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How to avoid surprise car rental fees



Brad Cross expected to pay just $350 for a Honda Accord he rented in June for four days from Avis in Salt Lake City. Instead, the car rental company harassed him with a surprise charge of $2,974 on his credit card.

“Avis said the rental was extended to a one-way rental and discontinued in another state,” says Cross, a software developer from Maple Grove, Minn. “But it wasn’t me.”

The charge, it turns out, was a mistake (more on that later), but customers are being hit with more “surprise” car rental charges these days — some intentional, some not.

Gone are the days of simple and transparent fees. Hidden fees – also known as junk fees – have recently drawn the ire of President Biden, who has promised to crack down on them while traveling and beyond.

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But there are ways to avoid these higher fees. Whether it’s an erroneous bill like Cross’s or unexpected smaller charges, here are some tips.

What are the most common car rental costs?

Car rental costs have increased by 14% this year, according to JD Power. Fees range from fees to offset the cost of renting at an airport to fuel and insurance surcharges. Here are the most common fees.

Additional driver fee: If there is more than one driver, your car rental agency may charge an additional fee. The company may waive the fee if it is your spouse or if you are a frequent renter.

Fuel Purchase Options: Car rental companies will offer to fill the tank at a higher price so you can avoid having to refuel before returning it. You can avoid these costs by filling the tank yourself. Also note that rental companies do not reimburse you for unused fuel.

Insurance: Agents at the counter will try to sell insurance to customers. And it’s a hard sell. They may tell you that your auto insurance policy isn’t good enough or that your credit card won’t cover you – both are usually wrong. Additional insurance can sometimes double the cost of your rental. To avoid this upsell, read your cardholder agreement or auto insurance policy to make sure you’re covered.

Unwanted charges: These can include airport concession fees (which cover the fees the company pays to operate at the airport), license recovery fees (which cover the cost of registering and registering an a car) and even a tire disposal fee. You can’t negotiate these charges on your bill, but they’re usually disclosed before your rental so you can avoid places that charge them.

Avoid renting at the airport

One of the biggest complaints from travelers is the extras added to the bills for concessions or airport transportation. These are not new, but airports are increasing them almost constantly. Airports charge car rental companies for these and sometimes use the money to build car rental facilities. Last year, Honolulu International Airport opened a new $377 million car rental facility funded by an additional $4.50 added to each tenant’s bill.

“Airport concession fees can increase your bill by up to 20%,” says Roger Broussard, a frequent traveler who publishes a site for pilots.

His advice for lowering his car rental bill: “Avoid renting a car at the airport,” he advises.

You can use the courtesy van to drive to your hotel and rent from there. Or you can carpool to an off-site location, although this cost may be more than the additional cost of the rental at the airport. Keep in mind, however, that some car rental agencies near the airport also charge a feeso you’ll have to pay attention to the fine print.

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Try the “pay now” option

One way to avoid cost overruns is to set a price before renting the car. You can book through an opaque site like hot wire, which offers “Hot Rate” prepaid rentals, allowing you to choose a rental location but not the agency, which is revealed after you book. The price you see is the total price you will pay. The risk exists that you get a rental agency with bad reviews.

“To avoid surprises, you can use the ‘pay now’ option when booking a car,” advises Julie Flores, vice president of operations at Motorway tariff, a car rental technology company. “Not only will you see exactly what the final taxes and fees will be, avoiding any surprises, but you can also get a modest discount by prepaying for the rental.”

Dave Dzurick, a retired broadcast engineer from Tucson, recently discovered EconomyBookings.com, a site offering several prepaid options. He used it to rent a Hertz sedan in Victoria, Canada.

“I paid for everything upfront and there were no surprises,” he says.

But there’s a catch: “pay now” fares, while sometimes cheaper than “pay later,” can be non-refundable.

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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 lid. Fortunately, Schultz is a travel consultant and knows the pitfalls of renting. She had taken video of the entire rental when she picked it up.

“I showed the rental car company the video footage of the rental car,” she says. “This showed that the trunk lid in question had not been in the vehicle to begin with.”

The car rental company dropped its claim.

She says taking photos of your rental is the best way to avoid a car rental bill surprise. “Before you even put your luggage inside, make a video,” she advises. “Inside, outside, up and down – you never know where they’ll say the load is coming from.”

Can Avis fix this extra cost?

When Cross called Avis about the nearly $3,000 fee, the company asked for his receipt. But Cross had already thrown away the receipt. He did, however, have a gas receipt that put him close to the airport on the day of his return. It wasn’t enough.

“Unfortunately, we have not found any discrepancies 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 review his case. Turns out they had confused Cross’s rental with someone else’s vehicle. The company apologized for the misunderstanding and credited his card with $2,624.

Cross has been persistent, which may be the most effective way to avoid paying surprise car rental charges. He kept disputing his bill, with a little help from me, until someone finally agreed to pay the charge.