Gordon White is 79. Kevin Chang is 24. Both tried to rent cars but ran into trouble because of age. White’s online travel agency had warned him he might be too old, and Chang had to pay more because of his youth.
A quirk of the auto rental business? Hardly.
Other parts of the travel industry, from airlines to hotels, routinely segment customers by age. Age matters more than you might think.
White reserved a car in Scotland, via Expedia. A window popped up on his computer screen warning him that some international car rental agencies do not rent to older drivers. ‘‘That just about floored me,’’ he says. ‘‘I can understand that some older people probably shouldn’t be driving, but honestly, I am not one of them.’’
Chang, an engineer, has the reverse problem: He was told his car rental company added an underage fee. It doesn’t rent to drivers younger than 21, and those under 25 pay a surcharge. When Chang picked up a vehicle in Buffalo, Budget added an $80 fee. He protested, to no avail.
The subject of age is a touchy one for car rental companies, says Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association. Companies don’t have formal age limits in the United States; that would violate discrimination laws. ‘‘But they do for the underage driver, citing insurance regulations,’’ she adds. (New York, with its ‘‘must rent’’ laws for drivers 18 and older, is an exception.)
This kind of discrimination happens so often when we travel that we hardly notice. Some of it is helpful, such as senior citizens receiving discounts at national parks and other attractions.
But much of it is discriminatory. Try renting a hotel room if you’re under 21. Many hotels won’t rent you a room. Some package tours are off limits to people over a certain age, though tour operators are reluctant to say so. Usually, they just steer elderly travelers toward another trip.
Even the government is in the age discrimination business. The TSA recently adopted screening procedures for children younger than 12 and adults over 75, allowing them to keep their shoes and light jackets on at the checkpoint. How do agents know you qualify? They conduct a ‘‘visual assessment.’’ Good luck with that.
Of course, there are good reasons for discriminating, at least from the perspective of a business. Any innkeeper can tell you that younger hotel guests — especially during spring break — can be trouble. Or that the under-21s have a greater chance of getting into a fender-bender in a rental car. But it’s also true that many younger and older travelers are safe and responsible.
If there’s a takeaway for the rest of us, it’s this: Age matters when you travel. It may save you money, but more often, it will be used as an excuse to charge you more, or deny you a service.