Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hertz's Secret Agreement With PlatePassCom Charges You $30 For 30 Minutes on E470 Toll Road Out of the Denver Airport

Be warned that this true tale has so many layers of "wrong" in it that my head is swimming.

In the summers of 2007 and 2008 I have flown into Denver airport and then driven 600 miles up to Montana via Cheyenne, Wyoming to visit my wife's family. Both years we rented a Hertz car.

The most direct route to reach the Interstate to Cheyenne when leaving the Denver airport is via a short stretch of Colorado toll road E470. The E470 link takes about 15 minutes in each direction.

In 2007 and 2008, I paid the tolls in cash. On 8-03-08, for example, I passed two E470 toll plazas and paid $2 + $2 for a total of $4, and then returning to DEN two weeks late on 8-18-08 again paid $2 + $2 for a total of $4 in cash, for a grand total of $8 in tolls.

This summer, however, I paid a grand total of $30, $22 more than last year, to travel the same 30 minutes (15 minutes in each direction). Here's what happened:

In August, my family and I again flew into DEN and rented a Hertz car. Just as in previous years, we traversed the short stretch of E470 to reach the Interstate to Cheyenne, but this year (on 8-08-09) we found the cash lanes have all been closed, leaving no obvious way to pay the tolls.

In place of the permanently closed cash toll booths, I saw new overhead license plate readers, but Hertz never warned us of any automatic billing based on reading our license plates. I wondered how this would play out, but since it was only a few dollars, I didn't worry about it at the time.

Two weeks later on 8-22-09, we returned from Montana through Cheyenne, Wyoming, and once close to the airport we traversed the same short stretch of E470 to get back to DEN. As before, we found all cash lanes permanently closed.

I asked Hertz about it when I returned the car at DEN but the people processing returns had no information.

Then on my 9-15-09 American Express Platinum Card statement I found two charges from an entity called (exactly as printed on my AmEx statement) wwwplatepasscom for $15 each. There was no reference to Denver, to E470, or to the dates we drove on the E470. The charges were dated 8-27-09 and 9-10-09. There was also no reference to Hertz.

I phoned American Express and had them remove the charges as unrecognizable pending an investigation, and I then phoned 1-877-411-4300, the number American Express gave me for wwwplatepasscom.

The wwwplatepasscom customer service rep who answered, Mary Coon, told me that they indeed had charged me for driving on the E470 out of the Denver airport, and that they had a contract with the State of Colorado for toll collection—now entirely cashless—on the E470.

Ms. Coon also told me platepasscom has a separate contract with Hertz to obtain Hertz renters’ credit card numbers so they could charge the tolls direct to the renters instead of through Hertz.

Funny, I thought, that Hertz would be giving third party companies like platepasscom my credit card number WITHOUT MY KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT.

As if the shock of finding Hertz was willy-nilly handing out my AmEx number to companies I never heard of was not enough, I got another jaw-dropping bit of info from Ms. Coon: She said that the actual tolls were now $2.50 at each toll point (up from $2.00 in 2008), so my actual toll charges were $2.50 + $2.50 for a total of $5.00 on 8-08-09 and the same amounts ($2.50 + $2.50 for a total of $5.00) on our return journey across E470 to get to your airport on 8-22-09.

Not too bad, I thought, just a fifty cents per toll plaza increase from last year.

But then Ms. Coon dropped the bomb on me when she further explained that wwwplatepasscom charges a $10.00 per week “administration fee” on top of the actual tolls for Hertz renters as part of their agreement with Hertz. Yet Hertz did not make me aware of any wwwplatepasscom charges, either in writing or verbally.

Thus I was charged by wwwplatepasscom $2.50 + $2.50 + $10.00, for a total of $15.00, on 8-08-09, and wwwplatepasscom charged me another $2.50 + $2.50 + $10.00, for a total of $15.00, on 8-22-09.

Later that day I contacted the Denver Airport authority, and they are still investigating (they knew nothing about the scheme).

I also phoned the DEN Hertz Station Manager, who identified herself only as Vicki. Vicki told me that I was supposed to have been given a one-page flyer among my Hertz paperwork that explained the wwwplatepasscom charges if I drove on E470. I told her I still have all my paperwork from the rental, and there is nothing there about wwwplatepasscom.

I asked Vicki to mail the wwwplatepasscom flyer to me so I could see it, and I gave her my address, and also my Hertz Rental Agreement number. To date, one week later, I had not received any such flyer from Hertz.

Vicki also advised me to avoid E470 at all costs, saying she and her colleagues NEVER use the toll road any more since it went cashless because of the ridiculous charges.

I then called Hertz Corporate Public Relations to ask:

1. Why I was not apprised of these charges and thus warned before driving on Denver-area toll roads that are part of these agreements;

2. Whether Hertz Corporate knew of the absurd $10/week “admin fee” tack-ons to the actual toll collections: and

3. Where in my Hertz Master Agreement or Rental Agreement that I gave Hertz the right to share my American Express card number with another entity.

Hertz Corporate had no immediate answer, saying they were unaware of the details, but they promised to look into it and get back to me. To date, one week later, I await their callback.

That’s where we are today on the Denver part of the story about Hertz and platepasscom.

But there are more unexpected charges for unwary Hertz renters out there across the country: I also discovered that platepasscom has an agreement not just with Hertz at Denver, but also with Hertz through the Northeast (e.g., NY and NJ tollroads), in the Chicago and Indiana areas, and in Florida and Texas, to collect tolls and charge renters from the license plate tied to your Hertz Rental Agreements.

And there is no relief, no opt-out possibility, when you rent from Hertz. Thus I will henceforth stop renting from Hertz, even though Hertz is my preferred vendor of rental cars. This is not something I do out of spite, but what am I to do? My clients won't pay for these stupid charges, and I am not going to swallow them myself.

This is so wrong on so many levels:

- Colorado, along with Indiana, Texas, Illinois, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and other states rip out their toll road cash lanes, forcing drivers to pay electronically or be subject to huge fees and violation charges;

- Hertz makes a secret deal and doesn't tell its renters about the unreasonable admin fees;

- Hertz dispenses confidential credit card information to third party vendors without the cardholder's knowledge or consent;

- American Express has no idea what the charges are and doesn't really care;

- Denver Airport has no idea what the scam is about; and

- Hertz Corporate claims ignorance of its own company's outrageous scheme.

And nobody, NOBODY seemed to care when I questioned it!

FOOTNOTE: Here are two references to the platepasscom/Hertz deal, the original of which says you are charged only for the days you use it. Then the Flyertalk thread makes it clear that the terms changed:

If others have had similar experiences with Hertz and platepasscom, or with platepasscom and any other car rental companies, I hope they will comment here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

British Airways: Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Even Forrest Gump's jaw would drop at this news from British Airways, courtesy of my friend, Joe Brancatelli, from his weekly newsletter at

"British Airways has told travel agents (but not customers yet) that it will begin charging for advance seat assignments effective on October 7. If you want to choose a seat more than 24 hours before departure, it'll cost you $30 in most coach or premium-economy (World Traveler Plus) rows and $75 for an exit row.

"But wait, it gets more insane. Spent thousands of dollars to book a business-class seat on British Airways? You'll pay $90 for the right to choose your seat more than 24 hours before departure. That's not only each way, but per segment. Which means you'll pay upwards of $360 roundtrip in business class if you fly on BA to somewhere via London. Apparently the only exceptions are premium members of BA's Executive Club and full-fare business-class passengers.

"I'll have further details next week as I get my hands on more specifics, but let me give you a quick read: Why would any sane human being give British Airways $90 a segment more after paying thousands of dollars for a business class seat? And why would BA, which is still trying to overcome justifiably negative perceptions of Heathrow Terminal 5 and desperately needs premium-class connecting passengers, think anyone would pay them $360 more roundtrip for the "privilege" of flying over London in a pre-assigned seat? This is the height of stupidity from an airline that increasingly looks like it is being run by top executives who are in over their heads. This is Mickey Mouse.

"This isn't how you treat premium-class customers, who, even if they are flying at a discount, are paying $2,500 or $5,000 or more. It was bad enough a couple of years ago when BA told business-class customers that they couldn't have an advance seat assignment until 24 hours before departure if they traveled on anything but walk-up fares. But to turn around now and try to sell a premium-class customer an advance-seating option is simply pouring salt in an open wound.

"I'll tell you what: Business-class customers have other options if they are flying to and from London. And they can surely find reasons not to connect over London with BA. I suggest you talk with your wallet. If you're booking international business-class travel, avoid BA until it drops this insane fee. And boycott any other carrier that tries to match BA."

Usually posts here are entirely my own writing, but this little item was so astonishingly dumb that I felt it deserved the widest possible audience. It's just stupid, stupid, stupid.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In memoriam

"Wisdom of the grace of God that as we act,
we do not become the evil that we deplore."

- Rev. Nathan Baxter, Dean of Washington National Cathedral

Suffering from jetlag, I woke up in my Sydney CBD hotel room in the early morning hours (Australia east coast time) of 9/11/01 and switched on the TV to lull me back to sleep. It took me a moment to process the horror I was seeing broadcast from New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Like everyone, I'll always remember where I was when I learned about the attacks on our soil. Yet still, eight years later, I cannot fully understand them.

I agree with what Joe Brancatelli said in his column this morning:

"Today is the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when four passenger aircraft were used as weapons against us. Three thousand people died. Their names and some of their pictures, if not their stories, are here:

"What else is there to say? I never seem to know."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

To Rental Car Or Not To Rental Car

Every summer, usually in August, I take my family to visit my in-laws in Montana.

For over a decade we simply flew from Raleigh to and from Billings because that's just 90 miles away from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area in the Stillwater River valley, which is our destination.

And every year the airfares went up and up and up, until my wife and I were paying as much for the four of us to fly to Billings as we sometimes do to fly to Paris, London, or Belize. After all, $700+ per person round trip is nothing to sneeze at: times four, that comes to almost $3,000.

In August, 2008 we experimented by flying Southwest to Denver at less than half the airfare to Billings (a savings at the time of over $1500), and then we drove the 630 miles each way up through the heart of Wyoming to reach southern Montana. I rented a car, and that was an interesting trip--the first time.

We did the same thing in late August of 2009: flew into Denver, but this time on American for a bit over $200 per person and thus saved almost $2,000 on the air costs. And then drove the 630 miles up and 630 miles back again as last summer.

This time, however, the drive seemed a lot longer and more tedious. Perhaps that's because I put more than 2,000 miles on the vehicle after all was said and done, thanks to multiple scenic drives around Montana once we arrived.

However it happened, two thousand miles in the rental car seemed more wearying this year than last, and I am looking for a way to fly again into Billings in the summer of 2010 without breaking the bank. (So far, looking out 11 months on airline websites, the best I can come up with is around $550 per person RDU/BIL. But I digress.)

This year the rental car was more expensive, too. I originally comparison-shopped for a good rate, and I found every rental car company's rates high. I settled on Avis at around $700 (all in) for 14 days in a full-size four-door.

Then Avis "lost" the reservation when I called to give them a schedule change, and the replacement was quoted at $100 more by an incompetent and rude agent. I canceled, and checked Hertz online instead.

Just a few days from our arrival I was able to book a two week Hertz rental of a full-size four-door for under $700 (again, all in--even with the huge taxes and special airport surcharges and usage fees and other absurd extra costs). I was happy, even though last year's rental for the same period cost me just under $600.

Happy, that is, until we arrived Denver. Once at the Hertz lot I found that my assigned car reeked of smoke. (If you've read some of my earlier posts, this will sound familiar. I seem to be especially unlucky when it comes to snagging rental cars fouled with cigarette smoke.)

This necessitated a long wait back at the Hertz Gold counter for a replacement. I did a slow burn while waiting my turn. After years of being a Hertz Presidents' Circle member and having this happen repeatedly, I wondered how Hertz could be so consistently incompetent.

The hostler who parked the car, and the "cleaners" before him, would certainly have noticed the strong tobacco smoke odor, yet put the car out for availability anyway. Maybe it's because they themselves are smokers and didn't even notice.

After a long wait behind other irate customers, I explained the problem. The Hertz agent was not able to give me a comparable car (sold out!) but offered a Kia SUV--the larger of the two Kia SUV models--and I took it in the interest of time. We'd already lost 25 minutes by then.

It was a good choice. The Kia was roomy and comfortable, had excellent visibility, very tight steering, good turning radius, and was quick off the mark. Yet it returned over 23 MPG.

Our family settled in and learned to love the car through 2,000+ miles of occupancy. By the time we returned it to Denver, I was very glad the car's overall comfort and easy handling had minimized wear and tear on my psyche.

I have to admit that the only stressful part of the long drive was the first 100 miles north from the airport to get out of Colorado. Once at the Wyoming border, and all through that big state, driving was a breeze. It's nothing like the constant stress one feels on I-405 in L.A. or I-95 north of Richmond where, day or night, traffic is snarled.

But even an easy 2,000 miles, mostly at 75-80 MPH, still takes its toll on the driver.

There is also the considerable beauty of the landscape en route to recommend the drive. Wind River Canyon in Wyoming between Casper and Cody is gorgeous, and the ever-changing terrain from Denver to Red Lodge, Montana is never boring. If you've never driven through those parts of Wyoming and Montana, I highly recommend it. At least once.

While I never tire of the rugged mountain scenery of the West, the long drive still became tedious the second time around. I commented to my wife as we pulled into the Hertz return gate at Denver that next year we should think about spending a premium to fly to Billings again, and she agreed without hesitation.

I forgot to mention that covering such mileage on the ground requires an overnight stay in each direction, in effect cutting about 3 days off our time in Montana with family. However free of stress when compared to other highway routes, our road trip was not relaxing. The extra dollars spent to fly directly to Billings would have bought us more time to relax.

Is it really worth it to spend extra? Matter of personal choice, I guess. But even if you can afford to cough up $2900 to fly direct versus $880 to Denver (and then drive), it's hard to ignore the $2,000 savings. That's a big difference.

Another choice is simply not to go. I am considering staying home next year and sending only my wife and two kids, and letting them fly direct. If I bought the tickets soon for them, I could get them there for about $1650 for three flyers, which is twice what we paid this summer for four.

And in case you are wondering, it's nigh-impossible to get frequent flyer seats to Billings on any airline without a Papal Intervention.

Next post will describe our long Labor Day weekend trip to visit friends in New Orleans where things are back to normal: a 3-murder weekend in the city--which still didn't spoil a divine evening meal at Bayona.