Brad Cross expected to pay just $350 for a Honda Accord he rented for four days from Avis in Salt Lake City in June. Instead, the rental company persuaded him with a surprise $2,974 charge on his credit card.
“Avis said the rental was upgraded to a one-way rental and discontinued in another state,” says Cross, a software developer from Maple Grove, Minnesota. “But that wasn’t me.”
It turns out the fee was a mistake (more on that later), but customers are faced with more ‘surprising’ car rental fees these days – some on purpose, some not.
Gone are the days of simple, transparent fees. Hidden fees — also known as junk fees — have recently drawn the ire of President Biden, who has vowed to crack down on them in travel and beyond.
However, there are ways to avoid these higher fees. Whether it’s an incorrect bill like Cross’s or a minor unexpected charge, here are a few tricks.
What are the most common rental car fees?
According to JD Power, rental car fees are up 14% this year. Fees include airport rental offset fees, fuel and insurance extras. Here are the most common fees.
Additional driver fees: If there is more than one driver, your car rental company may charge extra. The company may waive the fee if it is your spouse or if you are a frequent renter.
Fuel purchase options: Car rental companies offer to fill up the tank for a premium so you can avoid refilling before returning the vehicle. You can avoid this fee by filling the tank yourself. Also note that rental car companies will reimburse you for fuel not used.
Insurance: Agents at the counter will try to upgrade customers with insurance. And it’s hard to sell. They may tell you that your auto insurance policy isn’t enough or that your credit card doesn’t cover you—neither of which are usually true. The additional insurance can sometimes double the cost of your rental. To avoid this upsell, check your cardholder agreement or auto insurance policy to make sure you have coverage.
junk fees: These can include airport concession fees (which cover fees the company pays to operate at the airport), license fees (which cover the cost of getting a driver’s license and registering a car), and even a tire disposal fee. You cannot negotiate these charges through your bill, but they are usually disclosed prior to your rental so you can avoid places where they are charged.
Avoid renting at the airport
One of the most common complaints from travelers is the extras that are added to bills for discounts or airport transfers. These aren’t new, but airports are increasing them almost all the time. Airports charge these to car rental companies and sometimes use the money to build car rental companies. Last year, Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport opened a new $377 million rental facility, funded by a $4.50 surcharge added to each renter’s bill.
“Airport concession fees can add up to 20% to your bill,” says Roger Broussard, a frequent traveler who publishes a website for pilots.
His advice to lower your rental car bill: “Don’t rent a car at the airport,” he says.
You can use the free van to go to your hotel and rent from there. Or you can take a ride to an off-site location, although this cost may be higher than the additional cost of airport rental. Note, however, that some car rental companies near the airport also charge fees, so be sure to check the fine print.
Try the Pay Now option
One way to avoid cost overruns is to agree on a price before renting the car. You can book through an opaque website like Hotwire that offers pre-paid “hot rate” rentals, allowing you to select a rental location but not the agency that appears after booking. The price you see is the total price you pay. There is a risk that you will get a rental agency with bad reviews.
“To avoid surprises, you can use the Pay Now option when booking a rental car,” advises Julie Flores, vice president of operations at Rate Highway, a rental car technology company. “Not only will you see exactly what the final taxes and fees will be and avoid surprises, you can also get a modest discount by paying the rent in advance.”
Dave Dzurick, a retired broadcast engineer from Tucson, Arizona, recently discovered EconomyBookings.com, a website that offered several prepaid options. He used it to rent a Hertz limousine in Victoria, British Columbia.
“I paid for everything in advance and there were no surprises,” he says.
But there’s a catch: While Pay Now fares are sometimes cheaper than Pay Later, they can be non-refundable.
Take photos of your vehicle
Travelers say car rental companies add a lot of “gotcha” fees after the rental. For example, when Shanna Schultz dropped off her Sixt rental car in Paris after a family vacation, her company tried to charge her an extra $200 for a missing trunk cover. Luckily, Schultz is a travel consultant and knows the pitfalls of renting. She had videoed the entire rental when she picked it up.
“I showed the rental company the video footage when we rented the car,” she says. “It turned out that the trunk cover in question was not in the vehicle from the start.”
The car rental company dropped its lawsuit.
She says photographing your rent is the best way to avoid billing surprises. “Before you even put your luggage in, take a video,” she advises. “Inside, outside, upstairs and downstairs: you never know where they’re going to say the charge came from.”
Can Avis fix this surcharge?
When Cross Avis called about the nearly $3,000 fee, the company asked for his return shipping receipt. But Cross had already thrown away the receipt. However, he had a fuel receipt that got him near the airport on the day of his return. It wasn’t enough.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any inconsistencies in our system regarding the return date,” Avis said in an email. “At this time we are unable to make corrections or issue a credit to your account.”
I asked Avis to look at his case again. As it turned out, the company had mistook Cross’s rental for someone else’s vehicle. It apologized for the misunderstanding and credited its card with $2,624.
Cross has been persistent, which is possibly the most effective way to avoid paying a surprise rental car fee. With a little help from me, he kept challenging his bill until finally someone agreed to settle the charges.