/ Money, Motoring

The hidden fuel charges that pump up car hire prices

No-frills airlines have their hidden card surcharges. In car hire, the hidden charge has become fuel. We’ve found that an unavoidable fuel charge can triple the price of a rental and turn a cheap deal into an expensive one.

Ever run out of petrol on a busy road? It’s not fun. It happened to me a couple of times when I was a young driver and somehow thought playing chicken with the fuel gauge was a good idea.

There’s no way I want to repeat the experience, so I find it bizarre that car hire companies are asking customers to do just that by asking them to return cars with empty fuel tanks at the end of their holiday.

Petrol charges fuel complaints

When we asked Which? members about car hire fuel policies, we received scores of complaints about companies charging people for a full tank of petrol when they picked up the car, telling them to return it empty, and saying there was no refund for any unused fuel.

They were not only aggrieved by being forced to pay for a full tank of petrol when they were unlikely to use so much fuel, but also because many had no idea they were going to be charged in this way when they booked the car.

Details of these charges tend to be hidden in car hire companies’ terms and conditions, so it’s possible to book a car in Europe thinking it will cost around €30 and then be forced to pay a non-refundable charge of twice that amount for fuel when you arrive.

Driving on empty

Most of the complaints concerned Spain, so we sent two researchers to Malaga and Alicante.

Each of them rented three cars, and both found that what appeared to be the best deal on booking tripled in price when the unavoidable, non-refundable fuel charge was added.

To get through all the fuel they’d bought, one of researchers worked out that they would have had to have driven 140 miles a day on a week’s holiday – not everyone’s idea of fun.

So you can play chicken with the fuel gauge to try to get your money’s worth, or you can hand back the car half full or more, knowing that you won’t get your money back. And what happens to that petrol once you’ve returned the car? I can only imagine that the next customer is charged for a full tank even though the car hire company didn’t have to pay for it again.

I don’t think drivers should be encouraged to drive on empty; I don’t think you should pay for fuel you don’t use; and I don’t think these charges should be hidden. If car firms are going to impose an unavoidable charge it should be in the price when you book.

Have you experienced this policy in Europe, or elsewhere? And how do you think car hire firms should charge for fuel?


>> Car hire checklist

When you collect your hire car, read the contract thoroughly before signing it and ask questions about anything you don’t understand
Be 100% clear about what is and isn’t included in the insurance provided by your rental company <<

Kevin says:
19 April 2013

With Goldcar at Malaga you don’t even get chance to read the contract in advance. The first thing they get you to do is put your signature on an electronic signature reader. This is a mandatory part of the rental process. Then they put it electronically on anything they like, so when the contract is printed it already has your signature on it. If you tear it up and say you don’t like it well they can just print another one.

Jo Kay says:
19 April 2013

We recently hired a car through broker “Doyouspain”. I looked very carefully at the cars that came up for selection on their page and chose one that said “Excess Waiver included” and “additional driver” included. I chose that car and on the next page it had very small print about extra insurance for wheel/windscreen/negligence damage and additional driver costs. I assumed they meant additional drivers that were to be in excess to the free additional driver.

when we got to the airport, Record Car told us that there was no additional driver included and that if we didn’t want to take the wheel/windscreen/negligence damage cover out then we would have to leave a 500euro deposit. So we paid for the lot and it DOUBLED our hire charge. We also have to pay for a full tank of fuel at 91 Euros, even though we knew we would only use half of it.

I complained to DoyouSpain who didn’t respond.
The excessive fuel charges have now persuaded us that it’s cheaper to use taxis in Spain.

Tipoa Car Hire says:
19 April 2013

What you have described is a common theme. Although the practices of these car hire companies in Spain is far from transparent a number of problems occur because the hirer, in this case “Jo” has not read all the details carefully when making the reservation on line. For example, to have the ” Excess Waiver Included and Additional Driver” is not unusual, but I would recommend you take a screen print of any offers made online, so that you can produce this should there ever be any dispute about what was offered exactly. When Record Car said there was no additional driver included, this was a clear mistake and on your confirmation voucher which you should have with you when you collect the vehicle, it would have clearly stated this. Excess Waiver is not the same as Zero Excess, which is also offered normally during the online booking process. Even when No Excess is taken, you will still need to leave a deposit, which is for security purposes more than any other reason, as many cars are never returned !

Finally we offer the option of a full/full fuel policy in Spain, and this is what you should have taken out before arriving, to avoid the 91 EURO charge.

Jo Kay says:
19 April 2013

Thanks for your response. It was very helpful. Appreciate you taking the time to respond.

dave says:
27 January 2015

A full/full deal isn’t all sweetness and light. You see it’s what you didn’t say that’s important.

Solmar (and possibly some others) at Murcia airport will charge 40 euros more on the hire cost for a full/full deal, presumably because by offering this they’re losing their usual extortionate on cost of a tank of fuel on the full/empty deal.

I can’t fathom why hire firms persist in the fuel robbery tactic and expect clients to be happy. Only reason must be to diddle those who haven’t hired before and are not familiar with the fuel scam.


I understand some may be distressed when asked to pay extras at the desk.
I agree that by and large, terms are (generally) set out in the small print when booking online.
I know the hire companies require a hefty deposit should I not take their heavily inflated extra cover. For this reason I have my own annual cover for that.
I know it is usually much cheaper to book through an agent. No idea why, since commission is a factor!

I’ve been renting cars in Spain for years, many times each year, so I’m familiar with tactics and the arrogance or indifference displayed by some desk staff.

Now I would ask Which to extend their study to cover rip offs and bad service that were not covered. How about it Which? Maybe you can change the bad practices!

Recent experiences:
Hire 1. Through Doyouspain (one of the biggest agents) with Solmar.
The solmar guy never showed at the airport arrivals designated meeting point. The office number was on ansafone – it was lunchtime!!
DYS have not given me an explanation. They do not respond to emails.

Hire 2. Through Carjet (another of the big agents) with Dickmans. 28/2/13
The rep in their van in Murcia airport car park demanded 34 euros over the quote because carjet had “made a mistake.” Carjet have not been able to affect a refund and do not respond to subsequent emails.

I will now complete complaint forms when next in Spain. For anyone who doesn’t know the process, google it. It is a serious matter for the companies when you do that.

Kevin says:
22 April 2013

Last year in Spain I had zero excess insurance as part of the package booked online (with Auto-Europe), however as usual there was no cover for tyres, windows, etc, which I knew when I booked. At the desk I chose not to buy Goldcar’s expensive 7 EUR/day relax insurance to cover the rest. I had no problems but I spent the rest of the holiday worrying about it to a degree, so this year I investigated buying cover in the UK. Initially this seemed very attractive and would work out much cheaper for full cover, however after reading many reviews of the various companies servicing Malaga airport it became apparent that if you don’t pay for the extra cover locally they are far more likely to try to rip you off by saying you caused damage that was caused by some previous hirer. If they do this to you then you are very unlikely to be able to obtain the documents needed to be able to claim on whatever policy you bought in the UK, and they can charge what they like to your card without asking. Even if you could obtain documents to meet the requirements of your UK insurer then it is likely to require significant stress! Also you might end up in a lengthy battle with the insurer to get the money back. Basically you have no defence against the scam if you choose this option. On the other hand if you buy their ‘extra’ insurance locally then as a result they probably won’t try it on with you because they know you bought the insurance.

The safest option is to find the cost of the paid locally ‘extra’ insurance before you book, and just consider it part of the hire charge. Also if the fuel policy is full to empty then just assume you’re going to get ripped off with this at 100 to 120 EUR per tank that you may or may not use, and consider this as part of the overall hire charge. Assume as well that whatever they say they will charge your card in EUR will be converted automatically by their computer into GBP at a bad exchange rate. You know all this is going to happen in advance so there won’t be any surprises when you get there and it will be a less stressful experience!

What I’ve said sounds very much like it’s just ‘giving in’ to the dodgy practices they have over there. Normally I wouldn’t condone such views and would want to put up some sort of fight, but it is clear certainly with car hire in Spain that there is nothing that can be done. With the current economic situation these companies are so desparate that they’ll do anything to get your money, and they are all guilty of it to some degree.

Taxis could work out cheaper overall if you’re not doing much, but then of course they can rip you off too.