When you rent a car this summer, don’t look for one price. Look for three.
There’s the low rate you’re quoted when you’re shopping for wheels, the final and more expensive rate after all required taxes and fees have been added — and the real price.
Yes, it’s that complicated. Consider what happened when Brian Scios rented a car from Hertz in Fort Lauderdale recently. He thought his “final” rate would be $150, but after his plane arrived late, the car rental company upped it to $550.
“I argued with a representative for a few minutes, showing him my confirmation printout, but he said that’s what he had on screen,” says Scios, who works for a nonprofit organization in New York. “It was late, we wanted to start driving, so I just paid it and figured I’d fight it later.”
This sleight of hand, which is all too common in the travel business, is now a full-fledged epidemic in the car-rental industry. The rental price for a Chevrolet Spark “or similar” from Hertz at the Fort Lauderdale airport is $106 per day, but after all required taxes and fees are added, it jumps to $140. And at the counter, you might pay even more, as Scios did.
A 2015 survey by the Australian consumer research firm Canstar Blue found nearly three out of every five consumers are confronted with extra charges when they return a rental vehicle. A quarter of those surveyed disputed the final cost, according to the research. (Many of the car-rental companies operating in Australia answer to American owners and operate under rules similar to those in the United States.)
What’s going on? The car-rental business is taking a page from the airline industry, trying to upsell customers, broadside them with junk fees such as frivolous charges for “damage” to the vehicle or find a way — any way — to charge more. And make no mistake: Car-rental companies have you in their crosshairs this summer.
But you don’t have to overpay for your wheels. Carefully reviewing the fine print and knowing the traps and meticulous documentation of the transaction can ensure that you pay exactly what you expected.
Hertz spokeswoman Lauren Luster says the company’s records showed two reservations under Scios’s name, which “caused the initial confusion,” noting, “Mr. Scios wasn’t charged as a result of a fee.” After he contacted the company, Hertz adjusted his rate by applying the original prepaid rate to the reservation, which generated a refund of the price difference. Scios says he made only one reservation.
“We have extended our apologies to Mr. Scios for the inconvenience he experienced following his rental with us,” Luster says.
Wait-until-the-end fees can actually be divided into two distinct categories: the ones presented to you when you pick up the car — commonly called the “upsell” — and those tacked on at the end of your rental. Although there’s no formal name for these unwelcome charges, they’re often referred to as the “broadside” or “gotcha” among consumer advocates.
“To avoid these types of charges, customers need to be familiar with the most common car-rental rip-offs and know which of the add-ons offered by rental-car companies are truly necessary and which are not worth paying extra for,” says Jordan Perch, an editor for the automotive services site DMV.com.
It’s difficult to offer advice on options such as a navigation system or car seat; those are personal decisions. It’s easier to generalize about car-rental protection. It’s almost always overpriced, and you can obtain similar coverage through your auto insurance, credit card or a company such as Insuremyrentalcar.com. But on the issue of fees tacked on at the end of a rental, there’s little disagreement. They are both unwelcome and often unjustified.
Nenad Cuk, a frequent car renter who works for a marketing agency in Salt Lake City, says attention to detail is important. That extends beyond the fuel gauge. Many car-rental customers take pictures of their vehicle just in case the car-rental company decides to send a bill for damage to the car. The images prove the car was returned in acceptable shape.
“Always make sure that you listen to anything that might be mentioned that you’ll have to pay for upon returning the car,” Cuk adds. Employees may mention it as an “oh-by-the-way,” but when it shows up on your credit card, you may feel differently.
Nothing is ever final, though. Sorab Bhardwaj of Jersey City, N.J., returned a Hertz rental and for weeks afterward thought everything had been settled. Not exactly. He discovered a charge on his credit card from a company called PlatePass, which claimed he hadn’t paid for a toll on the New Jersey Turnpike. “I wasn’t there,” he says. After some haggling, Hertz offered him a voucher for a future rental if he agreed to pay the $11.90 charge from PlatePass. (Bhardwaj had his revenge by founding a car-rental coupon site called Zalyn.com that has arguably made up for the fee and then some.)
When should you worry about these extras? Probably when a car-rental employee tells you not to worry. For example, when a representative tells you a quarter-size dent is just “wear and tear” and that you shouldn’t be concerned about getting bill for the damage. Or when an employee invites you to hop on the shuttle to the airport terminal, even when you still have a question about your rental, as Brian Gutherman, an engineering consultant from Shamong, N.J., recently did. Sure enough, he found a “fuel service” charge on his bill shortly afterward.
He disputed the charge, sending the company a gas station receipt, and the fee was rescinded.
You don’t have to be a travel expert to see what’s happening behind the scenes. Customers crave low car-rental prices, and car-rental companies need to make more money. The only way to do it is by quoting a low rate and then increasing the price, first by adding taxes and mandatory fees, then offering optional insurance and other extras and finally hitting you with after-the-fact fees and junk surcharges.
It’s difficult to know who to blame: the customers who want low rental rates or the companies who use less-than-honest means to provide them. But something tells me this will end with either litigation or legislation.
Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.