/ Motoring, Travel & Leisure

Car hire sites are taking you for a ride

Car windscreen

Car hire websites are taking customers for a ride by hitting them with sneaky charges not included in the headline price. Have you been hit by hidden car hire charges?

I love the freedom of renting a car on holiday. But I don’t like the way some car hire companies’ websites work.

When I book a car online, I often don’t know what I’m going to end up paying because there’s little or no transparency around extra fees for things like insurance and fuel. It means I can’t find out whether I’m getting the best deal and have to gamble on how much the extra charges will be.

I’m not alone – in our survey of Which? members, one fifth of the complaints made to car hire companies were about extra charges. And last year on Which? Conversation, there were many who were upset at the way car hire companies operate, including Stephen:

‘We all understand that we can’t hire a car for nothing, but we do expect to have full disclosure of all costs in advance so that we can make a rational choice.’

So, we decided to investigate how upfront car hire companies are being about the full cost of the rental.

Loaded with hidden charges

Our undercover researchers made a total of 120 visits to 10 of the major car hire company and broker websites to see if we could find out the full cost of a week long rental in Spain. We wanted to know how much it would cost us for full insurance cover and fuel, as well as optional extras like additional drivers.

We found that, even at the end of the booking process, more than half our researchers were not satisfied they knew the total car hire price. Of those who had a compulsory fuel charge to pay when they picked up the car, three quarters didn’t know how much it would be.

Around four in 10 didn’t know the cost of the optional excess waiver to reduce the amount they’d have to pay if the car was damaged. And more than half didn’t know if the waiver covered them for damage to tyres, the windscreen or underneath the car. Three in 10 didn’t know the cost of optional extras, including sat navs or an additional driver.

Car hire companies must improve

It’s a principle of European and UK law that essential information is clearly stated at the point of purchase. So, we want all car hire fees to be made clear at the start of the booking process, including the level of excess, the cost of the excess waiver, the cost of any compulsory fuel charge, and the cost of all other extras like sat navs.

Ultimately, if car hire companies aren’t being upfront about the total cost, it’s almost impossible for you to shop around for the best deal. It also means you’ll pay more than you planned to when you hire a car.

We will be sharing details of our investigation and satisfaction survey with the car hire companies to encourage them to make improvements. We have also written to three companies (Avis, Dollar and Enterprise) to remind them of their legal obligations.

Were you made fully aware of all the extra fees when you last hired a car? What hidden charges have you spotted?

Nick says:
19 April 2013

There’s no doubt hiring a car can spoil a trip – during and afterwards – if you have to worry about fictitious damage, overpriced and unfair fuel polices and spurious charges. But are you even sure what you’ll be driving when you arrive?

In recent years my main bugbear has been these aggregator sites that always come up when doing a search online for car hire deals. In many cases they are one underlying company with many identities, which should always make one wary. They offer prices by car groups, but these are seldom in line with other bigger companies.

I’ve hired a car in Greece most recent years, and these sites (eg ArgusCarHire.com) often give quotes way below the big names. I need a car for 2 adults and 2 children, so something like a Golf is about the smallest that will do. But, having clicked on the VW Golf image on such sites and I always get some small poky Hyundai, or a Nissan Note.

I know that they cannot guarantee a certain make and model, but if I’m driving to the UK airport with my VW Golf, it seems reasonable that the car they offer will accommodate the people plus luggage on landing. And they will not even confirm that the car they provide will be big enough in that case.

Yes, you can ring and cancel after booking. But it’s a waste of my time and they sit on my money.

The price jumps between car groups can be large. But to get some certainty of a big-enough vehicle it’s tempting to upgrade yourself – another indirect means of charging extra. In the end I’ve tended to go with a prepaid Hertz or Avis booking, against my instincts, in the hope that such an outfit is more likely to care about its reputation and might even be contactable after the event.

David Crocker says:
19 April 2013

Whilst I agree in principal with much of what the Which report says, the fact is that the information is usually there if people can bother to look for it. I’m afraid a lot of people don’t do the right research beforehand or are either naive or stupid. Some of the comments on here prove my point – like those who complain about having a large deposit taken because they wouldn’t take out the extra sensible insurance. European car rental charges are actually way below the prices you get charged in the UK – has anyone mentioned that ? So it’s hardly surprising that they will try other ways of getting their money out of you.

For around £35 a week top up insurance I always take out cover for tyres and windscreen etc to give greater peace of mind – this isn’t usually covered in the standard insurance. That information is there for those who care to look.

I use Palma airport a lot and of course it is usually extremely busy. I’m currently using GoldCar and I found it somewhat amusing to find it scoring so low in your survey. That could be partly because there is usually a long queue and a long wait to get served, unless you do as I do and pay the extra for the express service. Last year I was seen and processed in less than 5 minutes and walked past a queue of tired and fed up customers.

The point about all of this is take a bit of extra care and thought in booking and you can nullify or at least minimise most of the usual grievances.

At the end of the day around the Med I pay around £250-£270 a week for a brand new medium-sized car including a tank of petrol. That is way below what you would pay in the UK.

Jo Kay says:
19 April 2013

Hi – I think that one point here that you haven’t addressed is that it isn’t always stated what the extra costs will be. I booked a car with Goldcar and when I look at my confirmation email it says that fuel will be between 51 to 156 Euros (that’s a big difference) and it discloses the wheel and windscreen damage insurance but doesn’t tell you how much it costs.

I’d really like to know if wheels and windscreens are excluded from the insurance underwriting that the car hire company has. I’d like to know why they aren’t covered by the main insurance, and what the additional cost of including it in the main policy would be.

RoyC says:
19 April 2013

I think that the posters on here are neither naive nor stupid. They may have been inexperienced at some stage but they appear to have hired enough cars since to be aware of the pitfalls. Nevertheless they have still been duped by the lack of transparency of hire companies and brokers alike as well as unscrupulous practices of the local hirers.

I have been hiring cars for business and holidays for years from Brazil to Romania and do the research, read all the terms and conditions, buy the extra insurances and pre-pay where possible and I am still relieved to finish a hire without an argument on collection and/or return about rates, insurance charges, deposits or any other trumped up reason to take my money.

Even when hiring with global players in the market one should be aware that the local office is often a franchisee and that head office has limited control as to what happens in the country of hire. For instance I have been told that the CDW paid for via Avis’ site in the UK was not enough in Brazil and that I needed to take the local insurance. Likewise a change in rate at Avis Serbia was explained away as the rates on the Avis UK site are for guidance and may change according to local conditions. Rubbish, no such rule existed but complaints to Avis brought no satisfactory response.

Some hires have gone smoothly according to plan for which I am eternally grateful but the concern will always be there until hire companies and brokers take control of their franchees and providers and become more transparent as to exactly how much the hire costs.

Whilst just about every comment made by Which and commentators is valid, there is one overriding matter that I believe needs attending to. The exclusions on the insurance for car hire are a disgrace. Among other situations, damage to the roof is excluded leaving the hirer liable even if somebody drops a brick on the car from a bridge. This has happened to me fortunately not in a hire car. I appreciate that specialist companies who cover car hire insurance excesses do cover roof and other excluded damage but the limit of liability is still low enough to leave the hirer with a potentially uninsurable hefty residual charge.

The problem with the deatils of the quite limited cover provided by the car hire companies is that rarely do any carry out any Demands and Needs Assessments of what they are selling compared to what is needed.

Of course, why would any insurer make it clear that for the very costly cover the seller makes around 80% + margin upon that cover is extremely limited and the so-called legal cover would never cover the legal costs to claim against the hire company? But then again another must do omission by insurers is to dieclose the obvious Conflicts of Interests when cover is required to persue the cover provider/agent of the insurers?

Adrian Planterose says:
19 April 2013

I rent a car nearly every week somewhere – and use what generally is a good comparison website – Carhire3000. But – I have had a debate more than once with them when being hit with extra charges when I collect a car.
Typically – an airport fee, or “winterisation”charges in Germany. Winter tyres are a legal requirement between certain dates in Germany – so why can the cost of that not be included in the quote for the car originally? Instead of which you have to read the full terms and conditions (a separate link to click on from the main booking page) every time (and I rent a car every week?) to find the extras.
Making comparisons is difficult.

If renting regularly – take out an annual excess policy (available online for about £50, £100 to include the USA) to cover the extras they try to sell you at the airport.

My experience with BVRLA is not good. The one case I took to them (over a £5 refuelling charge), they found (quite simply, to my amazement) for the renter. So I chose not to use that renter again. Until some years later. Booking made, went to collect the car in Zurich – and I was refused a car (even though I have a very, very unusual name, and they had accepted the booking). Apparently I had been blacklisted years before over the disputed fuel charge – and they had not told me. As a result of this, I found out the allegations that had been made about me behind my back – and threatened the renter with going to court for defamation.
They then paid for the (far more expensive) car I had to rent at Zurich, and made a donation to my chosen charity as they accepted they were unable to substantiate the allegations made.
All this over just £5 – and the BVRLA had still found in the renters favour. So my advice would be that if you think you’re right – don’t give up.
The renter has also overhauled their blacklisting process – and even though all those in the same boat as me (don’t even know it’s been done) still were not being notified, anyone being added to the list is notified and given the opportunity to dispute it.

I regularly hire cars in the USA and mainland Europe for business purposes. The best service I’ve had was from a backstreet but legit two guys, ten cars outfit in Riga, Latvia. When a car broke down two hours journey into the wilderness they called a local out to bring me a smack and a thermos of coffee and came themselves with a transporter and replacement car. The second best service was in the same country from the Chrysler dealership who passed me on to the other guys during a period when they had no vehicles available.

The worst service has been from Alamo both in Europe and the USA. They often get the business of the ‘aggregators’ by pitching a lower rate that they then recover by ignoring agreements (like multiple drivers – which is safer on long journeys and should cost less not more as only one can drive at any one time!) and doing the fuel scams.

Otherwise experiences have been generally good. I won’t repeat it all but for the inexperienced there is lots of good info above. The only thing I’d stress is that you should comprehensively photograph the car inside and out and the mileage when you drop it off whether or not someone is there.

The best ‘aggregator’ I’ve found is Affordable Car Hire, they will take pains to send a voucher with all the offers etc. clearly stated and they are ABTA so there is someone to complain to.

Oh dear! A ‘senior moment’ in my post above. It was a snack they gave me to keep we warm and fed and not a ‘smack’ for blowing up their car!

Anthony Stirling says:
19 April 2013

Like most retailers and hire companies, they want to screw as much out of you as they can, even if it means being deceitful/misleading/cunning etc.

They should be fetched to book if flouting the relevant laws to protect us, the consumers.

Thank goodness for organisations like Which standing up for the consumer.

I often rent a car at Dublin Airport when on trips to Ireland.
Its very frustrating to face extra insurance , additional driver and airport surcharges to start your journey. I have gotten wise and taken out an annual car hire excess policy but when I informed that to the car hire company they said “oh that’s a waste of money – those guys never pay out as they demand impossible paperwork…”

I always see loads of just arrived tourists tired and taken aback by all the additional charges.
This is no way to treat customers starting their holidays.
Its time car hire companies start to publish transparent pricing – show the true costs if you want the full insurance, extra driver, airport surcharges etc…
Only when true pricing is shown can consumers choose and encourage true competition.

I really hope Which? drives a strong campaign to improve car hire pricing transparency.

Peter McAnena says:
19 April 2013

I certainly can’t complain. Recently hired a car for one week from Stanstead. I booked via rentalcars.co.uk (not in your survey) and they put me with Enterprise. Great value, lovely car and very satisfactory. I didn’t know what I might have to pay for extras but there were none, simple as that. Even a second driver cost nothing extra.

Katharine says:
20 April 2013

We were very nearly caught out by massive hidden charges for a one way car hire in the USA (pick up in New York, drop off in Boston). The rate for the week was £220 ish, but in the small print it said there was a $250 one way fee that was payable locally. I think it was Alamo.

By looking online we found that Budget would rent us a car for £234 for the week, including a £60 one way fee.

Ian says:
20 April 2013

I think that hire companies giving you the car with a full tank of fuel, charging top-dollar for it and telling you to return it empty is a blatant rip-off. We have hired cars all over Europe and have never managed to use the whole tank – even in frustration driving round in second gear!!! For instance, you would be hard pressed to use a whole tank of fuel in somewhere like Lanzarote or Minorca. When we go to France we stay with friends & rarely drive far, the car is just for convenience.

The deal used to be you got the car with a full tank & returned it with a full tank. It’s just another way to rip you off

Peter McAnena says:
21 April 2013

I see now that the agency that arranged my car rental was rentalcars.com (not .co.uk as I carelessly wrote. Anyway, it went very well and there were no final charges or surprises at all when I returned it with a full tank. If I had any complaint at all, which I have not, it would be against the previous user who hadn’t filled it quite as full as I did. Or maybe he filled it before driving to the airport to return it.

I hired one from Hertz at LAX and three days later the second driver crashed it. Hertz sent a recovery truck to take the wreck, and us, back to the office in Orange and gave me another car there and then. I never heard another word about it as I had taken full insurance cover,

Louise says:
21 April 2013

I hired a car for a weekend away through rentalcars.com. This website show you the deals available with different car companies for the duration of your trip. I paid a little extra as an excess waiver as I did not want to have to pay out large amounts of money in the event of an accident during our trip and then have to wait to be reimbursed.

When I arrived at my destination to collect the car, I was informed by the desk that they don’t actually accept the websites excess waiver as the site is just a broker. I ended up having to pay an extra fee to the car company as the only alternate was to put a extortionate charge on my credit card to be returned when the car was returned in the same condition. I simply could not afford this.
In addition to the compnay not accepting the broker’s excess waiver, the car hire company, “Budget car rental”, informed me that customers have had issues in the past in getting their money returned to them from “Rentalcars.com” in the event of an incident. I found this situation very frustrating and badly organised. Our car was returned in the same condition and all was fine. But I ended up paying the same amount through extra charges as I did for the original car hire.

Chris says:
21 April 2013

We had a bad experience a few weeks ago when picking up (or not as it turned out) a hire car from Faro airport.

Having hired cars many times to pick up from Faro airport (and had no previous problems at all) due to having family living in the Algarve, we did our usual search via Argus and a company called Goldcar were our chosen hirer. We paid the admin fee of £5 online and expected to pay a further 60euros on the day. In the end we walked away from Goldcar at Faro as to enable me to drive the bog standard ford fiesta away that day it would have cost 269euros.

I had never heard of the full to empty fuel policy, its certainly something i am aware of now though and will never book a car hire where that is the policy. They were charging 92euros to fill the fiesta. There were other hidden charges as well and the woman at the Goldcar office was simply a sales person with the task of making as much money as possible from us, so we walked away.

Fortunately as we know the Algarve so well we knew we wouldnt be stranded and we got sorted out via the family. The next day we hired a car locally from Albufiera. 70euros for the remaining 6 days, no rip off fuel policy and that 70 euros included the hire of a baby car seat as well.

Id be reluctant to use Argus as a search engine again, certainly would never use Goldcar, moreso down to the hidden add-on charges and atitude of the staff member, more than being stung for the full to empty fuel policy.

But as others state above, checking the t&c’s very carefully is an absolute must.
The other thing i may advise is if its not too far from the airport to your destination, get a taxi and sort out the car hire locally the next day. This avoids stress of queuing and everything else, particularly if you’ve got children.

Jeremy Lingard says:
21 April 2013

My experience of using Holiday Autos to book a car in Murcia, Spain was that holiday Autos sold me an insurance package, which the car rental people at the airport wouldn’t accept, so I had to take out their own extra insurance package. Then there was the now universal extra charge for a tank of fuel with the instruction to bring the car back empty. This is just a scam for them to get free fuel! Who will risk returning for a flight with the tank empty? In my case I only needed the car for two short journeys so I only used 1/4 tank anyway. I’ve used a lot of the companies operating out of Murcia, alicante and Almeria over the past couple of years when I visit my mother and every time there are new extra charges, but its a cartel – they all do it!

Ross H says:
21 April 2013

Thank you Which, it’s about time someone looked into this. We’ve hired cars plenty of times in the past, but the rental companies do seem to have developed some new tricks recently.

1. On some of the broker sites, it’s impossible to see which company will be supplying the car (and therefore their terms and conditions) until you get your voucher. We initially booked a car through eCarz, our booking then went through AutoEurope, and the voucher we received said the car would be supplied by Goldcar. We read dire reports about them online, including complaints about the full-empty policy and hard-sell of their excess buy-out insurance, so cancelled for free and had another go through 121. Again the supplier was Goldcar. At this point we decided to take a calculated gamble on the fuel as the quote was so much cheaper than anyone else’s, and took out our own excess insurance for about £15.

2. Full to empty is a daft policy because no-one in their right mind is going to drive around with an empty tank, so the rental companies always get some fuel for free at the end of the hire. Plus you can’t tell in advance what you are going to be charged (including the fee for the “refuelling service”).

3. Excess insurance. I did try finding out in advance, without success, what Goldcar would charge for this. Despite having my own policy I was subjected to very hard sell of their own policy at the desk, which would have cost more than the actual rental for the week!

4. Snow chains, compulsory in Italy in April but no mention made in advance that we would be charged for these. At Euro 35 we reckon they were getting the cost of the chains back with each hire.

5. Sterling conversion. I had to pay the balance, fuel charge and snow chain rental at the desk. The cost was quoted in Euros, the card reader displayed in in Euros, but on returning home I have been charged in pounds with a 2% markup. And the bit of paper I signed (you know, the A4 sheet, closely typed in font size 1), does include my “agreement” to pay in sterling, but it never occurred to me to check this as all the figures I had seen had been in Euros.

To be fair the car was nearly new and in good condition, and with all the extras the price was probably still a good deal. But in that case why ruin the experience with all these extra charges? We’ve been seriously put off hiring cars until someone sorts this industry out. Good luck!

A few years ago my wife was caught on camera in a yellow box in London in a hire car from Sixt. They forwarded on the picture and charged her card £120 in respect of the fine. I pointed out that as our agent it was their duty to pay the charge within the grace period at the reduced rate of £60.

They refunded £60. What I did not mention to them was that I had phoned TfL and found £60 had been paid originally during the grace period. Which lead me to believe that in fact this needed investigating as I suspect a lot of hirers could be losing out. I did suggest it to Which? as a campaign but at the time nothing happened in the way of interest. Patrick Steen showed some interest last year and as I have now found the paperwork I will arrange to send it on.

Gold Car says:
23 April 2013

I went on Cheap Car Hire in Spain website and Gold Car came up the cheapest. I hired a Group BB car in Murcia Airport in April this year from Gold Car. The internet cost was a total of 122.25 Euros. I got to the airport and was told it is only 3rd party insurance. I said we had driven in Spain for 20 years. I was told ” you may be careful but someone else could drive into you and you may be liable for over 20,000 Euros if the car is a right off, or the window is broken into or the car is stolen” and we kept being intimidated to take the fully comprehensive insurance. We also had to have the full tank of fuel even though we hardly used the car and did not even use half the tank of fuel for the week. Eventually what we paid was 101,03 for the car plus 71.07 for fuel which we only used half a tank and 42.98 for insurance and IVA on top of these charges which gave a grand total of 260.25 Euros. An increase of 148 Euros more than double of what we were quoted on the internet.

Paul O. says:
23 April 2013

Just returned from 10 days in Andalucia and hired a rip-off, sorry car from Malaga Airport through Holiday Autos. The car hire company was Record Autos who were in the basement of the car hire vehicle car park. It was dark, dingy and very little light to inspect the car we were given, even though the clerk said there were two dents on it (only one could I see). In addition I had to pay 83 euros for a tank of fuel and 60 euros for “Comfort Insurance”. This is a complete rip off and you are never given any policy details to peruse. I had a slow puncture on day 2 of the hire (which was probably incurred before I picked up the car) and was told to change the wheel myself when I contacted the vehicle assistance number they give you. When I returned the vehicle at the end of the holiday they checked to see if I had taken out this extra insurance otherwise they were going to charge me !! What started out as just over £100 to hire a car eventually turned out to be well over £250 – more than the cost of our return flights for 3 of us !!!! Never again, complete rip off.