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Hot topic: The hidden cost of car hire

After a clamp down on Europe’s big five rental companies, we examine whether car hire really has become more transparent

By James Draven
Published 3 May 2019, 10:23 BST
People loading boot of car
Photograph by Getty Images

We’ve all been there: standing in a car park, exhausted after a long flight, meticulously combing a vehicle’s bodywork for the tiniest scrape, fearful that when we return our rental car, we might be charged an exorbitant amount to repair some unnoticed, preexisting scratch. In fact, a study by Which? Travel found that 63% of British travellers worry about being stung by car rental firms’ extra charges. 

Not without good cause, it seems. In 2015, five of Europe’s biggest car hire companies — Avis Budget, Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz, and Sixt — made a series of commitments to the UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the European Commission, and other consumer enforcement authorities across Europe to be clearer about key information and charges, so consumers know how much they are paying, up front. 

In March this year, the CMA found businesses were failing to offer consumers such transparent pricing information. “The big five told us in 2015 they’d update their practices, but we’ve found they weren’t doing all that they’d committed to,” said a statement from George Lusty, senior director for consumer protection at the CMA. “Following our further intervention, the charges people see on the big five’s websites will be clear, prominent and accurate, allowing customers to choose the best possible deal. We’ll keep the firms under close review to ensure they deliver on their commitments.”

It sounds like good news for consumers, but there are still more pitfalls to be wary of, even for savvy travellers. “I work on car hire stories all the time,” says Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, “And I still get nervous approaching the car hire desk! It’s an industry plagued by unscrupulous practices. It’s not uncommon for customers to be charged for repairs that are never made and for damage they may never have caused, often only finding out they’ve been billed when the car hire company charges their credit card.”

The CMA has recently taken separate action against two Spanish car hire companies — Centauro Rent a Car, and Record Go Alquiler Vacacional — following reports that British tourists were being misled by their practices. It’s worth noting that most of the complaints Which? receives related to car hire are based in Spain. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests French companies are known for charging fees for cleaning returned cars; out-of-hours drop-off charges are common in Italy; and some unscrupulous US companies trick customers by offering ‘free’ upgrades to larger vehicles — and then charging for them.

One particular headache at the rental office is the dreaded ‘super collision damage waiver’ (SCDW). These hard-sold policies, which can cost around £15-£30 daily, are often pushed to customers as the only alternative to paying up to £2,000 excess in the case of vehicle damage or theft. However, it’s best to use specialist insurers offering annual, standalone car hire excess policies, which offer better levels of cover than SCDWs for as little as £40 for a whole year. 

One of the best pieces of advice is simply to book well in advance. If you map out your trips beforehand, you can avoid unnecessary tolls and tell shady car hire companies to hit the road.

Top tips... to avoid paying for extras

Don’t pay for car hire damage you didn’t cause  
“Pick up and drop off the hire car in the daytime and record any damage by taking pictures. Insist staff indicate any damage you find when picking up and agree no damage has been caused when dropping off,” suggests Rory Boland.

Don’t take the ‘full-empty’ fuel option
“The fuel provided is at a premium price and you won’t want to risk running out of petrol while returning the car, so you’ll always be gifting the firm at least some free fuel,” says Rory.

Do use a car hire broker
“The ways car hire companies try to get you to pay for more than the headline price are too numerous to list,” advises Rory. “Use a car hire broker — the best ones have an all-inclusive approach, including all the necessary insurance — and if something does go wrong, they’ll help you claim against the car hire company.” Which? recommends Zest Car Rental:

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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