/ 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?


It is irresponsible to encourage drivers to risk running out of fuel, so the only sensible solution is to provide a full tank and expect the customer to return the car in that state – or pay for refuelling. Of course, companies will probably ensure that you don’t receive a full tank, helped by inaccurate fuel gauges, but you don’t need to go abroad for this treatment.

David Thornley says:
21 April 2012

We rented a Nissan Note from Europcar in Limassol, Cyprus in March for 10 days. We knew we would use the compulsory full tank (bring it back empty, sir) but I was determined to take it back empty!

We bought a cheap 5 litre fuel can, filled it with the cheapest petrol and drove around on empty with lights flashing. One journey, Limassol to Larnaka (50 miles?), we were on empty before we started. It went back empty and we gave the can and fuel to our room maid – most unusual tip she had ever had!
We never had to use the can of fuel!

Besides the obvious consumer protection issues, forcing customers to buy more fuel than they need encourages customers to drive uneconomically as there is no financial incentive to save fuel. It is surprising that such practices are allowed in Spain, a country that cut speed limits in early 2011 in order to save fuel.

Europcar are fine exponents of this practice.

Luckily when I experienced this at Duesseldorf Airport, I was able to claim all expenses back. This is exactly what they plan for. Either a) a business user who won’t care and just claim all the money back anyway or b) it’s a family on a holiday who usually just want to hand the car back without hassle and get back on their plane home.

It’s practically a licence to print money, but profiting off peoples emotional non-ties. I’m in the wrong business 🙂

John says:
27 April 2012

It’s good to be warned about this but what we REALLY NEED from an article like this is to know how to avoid being ripped off, ie: who CAN we trust! Names and websites please. So we can book confident we’re not going to be ripped off. We’re flying to Alicante, can anyone recommend any good hire companies/brokers please?

Michael Harris says:
27 April 2012

The same conditions apply in Cyprus from private hire companies.

Clive says:
27 April 2012

Last year we rented a car from Goldcar at Malaga airport. Our prebooked online price was about £80 for the week for a VW Golf Bluemotion and when I picked up the car I was charged 97 Euros for a full tank. I queried it but was told they were the conditions of hire – I had not booked direct with Goldcar but through Car Hire 3000 so I did not know, until shortly before the holiday when I received my hire voucher, which company it would be. I was a bit annoyed by this because we had not intended doing many miles and using it just for to and from the airport to avoid expensive taxis. We returned the car 3/4 full which was 70+ Euros straight in their pockets. In future I will stick to the higher basic priced Avis or Hertz where it is full out, full in and they have palm tops when you return the vehicle to calculate exactly how much is needed to refill the vehicle. They do charge premium rates for fuel if you do that, so I tend to spot the last filling station nearest the airport when we collect the car and fill up there on return so there is a minimal amount needed to refill.

David says:
27 April 2012

In my youth in Australia car hire was completely fair and sensible — I get the car with a full tank and I return it with a full tank– thus only paying for exactly what I use . It is not rocket science but it is totally honest .

Car hire petrol policies in UK and Europe are nonsense I have just seen the which report on Spanish car hire , their system is obviously designed to coin extra money ; I recall hiring a car in the UK, when they gave me the car with just a small amount of fuel in . The idea was that I return it with a similar amount which is awkward to manage and usually leads to me returning it with more than I recieved it with .

Geoff says:
27 April 2012

Some companies used to have a policy of having half a tank on collection return empty which worked very well, but they all seem to have jumped on the bandwagon. One or two companies will bend the rules if pushed when booking, dont book direct with the hire company.

Chris Craggs says:
27 April 2012

We had two weeks in Spain in March, picking a hire car up at Alicante. The cost of the car for two weeks was £70 – to expect a full tank of fuel to be included would have been naive!


John says:
27 April 2012

Chris, I don’t think anyone expects the fuel to be included, that would be naive as you say.

We just expect to pay a FAIR price for the fuel we ACTUALLY use. ie: collect with a full tank (paying a DEPOSIT if necessary) and return it with a full tank (having filled it at out own expense at a petrol station of our choosing) to receive the FULL deposit back.

What they are doing is profiteering. Regardless of whether or not its in the T&Cs and whether or not people read them, being charged over the odds for more fuel than can fit in the tank is a rip-off and totally unfair! Especially if you have no idea how much that’ll be until you’re actually there in the hire office! Paying for what you use is the fairest method (ie:full-full).

We’re flying to Alicante soon, can anyone please recommend any good hire companies/brokers that don’t charge for fuel in this rip-off manner?

Who did you book with and what vehicle was that Chris? And how much did they charge for fuel?


John says:
28 April 2012

Hi Chris,

£70 for two weeks sounds amazing, the best I’ve found is £236 (for a Ford Focus, albeit 2 wks in the summer). Would you be kind enough to let us know how much the fuel and other extras came to and who you booked with?


Geerebox says:
27 April 2012

Has Which? anything to fear from publishing the names of the companies concerned??

Hi Geerebox, you can read more about this investigation here: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2012/04/hidden-car-hire-fuel-charges-exposed-282689/

Tony Myers says:
27 April 2012

It is a rip off and difficult to avoid at Malaga. Hiring the smallest 4-door car last October, I ended up paying 75€ for the full tank and only used half in the week i was there. I did complain but to no avail. Then, when I hired a car in Gibraltar, actually just across the border in Spain, in January for 5 days I did find that Economy car hire would hire their smallest 4-door car out on a 3/4 to 3/4 tank basis for up to 6 days and that was fine. Otherwise it was only for 3 days or less that the cheaper hire companies would hire out cars on a full to full basis.

Last November, I rented a car for two weeks from Fuerteventura airport, through rentalcars.com. When I downloaded the voucher it was for Goldcar, and across the top in large bold capitals it said ‘PAID IN FULL’, just as your researcher reported for one of her hires. Goldcar don’t have a desk at the airport – we were taken by minibus to their facility on an industrial estate some distance away, where I joined a queue of irate customers. The reason for their ire soon became apparent. We were not only being forced to accept the non-refundable fuel charge, but also additional insurance, ‘Seguro Relax’, at 70 euros for two weeks, in addition to the CDW which we’d already paid for in advance. Apparently, CDW still leaves the hirer responsible for damage caused by anything other than an actual collision, and also, incredibly, mechanical breakdowns. The manner of the receptionists was rather intimidating, and they made it quite clear that if you did not accept the terms, you were on your own. With no other transport options immediately available in the vicinity, everyone reluctantly accepted. Goldcar even have the cheek to make a virtue of their fuel policy. On the rental agreement it states, ‘Thanks to the full/empty policy, enjoy a quick return, and no waiting’. I certainly won’t be returning.

Rene van Dordregt says:
21 January 2013

Exactly the same thing happened to us when we booked a car through rentalcars.com including insurance. We had to pay the additional insurance called ‘seguro relax’ and we even had to pay for an upgrade when they didn’t have the car we booked. Another rip-off are the fuel charges: you have to pay for a full tank, but if you return with a half tank (the island is quite small so not a uncommon thing) you don’t get any money back. Better you another rental car company!

John says:
28 April 2012

Thanks for all warnings but can we please have some positive advice. Who CAN we trust?

Come on Which?, where’s your Best Buy tables for this? And can we have some really useful advice rather than ‘Read the whole contract when you’re there’, ‘Check what’s covered’. It’s far too late for that once your stuck there with a tired family! We NEED clear information BEFORE we book.

I would have thought there is a good chance that this sort of policy is invalid as a result of EU Directive 93/13/EEC, which was implemented in the UK as the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. The annex to the Directive lists examples of terms that are unfair, and this includes “terms providing for the price of goods to be determined at the time of delivery”. Unless Spain has not implemented this directive 19 years after it was brought in, there should be similar legislation in Spain. Perhaps the Consumers Association could investigate and take action? Or they could encourage the European Commission to do so?

Kit says:
10 May 2012

Yesterday I went to the Hertz internet page to rent an economy car with no extras for the 6 days that we were going to be in San Sebastian and leaving the car in Bilbao. I carefully read the terms and conditions regarding fuel which said that the car would have a full tank and I should take it back full. I paid with my credit card after which it said my payment had been processed but then there was a flashing sign saying that they would take £200 as a fuel deposit. Not only was this not mentioned in the terms and conditions there is no way that a full tank of fuel for an economy car is going to cost £200.
I then tried to cancel the reservation (allowed within 7 days of making the reservation without penalty), but when I clicked on the cancel button an error sign came up.
I then emailed Hertz complaining about the charge and saying I wanted to cancel my booking but wasn’t able to and this was there reply:

“As a general guideline and in order to give you an idea about the deposit amount, please, note that it is usually calculated depending on the estimated cost for the rental, a full tank of fuel, and any optional services/equipment that you may request upon pickup of the car (e.g. child seats, satnav, optional coverage, extra days, etc.). Therefore, the exact amount will only be communicated to you upon collection of the vehicle (£200 is an approximate figure).

I would also like to inform you that the staff of each Hertz location has the faculty to alter the deposit amount at their discretion.”

I eventualy cancelled my reservation by email. ALL charges should be made clear prior to paying.

Lesley says:
27 May 2012

I hired a car at Jerez airport last week. I hired it through Holiday Autos from Godcar Spain. It cost me £115.20 for 6 days. When I went to pick it up I was charged the following:

70,34 carburante
15,25 Conductor adicional
29,66 Seguro Relax
20,75 IVA 18%
Which totalled £114.47 – £230 to hire a car for 6 days.

The fuel policy was in the small print on the details but I did not read it so it is my fault. I returened the car half full which means they made about 44 Euros extra out of the hire.

I feel that all cars should be hired on the full/full principle – its much fairer.

Kevin says:
16 June 2012

I just hired an Astra from Goldcar at Malaga airport. They charged a mandatory 100 Euros for a full tank (56 litres) when it would have cost me only around 76 Euros to fill this car myself at a local station. That’s greater than a 30% markup on the pump price despite their documentation using terms like ‘competitive’ and ‘market price’. When I queried it with them locally the staff member said it was because it was from an airport and I had to pay more tax, which was a blatant lie. To make it worse they without my knowledge or consent converted it to GBP at a very poor exchange rate and then had the cheek to state on the agreement that I had chosen this conversion when I definitely had no choice. This other little scan is becoming more widespread in Spain and sadly there is no real defence against it.

battersby1946 says:
4 September 2012

full/full good idea but thers not many car hirers do this,,as its a big earner for the hirer..AND OF COURSE A TOTAL RIP-OFF

This has just happened to us in Ireland; we went for a funeral and travelled very few miles and were charged for a full tank, ie 89 euros; a company well worth avoiding in the future.

ben casina says:
16 October 2012

who is this company that is worth avoiding,??