Car Hire Rip Off – The Industry Tricks And How To Beat Them

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Warnings over the dangers of car rental rip offs is hardly a novel concept. However, I’ve rented so many cars of late in the “tourist hotspot” area of Malaga, that I thought it worth sharing my (sometimes bitter) experiences, and tips on how to avoid getting stung yourself.

car hire rip off
Photo: Stock Images –

While I fully appreciate that every car rental company is to some degree different (and one that I have been using a lot has a particularly bad reputation), there are a number of tactics used by the operators which you should at least be aware of. I would firmly say that being over-cautious here is advisable.

Who are the key offenders?

I have avoided naming any names in this post. Just because a car hire company adopts a tactic at one location, doesn’t necessarily mean it will at another. These outlets are typically franchises, and the fact that a global car firm has a good reputation does not guarantee that a local franchisee is not seeking to make a few easy bucks via dubious practices.

Also, while there are certain companies that get more attention than others, a Google search will reveal that pretty much every car hire company has someone complaining about a sharp practice of some kind or another.

I’d also prefer this to be a general helpful guide, rather than a witch-hunt. So bear all my points in mind, and hopefully they will help you avoid an eye-watering post rental bill. Note that all of the below are genuine issues that I have experienced – they are not intended to scaremonger, but rather to make sure you don’t fall victim to unscrupulous local operators.

The issues I’ve encountered

Issue 1: The excess insurance hard-sell

Of course, this is the old classic. Rest assured that if you book without excess insurance, you will get the hard sell. The staff are invariably on direct commissions for this, and will use all sorts of horror stories to try and force you into taking out cover. This insurance cover will, almost without exception, be horribly overpriced.

The solution: take out excess cover from a third party. I have found Questor to be a good service and very well-priced. Do not, however, kid yourself that the claim process will be straightforward, or as simple as if you’d organised it through the car hire company. It will involve paperwork and likely liaising with the car hire company (not always easy). Indeed, the rental car staff may point this out to you when you confirm you have cover, in a final bid to get you to sign up to their offering. Third party cover should come good for you – but it may involve some admin.

Issue 2: Desperately trying to make your credit card refuse the transaction(s) when you pick up the car

It’s clear to me that some hire car companies try quite hard to make sure you don’t leave with the car in the first place. For example, not only will they charge a massive deposit to your card (EUR 1400 is not unusual), they will then instantly insist on another transaction on the same credit card, as a deposit for fuel. Perhaps I am missing something, but there is no reason I can possibly see as to why this needs to be a separate transaction, or it needs to be on the same credit card. However, this double hit to your deposit-battered credit card may well lead to the second transaction having issues.

Clearly, if any transaction doesn’t go through, they will refuse you the car, or they will kindly offer you an alternative, much more expensive, rate, which requires no, or a much smaller, deposit.

The solution: Ensure that your card has a sufficient credit line for the amount to be charged, and have the number you need to call handy should it decline. I would also recommend having a back-up credit card.

Issue 3: The “flex-fuel” rip off

You’ll sometimes find you can get a cheaper rate with what’s known as a “flex-fuel” policy. This is where, “for your convenience”, the car hire company gives you a full tank but lets you return the car with whatever’s left in the tank. You then only get charged for the fuel you use. Avoid this if at all possible – not only will you be charged fuel at eye-watering rates, you’ll also almost certainly have a “service fee” of anything up to EUR 40 added for the trip to the petrol station.

The solution: Unless it’s so much cheaper you’ll end up saving anyway, always opt for the “full-to-full” policy.

Issue 4: Under-recording damage on pick up

It never ceases to amaze me how good car hire companies are at spotting damage when you return a car, but not when you pick one up. Clearly, the incentives for them to do so are very different.

The solution: Assuming you don’t go for a fully-comp package, always check your car for damage when you pick it up. Then check it again, then again. Take photos of the whole car, even areas you don’t see any damage on. If you do find damage, try and get a staff member to record it before you leave, rather than relying on your photographs. While your date-stamped photos should be sufficient, it’s much better to get the issue sorted before you drive off.

Be aware also there will be damage that doesn’t necessarily appear on the damage indicator form, because there is no “damage section” for it. Wing mirrors are a really good example of this – they are very liable to damage, and you will be charged if there are scratches on them.

Issue 5: Charges for damage that’s not damage

This is a major one, and I have been stung on this point. A grease mark or other stain can look like a scratch. You’ll then receive a photo and a hefty charge from the hire car company alerting you to the “damage”. It may well look like a scratch on the photo, and you can’t wipe a smudge off a photo.

The solution: If there’s any mark a car that you return, make sure that you wipe it off or clear it with the car hire company before you leave.

Issue 6: Horrendous charges for minor damage

So, you didn’t get cover from anyone and you scratched the car. You assumed the damage shouldn’t cost much more than EUR 50 or so to fix, but you get a bill for EUR 500. This seems to be entirely standard practice. Suddenly, that “great value” car hire is looking decidedly expensive.

The solution: There’s really not a great deal you can do here beyond taking further action (possibly even court action) to get the exact repair figures disclosed. This would be a really painful route to go down, particularly in a foreign country, so my strong recommendation is you protect yourself to ensure this does not have to become an issue for you. The obvious route here is third party excess cover (see Issue 1).

Issue 7: Hiring an already beaten-up car

This is one of my big complaints, but actually also gives me some comfort. I have lost count of the number of times I have hired a car with huge scratches along the sides, or even big dents in them. This upsets me, because you can rest assured that (unless they were fully-comp) they’ve charged somebody over the odds to fix the damage (see Issue 5). It’s also not particularly nice driving round in a car that makes you look as though you drive like Mr Bean.

However, there is an upside to it. It’s pretty hard for a car hire to try and nobble you with spurious charges for a car where there’s already been damage marked on pretty much every section of it.

The solution: If this really bothers you, you could probably go back and get the car changed. However, my advice is to embrace it – every pre-recorded scratch makes it less likely they will hit you for repairs to the area flagged as already damaged.

Issue 8: Charges for damage caused after your drop-off

This is a horrific one, but it has happened to me. I have been charged for damage that is evident on photographs from the car hire company, but was not there when I returned the car. You can draw your own conclusions on this. I had the charges reversed, but only after sending photographic evidence to head office.

The solution: Take full photos of the car even after you’ve dropped it off. Make sure that every possible area of the car is covered by your post drop-off photos, so that claims of damage after return can be cross-checked.

Issue 9: Sluggish responses to complaints

Bear in mind that if you complain to a car hire operator, your complaint may end up being dealt with by the very people against whom you are complaining. That’s unlikely to get you a satisfactory result.

The solution: Find the address of the CEOs etc from Google, and make sure you copy them in to the complaint correspondence. You will often find this speeds up the response and sweetens the outcome considerable.

Cover photo: Stock Images –


  1. Craig Sowerby says

    Excellent post!

    Tip 1 – if the rate is substantially lower than the competition at a specific airport, then that company is almost certainly going to hard sell you something or rip you off to make up the difference… There are several obvious offenders at Spanish airports… 😉 Usually names you can know to avoid, sometimes the well-known ones.

    Tip 2 – when the rental company tries to overcharge for damage, insist in writing to receive a detailed breakdown of the repairs actually undertaken because your excess insurance / credit card, etc. requires this (even if you don’t have it). I received a fairly substantial refund of my charged excess. I am quite sure this is because they didn’t want the risk of attempting to defraud an insurance company…

    Tip 3 – don’t just drop the keys and go running for your flight. Insist that somebody checks over the car with you so you can refute any potential issues. Some of these scammers have very similar cars, so that later on they can “document” damage that wasn’t even on the car you drove.

  2. Ken Foulger says

    You have not included the rip-off trick of claiming for “missing” spare tyre, tools etc.
    Check the boot space and photograph it especially if the spare or tools are not there.

    • Tom Sumner says

      Interesting one and thanks for the warning. I genuinely wrote about those issues I’d had personal experience of, but as you and Craig note, there’s plenty of horrendous tricks out there.

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