental office directly, since they’ll have a better sense of what’s on the lot. Phoning ahead can also reveal other issues (like a relocated office or misprinted service hours), and if you’re worried about availability, it doesn’t hurt to get on good terms with the staff before your arrival.

Finally, check whether any of your credit cards offer complimentary elite status for rental cars. Some companies confirm availability to elites at the highest tiers, but any level of status should improve your odds of securing a vehicle if inventory is low. In the event you’re turned away from a prepaid rental, you can expect a full refund, but don’t leave until you have it in writing. Otherwise, you may be counted as a no-show and your entire payment could be forfeit. And of course, you should try to pay for the car with a credit card that offers primary car rental coverage in case of damage or theft.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Jessica a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by Shutterstock

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