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Car rental companies' gas-tank policies

Some companies ask customers to return the vehicle with a full tank, but don't necessarily take the customers' word.

November 20, 2011

Question: I rented a car on two occasions at the airport in Ontario. I declined the prepaid gas option, so the attendant said, "Just return the car with a full tank of gas." The first rental was fine. With the second, I was asked for gas receipt even though I brought the car back full. I was told that because I did not have a gas receipt I was going to be charged $9. A supervisor told me that I agreed to furnish a receipt when I declined the prepaid gas option, but I told him his employee instructed me just to bring the car back full. He had no explanation for why was I not charged on the first rental. He agreed to reverse the charge. My question: What's the purpose of needing a receipt if the gas tank reads full? It just seems like a sneaky way of trying to make an extra buck or in this case, nine of them.

Art Andrade

Rancho Cucamonga

Answer: Seth Ginsberg, a frequent business traveler, may have the answer. He says he's frequently asked for a receipt. "The lesson I've learned is this: Just because the gauge points to F doesn't mean it's full."

Some car rental companies, which don't want to (and should not) get stuck with a customer's gas bill, have instituted this policy. It's a protection, I suppose, from filling up in Los Angeles, arriving in Ontario and claiming a full tank of gas.

But attention, car rental companies. You just had a pretty darn good third quarter. I'm not saying those $9 fees are why, because not all of you do this. But I am saying that being pro-customer is probably a better long-term strategy for retention. Some car rental companies don't seem to get this.

Those companies, some industry experts say, think customers are adding water to the gas tank to make it appear full or are using devices to achieve the full effect. Isn't that a lot of trouble for a customer to go to just for a gallon or two of gas? Doesn't that paint all of who rent cars with the same broad, penny-pinching cheater brush?

A Hertz representative says her company doesn't ask for receipts. "We have faith in our customers," says Paula Rivera, manager of public affairs for Hertz. "We like to err on the side of our customer."

Hertz ranked No. 4 in customer satisfaction in the 2011 North America Car Rental Satisfaction Survey released last week by J.D. Power & Associates. (Ace was No. 1, followed by Enterprise and National.) Areas measured: reservation and pick-up processes; the car itself; the shuttle bus or van; the return process and costs and fees.

Stuart W. Greif, vice president and general manager, global travel and hospitality for J.D. Power, thinks the question of whether to take a customer at his word — or not — is a "missed opportunity" for those car rental companies that stand too firmly on policy and thus insinuate that their customers are — how shall we say this delicately? — prevaricating pieces of pig snoot.

He also thinks that emerging technologies could help car rental companies more accurately gauge whether a tank is full. Information about the fuel level could be transmitted to the car company a mile or so from the return area.

Assuming the technology worked correctly, that would put an end to the yes-I-did-no-you-didn't discussions. Until then, not assuming the customer is that pig snoot thing might accomplish the same goal at no cost.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot respond to every inquiry.

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