Car hire

7 car hire rip-offs and how to avoid them

9 November 2018 | Updated 24 May 202311 min read

A white car driving along a scenic mountain road at sunrise

Exploration and discovery are yours for the taking when you hire a car on holiday. But without a little planning, you can end up paying way over the odds. Protect yourself by getting to grips with the seven worst car hire rip-offs.

Rip-off #1: Sky-high excess costs

Insurance is included when you hire a car. But you may well find it comes with incredibly high excess charges – the amount you have to pay to cover the cost of an accident before the policy kicks in. This amount can be up to £2,000 in some cases, potentially leaving you well out of pocket if something goes wrong.

One way to get around the charge is to buy an excess waiver policy, which reduces the charge to zero or a small sum. But don’t wait until you get to the desk. Buy your car hire excess insurance via a standalone provider before you travel and you could pay from just £3.49 a day. That’s compared to up to £20 if you buy on the day from your car hire provider.

Rip-off #2: The ‘full-empty’ fuel policy

Being hit with a petrol bill before you’ve even got in the driving seat isn’t the best start to a holiday. But many car hire companies employ a so-called ‘full-empty policy’, which means you pay upfront for a tank of petrol and can return it empty.

There are two drawbacks to this policy. First, you’re likely to be charged an inflated price for the petrol. And second, you may not use all the fuel you’ve paid for if you’re on a short trip or don’t end up driving much. In some cases, you’ll be offered the right to a refund on unused fuel, but there’s still usually a service charge attached.

Look for car hire firms that allow you to return the vehicle with the same amount of fuel it had when you picked it up – either a ‘full-to-full’ or ‘same-to-same’ policy. All car rentals compared on TravelSupermarket come with this fair fuel policy as standard, so you know you won't be out of pocket.

Rip-off #3: The ‘upgrade’ option

When you arrive at the rental desk to pick up your pre-booked car, you may be told the company has run out of vehicles in the category you chose and be offered an upgrade – at a price.

Don’t fall for it. You should either be offered a higher category of car for no extra charge or a lesser one with the appropriate refund. Make sure this is the case before you sign your contract and drive away.

Rip-off #4: Paying for extras you could bring yourself

Want to use sat-nav when driving abroad or think you’ll need a baby seat? Go for it – but don’t fall into the trap of hiring them through your car rental company. It’ll be cheaper to bring your own.

If you’re travelling abroad, many airlines don’t charge extra for you to bring pushchairs and car seats, while many sat-navs cover both the UK and Europe. If your sat-nav doesn’t extend beyond the UK, consider purchasing the additional software.

Alternatively, you can use Google Maps in offline mode. Simply download the map of the area you are travelling to and you'll have access to a free sat-nav, without the excessive roaming charges! Also be aware that you may need to turn off speed or traffic camera alerts before you hit the road – they are illegal in many European countries.

If all else fails, there’s always the option of a good old-fashioned paper map.

Rip-off #5: Buying at the desk

With so much to organise before a holiday, it’s easy to put off hiring a car until you arrive at your destination. But booking a vehicle in advance – and online – will save you a chunk of cash, leaving you more to spend on the good stuff.

What’s more, if you book at the destination airport, or other pick-up point such as in a city centre, you risk ending up with an unsuitable vehicle – when demand soars in peak season, for example.

Rip-off #6: Unexpected charges when you get home

You expect to return from holiday with a lighter wallet – but it’s infuriating to find extra taken off your credit card for a bill you thought you’d squared. Car hire firms may charge more than you expected if they claim you’ve damaged the vehicle in some way or that you returned it without the agreed amount of fuel.

To protect yourself, give the vehicle a full inspection both when you pick it up and when you return it, and ask for a receipt stating it’s in good order with the required amount of petrol. It also pays to keep all documents, contracts and other evidence (such as photos of the vehicle) if you need to dispute unexpected charges.

Rip-off #7: Hidden charges

Always read the small print of your car hire policy to check for any hidden charges or exclusions. For example, most car hire companies will add a fee for renters under 25 or for including a second driver, while some charge extra if you’ve been driving for less than four years.

Others – and we're talking about the really unscrupulous operators here – may try and sneak hidden fees, such as their own insurance policies, onto your contract. You will have to sign this before you leave, so ensure that you’re clear about every item/fee on it.

And others will levy an ‘admin’ fee for theft or damage to the car – even if you’ve bought an excess waiver policy. To put it in a nutshell: being thorough in your research when hiring a car is the way to get the best deal.

Car hire questions answered

Over the years, we’ve received hundreds of questions from our readers regarding the topics in this article. Here’s a selection with answers from travel expert, Bob Atkinson.

From Sue

Dear Bob – help please. I normally rent from DoYouSpain and the car normally comes through Goldcar in Denia.

But although I always buy my own insurance which includes an excess waiver policy they simply won’t accept it and I am forced – if I wish to take the car – to pay their (returnable) fee of around 1200 euros. Is there any way round this?

Bob Atkinson

Hi Sue

I think you are talking about the refundable deposit. Every rental company will take this, irrespective of whether you have a car rental excess policy. The way an excess policy works is that if there were any accidents, the excess is charged by the car rental company to you. You then claim that back from your insurance policy. I hope that this explains it for you.

From Luc

Hi there, just wondering what you guys mean about “excess”? I'm hiring a car via online in the US and it says the price includes this (among other things).

Bob Atkinson

Hi Luc

On all rental agreements, when you pick the car up there will be an ‘excess’ to pay. Although you have a collision damage waiver you would still be liable for the first part of any claim if there were to be any damage to the car, just as there is on car insurance policies at home. If you take out an excess policy here in the UK, as per our article, you can claim any excess you have to pay out to the car rental company.

Hope that all makes sense to you now.

Note: Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) limits the driver’s liability in the event that the rental car is damaged, subject to the terms of the rental agreement. Rather than the full cost, the driver is generally only responsible for the first portion, known as their ‘excess’. This protection applies to all authorised drivers of the rental car.

From Mrs Andrea Aspinwall

Hi can you tell me if you have to pay for a deposit with affordable car hire in Florida as it says it will be based on one or more of the following categories such as, car group rental duration, fuel cost, years of driving & rental cost. I thought we had paid everything at the travel agents when we booked. It says $350 on arriving at the desk when we pick up. I’m over 24, we have bought premium insurance also. Could you please help me solve this. As I will have to find more money if so. Thank you

Bob Atkinson

Hi Andrea

As you have made your reservation through a travel agent you will need to speak to them to get this information as we cannot see any details of your booking.

It is usual that you would leave a credit card number as a deposit when you pick up a car anywhere in the world. An amount is pre-authorised to it but not charged unless that is required on return of the vehicle.

From Rajiv


I am from India, looking to rent a car in Germany, which seems to be the best company in Germany?

Does paying for Super cover refundable excess that covers all insurance ensure that anything that may be charged will be surely refunded?

Can I buy the insurance policy separately? Just for 3 days. What are these cleaning charges? And are there any hidden charges which I should be careful about?

Please guide a first timer.

Bob Atkinson

Hi Rajiv

You can do a search on TravelSupermarket to compare car hire in Germany. We feature both airport pick ups and downtown locations and all companies offer excellent service. Just find the price that is right for you and then click through to the company to make your reservation and check the small print.

If you buy super cover excess from a car rental company you will not be generally covered for damage to tyres, glass and the underside of the car. You can get better cover by buying a standalone policy on a daily rate and the price is also far cheaper. You can buy that here.

Cleaning charges are applied if you don’t return the car in a decent condition of cleanliness. Remove your own litter from the car and if the car has got muddy then give it a wash.

The other main charge is to understand the fuel situation, whether you pick up the car full and then fill it up yourself when returning or you pick up full and pay for a full tank of fuel on collection of the keys. Most short rentals will be the former.

Finally ensure you check out the driving rules in Germany and avoid speed penalties and traffic offences. Read more here.

From David Caress

Hi Bob

I originally made a booking to hire a Seat Leon out of Malaga Airport. The original booking was for a Seat Leon manual. On arrival my party decided on upgrading the car and having attended the desk and speaking with their operative the car hire was upgraded to an Audi A4 Tdi 150 Stronic.

The cost of the original booking was €151.76 with the upgrade at €532.70 (total hire cost for the Audi in the sum of €684.46). At the time of making the upgrade I was advised that this was a good deal and upon this I made the upgrade as my decision was based on what the operative had advised me.

Having had the opportunity to access the internet later I checked the Avis website for a similar booking for the same car for the same period of seven days as the original booking. To my total surprise the cost of the hire for an Audi is quoted at £237 or €303.31. This is €381.15 less than what I have had to pay for the same car when I completed my upgrade.

I do understand that there was a charge of €66.84 for fuel up front included in this figure (another rip off but what was expected).

Have you come across such a disparity in hire prices when upgrading at the airport desk before and is there a way for me to get the €314.31 back? I had paid on my credit card so may approach them if Avis does not respond to an email that I have sent them.

Bob Atkinson

Hi David

The airport desk prices are totally different to those online and reflect supply and demand on the day.

We would always recommend that you book the car group that you want online and with a prepaid voucher rather than a reserve-now-and-pay-later price, which is usually higher. Many car rental pick up desks are franchises as opposed to owned by the rental companies and they are free to set prices locally.

You will have no right of recourse to your credit card company as you agreed the price at the desk and were happy to pay that upgrade. I would contact Avis customer services and address the matter to them. Their details are here.

Please note: The answers to these questions were accurate at the time of writing.

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