Incredible but true: U.S. citizens booking car rentals on the internet through U.S.-based companies can end up paying 20-30% more than other nationalities.

Known in the travel trade as "source market pricing," the practice of providing "different strokes for different folks" stems from the days when travel agents could only access rates available in their particular country. The result: a Bostonian might pay more for the same car rental in Italy than a Londoner might. The reasons for this were never clear but the industry justification was that differing sales volumes and costs in different source markets accounted for the difference.

"The advent of Web travel booking was supposed to end all that, providing consumers with a worldwide level playing field. Instead, it has provided a bonanza for some rental 'consolidators' who have exploited the opportunity to charge U.S. citizens premium rates for car rental in Europe," said Patrick Baird, Managing Director of UK-based Nova RentaCar Reservations.

"For example, go to Auto Europe's web site http://www.autoeurope.com/ for a quote and the first question is, 'What is your country of residence?' The rate offered will depend on the answer. If you select 'United States' you will typically pay around 25% more for an identical rental car at, say, PisaAirport, Italy, than if you had selected 'United Kingdom' as country of residence," said Baird.

Nova (www.rentacar-worldwide.com) says it offers the lowest rate available, regardless of what country clients come from. From what it describes as 'garden shed beginnings' five years ago in rural Northern Ireland, Nova now has offices on three continents and placed more than 60,000 car rental bookings in the past year.

Baird says he refuses to segment clients. "People come to us to get a fair deal. U.S. citizens pay the same rate as Italians, South Africans, Australians or Britons.

"There are precedents for legal action in the U.S. against booking agencies that discriminate financially against their fellow Americans. In recent weeks, Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court forced Auto Europe to carry a notice of class action on its website's front page. The action alleges that Auto Europe had illegally charged European taxes on the commission element of their European car rentals."

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