Hotwire Customer Service Sucks

by Michael on Oct 17, 2012 · 2 comments

Hotwire Logo

Hmmm. When I wrote about saving money on car rentals, it seems that I may have spoken too soon.

While I’ve used both Priceline and Hotwire with great success in the past, my wife just had a very negative experience.

As a quick recap, I used Hotwire to book a mid-sized SUV for her. I reserved it for 10AM pickup, pre-paid (as required), and found out that the car would be provided by Hertz. All good so far…

On pickup day, my wife hopped off the rental shuttle and made a beeline for the Hertz desk (the airport in question has a remote rental car facility). Her flight had been delayed so, by the time she arrived, it was just after 12:00 noon.

At the rental counter

When she got to the front of the line, she was asked to take a seat and told that they’d bring her car around in 30-40 minutes. Given that it was already two hours beyond the reservation time this seemed odd but she didn’t have much choice. It was a pre-paid, non-refundable reservation, after all.

While sitting there waiting for her car, she called me to chat and kill time. When I found out what was going on, I encouraged her to be a bit more assertive and ask why she couldn’t just go into the lot to get the car herself, as this is standard operating procedure at that location.

As it turns out, Hertz was so wildly overbooked that they were actually waiting for cars to be turned in so they could check them in, clean them up, and bring them around for incoming customers. By extension, there was no guarantee that she’d get the car — the one that we’d already paid for and which should have been sitting there waiting for her — in the next 30-40 minutes as she had been promised.

When I heard this, I was pissed. Hotwire was selling non-refundable, pre-paid rentals through a company that didn’t actually have enough cars to cover the resulting demand. While one might argue that this wasn’t Hotwire’s fault — after all, it was Hertz that had agreed to provide the non-existent car — it was Hotwire’s problem.

And it was my wife’s problem, too. She (quite literally) had places to go and people to see but was stuck in car rental purgatory with no real timeline for getting out.

Getting Hotwire involved

Unfortunately, Hotwire didn’t seem to see it this way. When I called, the service rep gave me the runaround, basically saying that they can’t help it if one of their providers doesn’t actually have cars, yadda, yadda, yadda.

When I reminded her that we had paid them (Hotwire) and not Hertz, and it was thus their responsibility to make it right, she offered to cancel the reservation and refund our money — in which case my wife would be stranded without a car and subject to whatever prices other agencies were offering to walkup customers.

Umm, no thanks.

When pressed, she offered 20 HotDollars for our inconvenience — basically in-store credit for future Hotwire purchases. On the surface, this isn’t so bad. If my wife was truly only delayed half an hour, and if we had any interest in renting through Hotwire again, a $20 future credit wouldn’t be a horrible offer.

But that’s not what happened. In the end, my wife didn’t get her car for close to 1.5 hours after checking in (which was over 3.5 hours after her reservation time) and when it arrived, it wasn’t a mid-sized SUV. It was a Nissan Sentra sedan. Not really what she needed, but she wasn’t about to turn it down at that point.

Note: It’s common to be upgraded (at no cost) when the car you reserved isn’t available, but I’ve never been downgraded. Given that we’re talking about a pre-paid rental, this was effectively bait-and-switch even if it wasn’t intentional.

Believe it or not, my wife was one of the lucky ones. When she left, she said that there were about 40 more customers who had checked in and were waiting for their non-existent cars.

After going round and round with Hotwire, and escalating our case to a customer service supervisor, they “sweetened” their offer to a whopping 25 HotDollars. At that point, I realized that I was wasting my time and decided to just write this piece as a warning to others instead of continuing to beat my head against the wall.

Customer service lessons learned

You know, it’s funny. I fully understand that things sometimes go wrong. And when they do, I tend to judge companies more on their response to the problem than on the fact that the problem occurred in the first place.

In this case, if Hotwire had been proactive, apologized, and offered to refund a portion of our rental instead of nickel and diming us with a handful of HotDollars, they could’ve turned us into customers for life. Instead, they chose to (essentially) stonewall us and poison our opinion of them.

In my view, companies like this should think much more carefully about the cost of acquiring new customers as well as the lifetime value of their customers before being so willing to throw them away.

If even one person reads this and decides against using Hotwire, then their (lack of) response will have been more costly than doing the right thing. And they’ve also lost our business going forward, costing them even more.

Oh, and for the record, I’ve also e-mailed Hotwire customer service about our experience. I didn’t receive a response within the promised timeframe and I’m not holding my breath. But if they do respond and make this right, I’ll update this post.

P.S. I’m about to head out of town and will be relying on a Priceline car rental (at the same airport, but through a different agency) for local transport. Fingers crossed that my car will be ready and waiting…


1 Dylan October 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Did you complain to Hertz? You may be able to get something refunded from them. Isn’t Hotwire just acting as an agent for them (not that that excuses their poor customer service)? Hertz still got paid for renting an SUV that they didn’t rent.

I’ve used Hotwire three times and they all went well, but I never had to contact their customer service. Your experience will definitely have me thinking twice about using them. I guess everything works well until it doesn’t.

2 realone October 20, 2012 at 9:02 am

I have a relative that works with one of the car rental companies. They are always overbooked, sometimes they are wildly overbooked. These employees are always trading cars and making arrangements with other branches. This is company policy, as managers are docked if there is one car left on the lot/garage when closing. Reservations do not mean you will have a car waiting for you, it means you will have a number in the queue if there are no cars available.

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