How to fight back against the car hire traps: Greedy rental firms bill drivers £8,000 for vehicle damage, £200 for a sat nav and £90 for an empty tank
Car hire firms are stinging holidaymakers with rip-off charges for scratches, child car seats and petrol refills, a Money Mail investigation has found.
We can reveal that firms are charging up to £8,400 if you damage a family saloon in Europe and haven’t bought extra insurance.
Some holidaymakers claim they are being billed for repairs that never take place. In some cases, the fees are only showing up on their bank statements when they return home.
Others are arriving at European pick-up desks to find that renting a sat nav or booster seat for two weeks costs triple the price of buying a new model back in England.
Here, we expose this year’s biggest car hire cons — and explain how you could save thousands of pounds by planning ahead.
Firms are charging up to £8,400 if you damage a family saloon in Europe and haven’t bought extra insurance
SMALL PRANGS THAT COST THOUSANDS
If you damage your car on holiday, you usually have to pay the first few hundred pounds of any repair bill before your insurance kicks in.
This is known as excess. But in some cases, the excess is so enormous that you could end up paying more than the cost of your entire family holiday in repair fees.
Money Mail discovered that this week Budget, for example, charges a damage excess of £8,416 on a Mercedes E-Class saloon car from Faro Airport, in Portugal.
This is nearly ten times the rental bill of £846.88 for the week.
Car hire firms are aware that these prices are unaffordable and terrifying for many families, so will try to sell you so-called excess waiver insurance. In principle, this is a good idea, as it means you don’t pay any of the repair bill.
But don’t buy this from your car hire firm at the pick-up desk or you’ll pay up to £170.
It is much cheaper to get a policy from a third-party insurer before you leave for your holiday.
Firms such as Reducemyexcess.co.uk and iCarhireinsurance.com offer cover for less than £3 a day or annual cover for around £40. Use comparison website moneymaxim.co.uk to find the cheapest deals.
Ignore pushy staff at the collection desks abroad, who’ll try to tell you that this third-party insurance is not valid.
However, bear in mind that they will still need to block off a deposit on your credit card if you don’t buy their waiver policy.
Then, if you do get charged for repairs, you will have to pay upfront out of this deposit and claim the money back from the excess waiver insurance firm afterwards.
Even for cheaper models, families could find themselves lumbered with huge bills if they scratch or dent their cars.
If you damage your car on holiday, you usually have to pay the first few hundred pounds of any repair bill before your insurance kicks in
Quotes obtained from the Budget website show the excess is £5,614 for a Volvo S60, or £3,346 for a Mini Cooper convertible.
When we called Budget to check the quotes and told them some of their excess charges were approaching €10,000, a customer service adviser admitted: ‘That’s pretty outrageous. That’s a new one on me.’
After checking his computer, he added: ‘Yeah, €9,594 excess on the Mercedes. The higher-end vehicles do have the higher excess. It varies from country to country. For Portugal, that’s going to be normal.’
He added that excess charges for hire cars in the UK tended to be lower than this.
Last night, Budget had not responded to Money Mail’s requests for comment.
BILLS FOR REPAIRS THAT NEVER WERE
Several Money Mail readers claim car hire firms have tried to charge them hundreds of pounds for dents and scratches that were never repaired.
It comes with Europcar facing a scandal over accusations that it overcharged customers for car hire repairs by £30 million.
Trading Standards is investigating claims that up to half-a-million UK customers could have been affected over a decade. The Serious Fraud Office is also said to be aware of the case.
Fears are growing that some firms may use similar practices at European destinations.
Support worker Lynette Taylor, 31, is in dispute with Europcar in Switzerland because she says it has billed her almost £800 ‘for a small scuff mark on the bumper’ of a hire car.
‘I signed to say I didn’t cause the damage as at no point did I go into anything, so perhaps it happened when the car was parked,’ she says.
‘I managed to block my credit card before they could take the money and they have been trying to get it ever since. The worst part is, I asked them if they had actually repaired the car and their answer was ‘no’.
‘They suggested it probably wouldn’t be repaired. Therefore they are charging me a repair bill for repairs not even carried out.’
Self-employed cleaner Gina Cooper, of Chislehurst, Kent, says she was driving a hire car with Enterprise when a Land Rover reversed into her at traffic lights.
The drivers stopped and swapped details, but could see no damage.
Even for cheaper models, families could find themselves lumbered with huge bills if they scratch or dent their cars
When she returned the car to Enterprise, she told staff, who inspected the car and found a small scratch on the bumper.
Gina, 46, passed on the details of the Land Rover driver and thought nothing more of it. But two months later, she received a letter from Enterprise, billing her the £500 excess for the scratch and claiming it had been trying to contact her.
The letter referred to the ‘above invoice’, but none was attached.
She called Enterprise, who promised to look into her complaint. But several weeks later, she received a letter from a debt recovery firm.
‘I hate that these big companies are always the winners when this debt will seriously affect me,’ says Gina. A spokesman for Enterprise says: ‘We are currently investigating her case to check that our procedures have been followed.’
Enterprise says that once a repair has been completed, it refunds the customer if the bill was lower than the cost of the excess.
If another vehicle caused the damage, Enterprise says its policy is to take details of any third party, so that it can recover the cost of the repair and reimburse the customer’s excess.
Most UK car hire firms adhere to a code of conduct set out by the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA).
If you have an unresolved complaint, you can contact the BVRLA’s dispute resolution service by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01494 434747.
Citizens Advice can also help — call 03454 04 05 06.
There are no specific EU regulations governing car hire in Europe. But if you have a complaint about a car you hired while abroad in an EU country and cannot resolve it, try the UK European Consumer Centre on 01268 886690.
YOU MUST BRING YOUR OWN SAT NAV
Hiring a sat nav or child seats from car hire giants can cost more than double the price of buying a brand-new one.
Money Mail found Hertz is charging up to £204 to hire a satellite navigation system powered by TomTom for a two-week break in August from major European airports.
Yet a basic TomTom bought online from Currys costs just £86.99.
Hertz also charges up to £115 for a child’s car seat for a two-week trip. The brand is not named at the time of booking.
Hertz is charging up to £204 to hire a satellite navigation system powered by TomTom for a two-week break,Yet a basic TomTom bought online from Currys costs just £86.99
In Mothercare, own-brand car seats cost £40, while the cheapest branded car seat in Halfords, a Joie Juva, costs £39.99.
If you don’t have your own sat nav, or don’t want to take it abroad, it might be cheaper to use Google Maps on your phone.
Changes to EU rules introduced last month mean that you can now use your UK data allowance in European Union destinations.
This means you are able to access Google Maps on your phone and use it as a sat nav for the same price as you would at home.
However, make sure you have a proper holder or cradle for the phone, so that you’re not handling it as you drive. Models with suckers that stick to the windscreen are available for less than £10 from Amazon.
If you are worried about exceeding your data allowance or patchy internet connection, or you are travelling outside the EU, you can download offline maps (or buy a paper one).
Before you go, enter your destination into your Google Maps app and click on ‘offline’ in the app’s settings on your phone.
You can then download maps of a certain area abroad and use it as you travel from the airport to your hotel, for example.
Similarly, try to take your own child car seat, which can usually be checked in free of charge. Trunki sells portable car seats that fold into rucksacks for £44.99.
If you don’t want to lug a car seat on holiday, do your research and check what brand your car hire firm will provide, as they can vary wildly in quality.
There are also huge variations in the price of car seats and sat navs, depending on where you go on holiday, so it is worth seeing if you will be charged a fortune before deciding where to travel.
For example, at Naples Airport, in southern Italy, it costs up to £204 for a sat nav with Hertz and £115 for a car seat for a two-week trip this summer. But at Nice Airport, it costs £166 for a sat nav and £41 for a car seat.
Hertz at London Heathrow charges £199 for a sat nav and £84 for a car seat, while at Lanzarote Airport, the cost was £159 for a sat nav, but a relatively cheaper £68 for a car seat.
Hertz did not respond to requests for comment.
WATCH OUT FOR FUEL LOOPHOLES
You should always opt for the ‘return full’ petrol policy, as other options will almost certainly cost more. It might sound tempting to avoid having to refill your car on your way to the airport, but it is worth doing so if you have time.
Europcar’s ‘refuelling service’, for example, allows you to bring it back without a full tank. They will charge you at the national average litre price as published by PetrolPrices.com.
But the sting is in the service charge of £1.60 per litre. So, if a typical tank holds 55 litres and you returned it empty, you would be charged £88 in handling fees alone. Europcar says it is ‘very rare’ that a customer would return the vehicle empty.
Alternatively, car hire firms often offer a ‘full tank’ option, where you pay upfront for a full tank. But firms will either offer no refund for any unused fuel, or refund the cost of the unused fuel but charge a fee.
It might sound tempting to avoid having to refill your car on your way to the airport, but it is worth doing so if you have time.
For example, Goldcar in Majorca reportedly bills customers a ‘handling charge’ of up to £24 for refunding the fuel that has not been used.
Always check that your hire car has unlimited mileage for the country you are visiting, as some firms charge a small fortune for excess mileage.
Watch out for extra charges for having a diesel car or automatic. For example, Goldcar charges an extra €4 a day for diesel. Ask at the desk, as you may then be able to switch cars and save money.
MYSTERY CHARGES AFTER YOU’VE PAID
Hire car firms in the UK must always write to you before they charge you for damage repairs.
But Money Mail has heard from holidaymakers who hire cars abroad and then notice mystery deductions on their bank statements when they return home.
Similarly, watch out for ‘extras’ that may have been ticked on your booking form or are lurking on your final invoice when you return the car.
Car hire firms can add obscure add-ons such as ‘fee waiver’, which covers you against the firm’s admin costs in the event the driver is fined for speeding.
One driver says he was assured verbally by Europcar that it was free to add an additional driver when he picked up a car in Newcastle.
But when he later checked his statement, he had been billed for this anyway.
Europcar says this was an administrative error and has refunded the charge.
But it’s a reminder that checking your paperwork is not something you should overlook.
To avoid surprise charges for damage, try to return your car during the day and ensure the car rental firm has ‘signed off’ the vehicle as OK before you leave.
If they have only verbally agreed that it looks fine, and not signed it off, then later discover a scratch — when the car has been washed, for example — you could still be pursued for payment.
Many people take photographs of scratches upon collection, but forget to take them upon drop-off as well.
Take photos of the car on your smartphone after you have parked up at the rental firm to return it. These photos will be timed and dated in the event of a dispute.
A spokesman for the BVRLA warns drivers to always return their car during office hours, adding: ‘If the rental company allows you to return the vehicle out of hours, you remain responsible for the condition of the vehicle until a member of staff is able to carry out a full inspection.
‘That means the cost of any damage caused to the vehicle while it remains unattended is your responsibility.’