/ Motoring, Travel & Leisure

Do car hire tricks drive you mad?

Car hire

Do you hire cars when you go on holiday? And have you had a problem with the car companies you’ve hired through? We reveal the top pitfalls to avoid when booking a hire car.

Most of us are fortunate enough to not have a problem with hire cars – our research shows that nine out of 10 of you haven’t had a problem in the last year. But a significant minority of people are getting a raw deal when hiring cars abroad.

Here we expose the top three tricks of the car hire trade to avoid – and thanks to Which? Conversation commenters for bringing some of these to our attention.

Trick 1 – Damage charges

Customers have found they are either charged when they return a car, or when they get home, for damage they haven’t caused. On returning vehicles, we’ve heard about staff magically gravitating towards something they seem to know about already.

Avoid this by making sure that any damage is noted correctly by staff on pick-up. Take photos or a video of the car, which will prove its condition at that time. On drop-off, get a member of staff to sign a receipt saying that the car is OK. If this isn’t possible, take more photos to go with the ones you took at pick-up.

Trick 2 – Excess waiver fees

You’ll be told that if the car’s damaged you’ll have to pay an excess fee towards repairs. You’ll then be asked to pay a daily fee for a waiver that will reduce the excess charge, often to zero. The total cost could be as much as the original hire cost.

Avoid this by taking out a third-party excess policy in advance and bring the details with you. Annual policies for Europe start from £40; single trip cover is around £25.

Trick 3 – Fuel options

The biggest fuel trick to watch out for is the requirement for you to pick up the car full and return it empty. As David Croker told us:

‘My biggest gripe is having to pay for a full tank at collection and having to return it empty or lose out. I’m not going to drive 700km in a week in Mallorca and I usually return a half-full tank. I won’t accept this anymore.’

Avoid this by calling the hire company before paying to check what the fuel policy is. If you’re booking through a broker, ask them for a supplier with the fuel policy you want.

It’s also a good idea to protect yourself by taking photos of the fuel gauge when you pick up and return the car. And fill the car up close to the airport to make sure the tank’s full on return.

Other car hire tricks

Automatic toll collecting equipment can be costly with a hefty hire charge per day to pay, so check whether this is a legal requirement and whether it can be turned off. And if unexpected or unauthorised payments appear on your statements, raise this with your card company or bank.

Watch out for the hidden costs of car upgrades – often the extra cost of fuel, especially on a full-empty deal, will outweigh the benefit of driving a nicer car. And be aware of the cost of sat nav hire – it could be cheaper to buy foreign maps for your sat nav rather than hiring one with the car.

Have you experienced one of these car hire tricks? And if you’ve been faced with other tricks that we haven’t featured so far, let us know.


Last summer my wife and I hired a “Firefly” car at Pisa Airport.
After 14 days use but only travelling reasonably short journeys around decent roads in Tuscany when I got home I got a bill of 64 euros for washing the car!
I complained twice and had to wait about 3 months before they eventually refunded the money.
Undoubtedly this was a scam to make a quick 64 euros as the car was in pristine condition when returned – thank goodness my wife checked our Credit Card bill !!

I have full hire care insurance from my American Express Platinum Card. I can therefore decline all optional insurance that a hire car company tries to sell me and American Express’s insurers will pick up the bill for any losses from alleged damage. It’s therefore no loss to me if a hire car company tries one of these dirty tricks, but I am sure that American Express’s insurers are wise to this and would fight it vigorously.

The other scam is car seats for children. Invariably old, dirty and knackered, we’ve been quoted the same price for the car seats as for the car itself. And you can only ‘request’ them when you book, and you’re at the mercy of the rental office as to whether they’ve actually got the right size in stock. By the time you’re at the airport, it’s too late to choose someone else. Given that the car seats cost less to buy than the price that you pay to hire them, it’s morally fraud, even if it’s legal.

DavidC. says:
17 March 2014

Can anyone recommend a good insurance company to provide the 3rd party excess cover at home and abroad?
My own company – Lloyds Motor Insurance/BISL -said they did not provide 3rd party excess cover.

Chris says:
17 March 2014

Hi David, I have used ‘insurance4carhire.com’ for several years. The cover on offer seems to cover most eventualities and I find them a very efficient company to do business with.

Happily, I have not faced the situation where I have needed to use their service, but it is a great comfort to know that the facility is there if required. I always choose the ‘worldwide’ service but be aware that ‘worldwide’ is not sufficient if you intend to drive in the USA or Canada. I understand that this is because car hire in these 2 countries don’t include any insurance cover for CDW / 3rd party risks, so you need to cover for these risks as well as covering for any excess.

Several other companies also offer insurance for excess charges – do an internet search.

DavidC. says:
17 March 2014

Hi Chris: Many Thanks. Very helpful

Michael Fishwick says:
29 May 2014

I was conned by Dickmanns out of £407.84p for damage I DID NOT DO! it makes me Seth, Avoid Dickmanns at all costs, they are conning people daily, and nothing is done about it.

That guy who owns Dickmanns as no morals whatsoever, I hope that he gets his just rewards for all that theft, and ends up eating porridge for a long, long time, and all of his assets be taken away as proceeds of crime!!

I am a frequent car renter and have an insurance4carhire policy so as to avoid the much higher charges companies offer. Recently I rented a car via carrentals.co.uk (whom I always use) from Green Motion at Stansted airport. At the outset we walked round the car and the (minimal) bodywork damage was noted on a form. When I returned the car I was told there was an additional small (under a centimetre in diameter) chip on the wheel arch. I wasn’t present when the car was inspected but I returned to the car to view the damage and took photos to support the first claim on my insurance4carhire policy I’ve ever made. There was indeed a tiny break in the paintwork. How it had come about I have no idea. Nothing similar has ever happened to me before, and I couldn’t help feeling I was being punished for not having taken out their excess insurance. I was toke it was probably a stone flying up from the road surface. The lessons to me are don’t allow the vehicle to be inspected without being present, and don’t rent from Green motion again.

One of the problems that I have faced by hiring a car from San Francisco airport is as a result of the Golden Gate Bridge no longer having toll booths. The toll is collected by other means, such as the “FasTrak” device fitted to vehicles, including hire cars. This is fine, but hire companies charge by the day for this facility, so that if you only use the bridge southbound once to take the car back to the airport, as I do, you pay for every day you hire the car, and not each time you need to pay a toll. This can amount to a reasonable sum, say 50 dollars for a 10 day hire, depending on the hire company. Also, it can be difficult to ascertain the charge until you reach the airport desk to collect the car.

Another unfair charge is the levy for breakdown assistance. Pressure is applied at the airport desk to take out this insurance, but my feeling is that you are paying to hire a car that works, and if it does not, for any reason, it should be the responsibility of the hire company to ensure that you get one.

As a young family with one child in an extended rear-facing car seat and usually travelling with a couple of suitcases and pushchair as well as taking our own car seats with us (hire costs for these are prohibitive and the seat quality seems to be variable at best) space in both the boot and rear seat are critical. We know that we can fit everything comfortably in a medium-sized family hatchback, but that anything smaller becomes very difficult.

Therefore, when booking a hire car, we always book a car described as a VW Golf / Vauxhall Astra / Ford Focus “or similar” as we know that pretty much anything in this class will be able to accommodate our family and luggage. However, hire car firms seem to have a very odd idea as to what constitutes ‘similar’ and on the last five rentals when arriving at the airport and proceeding to collect our hire car we have been presented with a Nissan Juke, a Hyundai ix20, a Renault Captur, a Citroen C3 Picasso and Renault Clio estate. None of these cars are in the same class as those specified at the time of booking and none is remotely similar either in terms of size or performance.

On each occasion when challenging the representative – usually in a foreign language or limited English – we have been assured that we have been given a similar car to that which we have paid for because it has been put in the same ‘group’ by the hire company. They always dig out their group lists and highlight them as proof that they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not the poor reps’ fault, but the people higher up who are deciding what cars go in which group. They don’t seem to bare any resemblance to conventional classes of car and there seems to be no comeback to the statement that the hire company has put them in the same group so they must be comparable, even though these lists are rarely available at the time of booking.

On several occasions I have written and complained to the UK customer services once returning home, but with no greater success – they merely repeat the same arguments. I once spent half an hour on the telephone talking to a customer services person with apparently very little knowledge of individual car models and their sizes arguing that a Hyundai ix20 1.3 was in no way ‘similar’ to a VW Golf 1.6 and that whilst a Hyundai i30 would have been a valid alternative, an ix20 has more in common with a VW Polo-sized i20. But because the car hire firm put them in the same group, i must be mistaken.

When we questioned the provision of a Nissan Juke, we were told that we should be grateful as this represented an ‘upgrade’ to booked car, despite being significantly smaller in both boot space and rear seat room. We had a long argument over the Hyundai ix20 but to no avail and had to make several long journeys with luggage on the back seat which wouldn’t fit in the small boot. On the most recent occasion we spent over an hour arguing with a rep over the Renault Clio estate which he was adamant was a bigger car than a Golf, despite the fact that we couldn’t physically fit the rear facing child seat behind the driver or front passenger. Being an estate there was plenty of room in the boot, but the cabin was the same (smaller) size as a regular Clio supermini – a whole class size below the car we booked. Eventually he relented and gave us an Alfa Romeo Gulietta which he swore was smaller, even after we’d successfully loaded in all of our luggage and car seats.

All of this makes what is often an already tiring and frustrating experience only more so and there seems to be no easy way around it other than to hire the class of car bigger than we really need, incurring further expense.

Karen says:
24 August 2014

We have recently returned from a 200 mile road trip around the USA. We rented our hire car from Budget at San Francisco Airport. We booked the car in March as we wanted an SUV type vehicle so the children were comfortable in the back seats.
We fought the usual battles with declining upgrades and then the. Clerk told my husband to sign the form. I queried an amount shown as it said $6.49 per day: Accepted and reiterated that we didn’t want any extras. The desk clerk was really dismissive and me me feel stupid when he said it wasn’t an extra, it was part of our hire and we would pay no extra fees for the hire but that we had to sign the form to release the car. Lo and behold, we have returned to a $120+ charge for personal accident insurance we neither wanted nor needed. Budget refuse to acknowledge any complaint and just say we signed a rental agreement. They will not refund our £62.42. I am holding out little hope that our credit card company will pay any money out either as the form was signed albeit under false pretences. I’m hoping they are successful in their chargeback though because I don’t see why they should be able to lie to and steal from people.

I must be a very lucky person as I have only ever had one problem – the hire company double billed me for fuel in Spain. They were apologetic and refunded me. I hire cars regularly all over the world(probably 10 times a year for the last 20 years) , have never paid to waiver the insurance and never had any real problems. Mind you i do always check the car carefully and am very careful what i sign, no matter how tired i am. To be honest i am very grateful that someone is their with a nice clean car and usually a smile no matter what time i arrive.

Regarding the satnav extra charge “scam”: I looked up Alamo’s (Orlando) charges and found that it’s an exorbitant $70 extra per week. EVEN WORSE, however (and I emailed Alamo to confirm this) if you opt to hire a luxury car like a Cadillac which has satnav fitted as standard equipment, I was astonished to learn that Alamo actually DISABLES the satnav on these cars, only to re-connect it on payment of the extra fee! I shall not be hiring from Alamo.

Hired a mustang at tampa airport with budget after arriving telling us the only car in the group was a shi-e vw beetle convertible talked into up grading to a stingray an extra $3000 -ucking con from the americans once again