Bait-and-switch at the rental car counter

Fiat 500

An unpleasant surprise at the rental car counter can get the best-planned vacation off to a rocky start.

After a midnight arrival, I was one of several bleary-eyed travelers standing in line at a car-rental desk at the Kona International Airport in Hawaii a year ago.

My wait was extended when the guy in front of me threw a fit after learning a Dodge Avenger had been substituted for the Jeep Wrangler he reserved.

Red-faced and yelling, he dressed down the agent and then the supervisor.

It would have been quite entertaining had my internal clock not been registering 6 a.m. East Coast time with a 30-minute slog to my hotel still ahead of me.

In his defense, I'm sure he had visions of zipping up and down the Kona coast in an open-top Wrangler with his girlfriend -- who was doing an admirable job of acting as though she had never laid eyes on this guy before as she stood in line with him.

An Avenger simply wasn't the same.

I called ahead that morning and learned I was also getting a Dodge Avenger. Years of running video shoots for the "Discover America" TV series, requiring very specific vehicles to haul gear, taught me to confirm my rentals.

The Avenger was fine with me. I was in Hawaii working on a travel piece for AAA and just needed transportation.

But midnight isn't the best time to discover your rental-car agency substituted what you think you've rented for what they want to foist on you.

I was reminded of this when a friend mentioned a recent similar experience.

It seems everyone he was in line with at Houston's Hobby Airport had booked an economy car, and they were all being offered the keys to a Fiat 500.

Now the 500 is fine little car, but if you are expecting a Chevy Cruze or Ford Focus, a 500 probably won't get the job done.

Evidently, Fiat dumped a bunch of these minicars into rental fleets.

The loophole some rental companies use to justify such bait and switch is the phrase "or similar car."

So, when you think you've rented a particular car, "similar car" arguably covers a lot of territory.

My advice: On the day of your rental, always call ahead to determine exactly what your pickup location has waiting for you.

You don't want to have that conversation at the rental desk without options.

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