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Why the porcupines of South Africa are less spiky than Avis

Jeff Prestridge

WHEN Kate Barton dropped off her Avis rental car at the airport after a thrilling five days driving around Kruger National Park with a friend, it was time for part two of her South African journey – a flight to see family in Western Cape via Johannesburg.

Although the flight out of Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport was early morning, she was surprised that the Avis office had yet to open when she arrived with travel companion Helen.

But having already paid for the car hire and filled the petrol tank to the brim, she left the VW Tiguan in the appropriate bay and posted the keys through the letterbox.

But being a regular user of car hire companies, she left nothing to chance. So, she photographed the car – confirming no bumps or scratches Avis could charge her for. She also took a picture of the fuel gauge, indicating a full tank, and shot a video of her posting the keys into the drop-off box.

‘I was in a good mood,’ says 45year-old Kate, owner of Reeves Model Engineers, a business that sells parts for model railways. ‘We had enjoyed our time in the park, seeing elephants, rhinos and our first ever porcupine.’

Yet, what she had no idea of until she returned home to the UK was that Avis had taken a further £303 from the credit card she had used to book the car when she had picked it up from Skukuza Airport at the beginning of her trip.

Avis was able to do this because, like all car hire companies and many hotels, it is permitted to put a ‘hold’ on a slice of a customer’s card balance when they come to collect their car or check in at a hotel.

This ‘hold’ can then be drawn upon by the company if there are additional charges that a customer has racked up. In the case of a hire car, these could relate to the cost of repairing a scratch to the paintwork. For a hotel, they could cover room service or mini-bar costs.

SCRUTINISING the Avis invoice, Kate discovered that the car she had dropped off at Kruger Mpumalanga on November 15 had then been used by someone else for another two-and-a-half days. In that time, it had been driven 1,200 kilometres, the full tank of fuel had been depleted and multiple toll charges had been incurred – hence the £303 bill. ‘I was flabbergasted,’ says Kate. ‘I thought that maybe it was a billing or clerical error, or even fraud.

‘But I knew they were charges I had not racked up.’

She thought a refund would be straightforward, but it wasn’t. Despite providing Avis with irrefutable proof that the car had been returned on the agreed date – photos with geo-tagging and time stamps – Avis South Africa rejected her claim.

Kate wouldn’t let go. She sent Avis UK a copy of the video showing the car keys being dropped into the required box. Although the company said the evidence was undeniable, it was up to its South African operation to organise the refund.

After more than a week of ‘going on the offensive’ by messaging Avis on Facebook, she got a breakthrough. Avis South Africa admitted there had been an ‘error’ and that the extra charge would be refunded.

A few days ago, Kate got her money back – although it came with no compensation for the time she had spent trying to get the company to see sense. Avis’s public relations advisers, whom I asked to investigate the case, thanked me for bringing it to their attention and confirmed a refund had been processed. No explanation for the mistake was given and no apology offered.

Kate is also angry that she was hit with a subsequent £5.47 refuelling charge when she returned another Avis hire car to George Airport, Western Cape at the end of her holiday.

Avis said the charge was applied because Kate did not fill up within the required five kilometres of the airport. But there is no petrol station within seven kilometres – and such a requirement is not in the hire terms.

‘Anyone hiring a car has to be vigilant,’ she warns. ‘Companies will use any opportunity to eat into a credit card hold. So photograph everything at the start and end of a hire – and take videos.’

Has a car hire company used a hold on your credit card to take extra charges? Email: jeff.

Wealth & Personal Finance




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