/ 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?


I use Nice airport 8-10 per year and hire a car every time currently through Avis. I’ve explored all other convenient transport options (to get to a holiday home around 70 mins away) and I do believe car hire still represents the best value. my observations are thus; Nice is a ‘premium’ airport, car hire companies charge you more for the pleasure of hiring from this airport than say Marseille or Toulon – if you don’t need to, don’t fly into Nice. take pictures if you have a phone with that function of all scratches and dents before you depart. watch out for the fuel premium if you don’t return it with a full tank. if you do fill up try not to keep filling until the dispenser cuts out – you’ll end up putting more in than you need to. think about the extra insurance – they’ve sort of got you by the goolies however think about the last time you had an accident anywhere at any time? Its a calculated risk and over 12 years i’ve gone basic and not had to make a claim – lucky maybe? I don’t think so. Do sign up for (in this instance) Avis ‘Preferred’, anyone can and you get your own desk avoiding terrible summer queues (that’s why I ditched Europcar – just about the most incompetent car hire company on the planet), 10% discount and occasional upgrades. Do look out for deals via airlines – BA especially offer great rates via the partnership they have with Avis – last deal I got was £16 for 3 days, smallest car option. the post event invoice is another matter – a complete mess in my experience however when I have had enough time to refuel before delivering back I have made sure they haven’t tried to double charge by including the fuel charge on the invoice. I check all the time now because i’ve ‘caught them’ and got them to
reimburse. I swear they do it on purpose.

JM appears to confirm the terrible conducts that need to be avoided – time served – costs saved – not for any other innocents with enterprising as ever hire scams?

Mike Birchall says:
24 April 2013

I used Argus Car Hire from the airport at Barcelona. They don’t actually have an office there, you have to pick your car up in the main carpark near to the flag posts, a bit odd i thought but i hadn’t paid anything up front so i wasn’t to worried at that point. About 4 blokes arrived all at the same time with cars for new arrival. They were all sharing the same payment machine from the back of a van that a 5th bloke had arrived in, it had a laptop, printer & payment machine. I had printed out my proposal offer and had it with me. The guy who dealt with me spoke good English & tried adding on some other items, i refused to pay for these other items showing him my offer and telling him that was all i was going to pay. He tried it on saying i had to have these extra’s or he couldn’t release the car i told him fine i’ll go and hire one from inside the terminal and started to walk away. He called me back saying i could have the car at the price on the proposal but keep it to myself. I only called his bluff because i was on my own and had all day to get where i was going I was in no rush. I must admit the price i got the car for was about £20 less than the next best offer hence the reason why i gave it a go……

Quentin says:
27 April 2013

I worked in car rental for many years and can point out a couple of things that may help with getting good service:

Rental desk staff work huge hours and are very badly paid – talk to them and empathise a bit with the stress that they are under – they are all human and will bend over backwards for a friendly nice customer, rates are flexible and your chances of an upgrade increase massively.

Management operate an airline booking system that relies on squeezing as many people into as few cars as possible (utilisation targets used to be about 90%) – this is massively stressful as I have known many occasions when I was expecting a customer and had no clue what vehicle I was going to put them in, so when a customer was flexible and nice in that situation I was putty in their hands.

If they are struggling for cars – offer to take a “workshop car” – it might only have very light damage but it could really help the staff out and may get you one or two free upgrade levels – management are obsessed with utilisation of fleet so often choke off the supply of cars – this is incredibly stressful for staff when you are trying to get 15 customers into 11 cars!

Specialist cars are always extremely rare – if you don’t need an estate car but have one booked, offer to take something smaller – you will often see the stress falling away from a rental receptionist who is now your best mate.

Offer to take a van instead of a car at peak times – such as Christmas – they may well have a yard full of them as businesses get quiet and give you a stunning deal – remember rental companies have the same number of cars pretty much all year round so prices may well soar as supply gets tight

Try offering to take an dirty car – again when the reception staff and car checkers are stressed out, they may well bite your hand off and knock something off in gratitude.

With both of the above make sure that any existing damage is noted or that “car collected dirty” is noted, especially on a one way rental.

Car rental companies are given really strict rules by their insurers – imagine how much a policy costs for one car nowadays and multiply that by a fleet of up to 35000 – the rental staff do not enjoy conflict any more than you do – if they ask for ID, credit cards and have exemptions (eg overhead damage) it’s not the rental firms policy – it’s the insurance policy.

Always ask to be shown the controls on a car even if you’ve driven it before – this is particularly hard at airports but gives you the opportunity to check the car for damage – get them to note ALL damage down as any un identified is always investigated and staff are disciplined if they can’t explain which customer caused the damage.

Most rental cars are supplied by car manufacturers under leasing and buy back deals at a low cost to the rental firms but they get hammered for any damage (scuffed wheels, missing wheel trims, minor scratches, even missing cigarette lighters) – the rental companies have to pay for all this, which is why they jump on customers that they think have caused it, so check for damage when collecting a car very thoroughly – I once collected a car from Dublin – checked it and found the mirror was hanging off – only to be told when reporting it – that it was wear and tear!!!

Remember that hiring a car is a form of loan essentially – you are borrowing an asset worth thousands of pounds with little or no credit checking for a few hundred pounds, so don’t be surprised when rental companies want a bit of security.

If you possibly can – always return a car when the office is open and get your receipt/invoice copy before leaving if the car is damaged after you leave it – you remain responsible until the office reopens – and remember rental staff get lied to all the time by customers about how damage occurred so they do end up pretty cynical.

Thanks for some constructive comments, Quentin.

We should certainly treat the company’s staff with respect, though the hours they work and how much they are paid is not really the concern of the customer.

A booked car may not be available because it has been in an accident, broken down, or simply not been returned in time. I’m happy to be flexible occasionally but if I was not given the type of car I have booked on a regular basis I would be discussing breach of contract. Hertz once thought they were being kind giving me an upmarket 4WD instead of a small car, because they could not find my booking, but that meant a rather high fuel bill.

My biggest concern with hire cars is that they have often not been checked over. There is never an excuse for providing cars that are not fit to be on the road.

Car hire companies have some challenging customers. Several years ago, before we booked everything on websites, I planned a brief trip to Dublin. I called several car hire companies to get prices and terms. I made a note of them all and over a coffee made a choice of hire company. I rang up, confirmed the details and made the booking. I arrived at the airport, went to the hire desk, supplied my details and to my shock they did not have a record of my booking. I told them how inefficient etc. they were, and they stepped in quickly to say they of course would supply me with an upgrade, at no extra cost, as they had caused the problem. I accepted their offer, left the airport, had my few days in Dublin area, returned the car at the end of the trip and flew home to London.

After returning home, I decided to file my record of hire and dump the notes I made of the other hire companies. It was then I realised that I had actually prebooked the car with Argus car hire but had presented myself at the Atlas car hire desk. Not surprising they had no record. I had to then phone Argus to explain and apologise and ask for my deposit to be refunded. which they did, without hassle. I also had to phone Atlas and explain that I had been at fault.
I wonder if anybody else has made a similar error.

What evolved after ordering a chinese takeaway from our local indian restaurant was quite amusing!

Happens all the time and is just part of business for all of us. Bit like wrong numbers, not too common but no issues to be charged for?

james says:
30 April 2013

I have just returnd from a two day trip to Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, I flew into Belfast Airport to collect my “fully prepaid” car from Sixt – only to be told I had to pay an extra £24 administration fee to extend the insurance cover to the Republic of Ireland. When I challenged this, I was told it was clear on the Sixt website and they coudl not be held repsonsible for the booking website “car crawler”. When I got home, I checked thecar crawler website which in the samll print said “cross border travel : charges may apply – Please check with the car rental agent on arrival”.
My advice – don’t wait to be stung on arrival – check before booking.

I rented a SUV through autoeurope/Tthrifty at Calgary airport and expected from the paperwork to return it with a full tank of fuel.

On arrival I was informed that I would be charged C$92 for a tank of fuel and to return the car empty. I queried the rate with the desk staff and was told that it was cheaper than the local fuel outlets. That was a lie as the SUV only had a 50 litre tank making the fuel price approx C$1.80/ltr when the highest price I could find during our 2 weeks of touring was C$1.22. When I returned the car I queried this charge but was told that it was a “Standard” charge for the type of pre paid voucher that I had and that there was nothing that could be done. There was nothing on my voucher that stated these terms and my query to autoeurope on my return to UK received an off hand & totally unhelpful reply.To my way of thinking this charge is theft.

The rental also did not include any breakdown cover but this could only be purchased as a bundled package with various other insurances at C$7.99/day + tax. I am fully covered for all additional insurances and a zero excess by my credit card but had to take the full package to receive any breakdown cover. Another ripoff.

I will be very wary of using autoeurope again and will never again entertain using Thrifty.

EW says:
16 June 2013

I had exactly the same experience in Portugal… seems pretty much universal! I’d be interested to hear if anyone ever has a good experience and if so, with which company… there should be legislation in place to curb these exploitative tactics

I went to Malaga in February and booked a car with DoYouSpain as it appeared to be the cheapest. When we arrived at the airport, there was a 2-hour queue at the Goldcar desk with 5 other booths with no customers. Having committed money up front we could not change our minds. We were forced to buy a full tank of petrol, but we were only in Spain for a week. With small-car (Renault megane)fuel consumption rates, although we travelled around, the car was 3/4 full on return, leaving us about 80 euros out of pocket. DoYouSpain would have known about the regular queues and full tank policy but the website did and does not mention either. Before writing this, I put the above to DoYouSpain (who have been emailing about once a week since the original booking with “deals”), saying I was a Which? member and would be sending my views to you, but two weeks later there has been no reply.

I recently hired a car in Malaga through AutoEurope. Following a 3 hour wait to pick up the car I was asked to pay a security deposit of 600 Euros which was debited from my account. The deposit has not yet been returned despite it being debited from my account on the 22nd April.

Auto Europe has showed no interest in escalating or progressing my complaint.

Car hire abroad is becoming increasingly problematic and stressful.

Barry Lipscomb says:
7 May 2013

Having followed this string of comments for several weeks now – and commented once – I remain convinced that most of the dissatisfaction comes from those who have chosen a very cheap deal. That very rarely works and is hardly surprising. To the many who’re that Malaga Airport I say use Helle Hollis – they are A1 in every department and the price is always competitive. Elsewhere, I suggest getting the best deal you can from the bigger operators, e.g. by using Avis Preferred.

Still want the cheapest possible deal – fine but don’t be so surprised when you are disappointed

That’s a bit unfair, people are complaining about being charged for extra costs they weren’t aware of, not “being disappointed”. If I hire from a cheap company, OK I expect a bit of an old car, or something not very smart, but I don’t expect hidden charges and extra fees… that’s a different thing altogether and you’re not understanding the issue.

SH says:
8 May 2013

I’ve rented a car from Houston Intercontinental Airport at least a dozen times and am used to the standard upsell techniques, but Budget Rent-a-car last month were much more pushy than I am used to.

The standard procedure:
– The US websites used to not include any insurance at all in their quote, and left it to be discussed and booked at the rental desk when you arrive after a long flight. This seems to have improved over the last 10 years as I don’t recall being offered a vehicle with more than $1000 excess since.
– When I got to the desk, they would always offer all the upgrades by quoting “upgrade to a sports car for only $25?”. Of course, they mean $25 per day, but they leave you to do the mental arithmetic.
– Whatever insurance option you went for, they will always offer you more. My recent rental included “full CDW” (according to the agent website) but I wasn’t sure if it included an excess, and was still offered more insurance at the desk with no clarity about what was covered, other than that I had the “basic” option and they were offering the “gold” option.
– Usually if I rejected the upgrade from my selected “Economy” car at Houston Airport, they’d upgrade me anyway because they had very few economy cars. One year I was upgraded to an SUV, which seemed great until the first gas fill-up.
– On my most recent rental, Budget’s rep suggested “The car you booked is not big enough so I’m going to get you our smallest SUV”, implying that it was a free upgrade because he wasn’t giving me a choice in the matter. Further questioning confirmed that he was intending to charge the full rental fee for the SUV. He even had the gall to try to threaten us that we would not get the four door car we’d booked but would instead get a 2 door VW Beetle if we didn’t accept an upgrade!
– The Agent website did make clear that “Local taxes and fees may apply” for a rental from Houston Airport, but I was shocked when at the desk, the “Non Package Items” line item on the contract came to an additional $190 for a 19 day rental. The charge was explained away by the rental agent as “taxes” and a refusal to fully itemise the charges. After several complaints to Budget, they eventually refunded the fee after three separate members of staff proved unable to clarify what the charge was for.
– I’ve found that the prepaid fuel option usually is offered at pretty good value – recently $3.30/gallon when $3.40+ was the going rate outside. When you prepay though, you need to return the car empty, so if you fail to do so and leave a bit of fuel in the tank, you are in effect paying extra for the fuel you originally bought.

Col33 says:
8 May 2013

I have hired 2 cars this year. One in New Zealand and the other in Mallorca.

When I collected the car in New Zealand they offered a full tank of petrol at 20% discount of the pump prices. At Mallorca I was not given an option and had to pay for a full tank and a logistic surcharge for them to fill the car up.

My main car-hire gripe is insurance. I wish every car rental came fully insured.

How many time when you pick up a car do you get “You are only insured for…..”. “You need to take out insurance for ………”.

It’s part of the process of upselling to make vast profits over the headline or advertised price – bit like banks and mis-selling only regulators have not looked at the car hire rip-offers as they are not meaned to be selling insurances as an additional product as it requires regulatory authorisations which most hire companies do not have. !!! One can work out why they break the rules for profits – see banks, insurers and most of the Financial Services Industries?

Car Hire says:
9 May 2013

After several unsatisfactory car rentals in Spain in the past and reading all the comments of other dissatisfied customers on car rentals I am looking to hire a car in Spain in July again. I have been through several companies and find that none of the websites give full details of what is covered and how much the extra insurance would cost if you want to have fully comprehensive instead of 3rd party. Knowing this information when you book is better as you have time to think if you need it or not. They scare you when you get to the airport and sell the full comprehensive saying if the car is a write off with 3rd party you will be liable for 20,000 Euros. Also I still have not found a single company that will hire a car with a little fuel to get to a station and you can return it with a little fuel. If car hire companies charge for a full tank of fuel at least they should reimburse any money if the tank is more than quarter full maybe at the current day rate of fuel due to fluctuation and it could be just over quarter tank or over half as inbetween figures will make calculations difficult. That would be more acceptable to customers at least you get something back if you bring the car back with quarter or more or half or more,

EW says:
13 May 2013

Recently returned from Faro where I rented an economy car (Fiat Panda) from Gold Car (via Argus Car Hire)… I was given the usual scare stories about the likelihood of running into problems and how I’d be a fool to leave without the full insurance package… even so far as telling me that, because of Portugal’s crappy minor roads and remoteness of many attractive locations,the chances of needing very expensive roadside assistance (over 750 euro) was high risk.. and even that the chances of double punctures was increased! So, bearing in mind that I came on holiday to get away from stress and worry, I paid the price…. my choice. What really galled me was that despite being told I’d pick up the car empty, I was charged 45 euro for the petrol left in the tank by the previous customer (half a tank) and told to leave it back empty. When I actually filled the entire tank it only took 55 euro!! This has got to be the most galling rip off!!! They charge you WELL over the odds for fuel in the tank and inevitably (unless you drive around the airport for a couple of hours) you’ll leave enough in the tank for them to overcharge the next unsuspecting customer too. Providing a full tank on pick up and a returning with a full tank is the fair way to do things… What airport doesn’t have a filling station? It would certainly put the brakes on this blatant fuel rip off.

Alan Bosher says:
16 June 2013

A couple of months ago I hired a car from Herz for a holiday in Tenerife
When I arrived I was advised that I was only partially insured and that I had a choice either

a. Pay EUR77 extra insurance (effectively doubling the cost of the hire)
b. Leave a deposit of EUR670 which would be retained should there be any damage to the vehicle.

I emailed Herz stating that I consider this unreasonable and that this should be made very clear at the time of booking as the process artificially deflates the cost.

I had no reply

Tony Sharpe says:
18 June 2013

I know I’ve ‘posted’ a message very near the start of this whole topic, but since then something else – (not nice) – has now developed and I was wondering if any others out there had experienced the same.
Since settling my issue with ‘Marbesol Rent-a-Car’ [MRC] in Malaga – (booked through Argus Car Hire over Easter) – over the very delayed re-payment into my account of my 800 euros for the ‘deposit’, what I then found (after carefully watching my credit card statement for the next few weeks) was the fact that my account was automatically debited with another £26.04 (30 euros). So I immediately raised a concern/enquiry over this via email and got a response via ‘Car Trawler’ (which I assume is the electronic arm of Argus Car Hire?) and they came back to me a few days later to say that they’d contacted MRC who told them they’d received a ‘traffic notice’ from the Spanish police saying that my car had incurred a ‘traffic offence penalty’ and they were passing on the charge. This came as a complete surprise as we used the car very little other than to go into the mountains where we saw no police at all!!
I’ve spoken with Car Trawler by Skype to get more information and ask for the ‘hard evidence’ as I suspect yet another ‘scam’ here. They were advised by MRC over 3 weeks ago that I would receive the ‘paper information by post’ very soon. As yet I’ve received nothing! I’m convinced this IS a ‘scam’ and that they are just hoping that I’ll get tired and give up…….but this just makes me more determined to not let them get away with it.
Has anyone else out there experienced the same thing?……and if so, what can I do to get my 30 euros back if I get no ‘evidence’?

Thanks for any help/advice given.


Tony, have you seen recent posts of Marbesol on the Trip Advisor website?

I too would not let this rest and a quick goggle of how to contact the Malaga police who should be able to confirm whether this traffice offence exists, came up with this site:

I would think Argus should take some responsibility as the broker.

Good Luck
(Apologies if this appears more than once as my 2 previous attempts to reply disappeared)

Tony Sharpe says:
18 June 2013

Hi Alfa,
If I’d seen that tirade of negative info before our booking about Marbesol-rent-car on ‘Trip Advisor’ I’d have given them a wide berth!
I’ve sent an email to the ‘police’ through that link you sent to me…….and have had an immediate and supportive reply from them……so that was a great ‘call’ my friend (and a ‘link’ which i shall keep from now on). 🙂
Thanks so much again,


You’re welcome.
Hope you get a result.