Driver Knowledge Tests

How to avoid being ripped off by rental vehicle companies

You’re heading away on holiday or on business and you need a car. You choose a well-known rental vehicle agency, book your car, pick it up, have a great trip and several days later hundreds of dollars of charges appear on your card with no explanation. You’ve been caught in the great rental vehicle agency ripoff – you’d be surprised at how frequently this happens.

In my case it was Avis in Palermo, Sicily, but friends have told me of this happening to them all over the world. Here’s how you get the best deal from a rental vehicle company and avoid the chance of getting a huge fine or penalty for ‘damage’ that already existed.

Fake damage or damage that already existed

Not everyone is as careful as you with a vehicle and the majority of rental vehicles you pick up will have some kind of damage to them. Usually it’s minor scratches and stone chips but I’ve picked up cars with serious dents and scrapes.

Not all of this damage will be notified on the vehicle’s collection documentation that you sign when you pick up the car. In airport collection areas you’ll often just be given the keys and they’ll let you know where to find it.

If a representative from the company can’t come with you, take photos of every scratch, however minor. Ensure that you can see the surroundings in at least some of the photos to prove where it is. Pay special attention to the underside of the front bumper as this is how Avis tried to sting us (fortunately I saw that and had a photo of it, but it still took over 3 hours of effort, more than 10 emails and 5 phone calls to get our 360 Euros returned). Other areas you might forget to check are the roof which often gets scratched when people put bags and suitcases on them, the alloy wheels (especially on the kerb side) and the interior where minor breakages can happen but can be quite expensive to fix. If possible, you should go to the desk again and report this damage.

If a representative from the company comes with you, make sure that you document every single scratch and that either you keep a copy of the document or they email it to you. You should take photos of this damage, too.

When you drop the car off, take all the photos again from every angle. This is especially important if you are dropping it off after hours when you can’t get someone from the agency to come out and approve the vehicle. If someone can come and approve the vehicle, you’re fine – you need to get a document from them saying it’s fine.

Now onto how to get good deals and not be a victim of upsells and add-ons.

Excess waiver insurance is very expensive

It is usually cheaper for you to get full travel insurance which will come with rental vehicle insurance than it will be to purchase the insurance excess waiver with the company. A typical rental vehicle excess ranges from $2000-5000; a waiver usually drops that to $200-500, which is similar to the level in a standard travel insurance policy.

These waivers can be $10-20 per day, but travel insurance for a month is likely to only be $200, in which case you’d be covered for lost luggage, cancelled flights, medical bills and way more.

Don’t scrimp by not getting insurance at all. You’ll be driving in a foreign country with different rules, most likely on a different side of the road, in an unfamiliar vehicle and possibly with jetlag. Your chances of having an accident are already elevated, so you definitely want to avoid having to pay a $5000 excess to repair a rental vehicle.

The fuel ripoff

If the vehicle isn’t full when you pick it up, take a photo of the dashboard showing the odometer (i.e. how many kilometres it has done) and the fuel guage. The odometer should match that which is on your collection documents. You should make the company aware of this. The problem is that it will be almost impossible to take the car back with the same amount of fuel. Your options are:

  1. Wait while they take it to be filled – this wastes your time
  2. Agree with the agency that you will fill it and they will refund you the difference; you’ll then return the car full – this wastes your time, too
  3. Suck it up as a minor potential loss.

Basically, you can’t win in this situation.

Many rental vehicle agencies will offer a service to fill your car up for you when you return it. This usually attracts a charge, plus an inflated cost per litre for the fuel.

When you return the car, you’ll find that the service stations closest to the airport are usually the most expensive. You can save a few dollars by filling up at a station a few kilometres away, but obviously not too far away as this is unethical as you’re denying the next driver their fuel. There are apps you can use to find out petrol prices at local pumps. For example, if you’re travelling to New Zealand, Gaspy is pretty good.

Shop around for a deal

Partner sites and rental car aggregators often have cheaper deals than you will find on the rental car company’s actual website.

Ignore the upsells

It can take a while to pick up your rental car from some companies because they pressure you with relentless upsells for insurance and other things you don’t need.

Roadside assistance

If they offer an optional roadside assistance package, check what the standard free package includes and whether or not your own travel insurane provides any cover. Your usual risk is a flat tyre or a broken windscreen. The additional packages tend to cover these; you’re just unlucky if you get one. Of course, if you’re renting from your own country, you might already have a membership with a roadside assistance company and this will cover you.

Vehicle upgrades

If you’re offered a vehicle upgrade, ask if it’s free. Sometimes they will automatically put you in a better vehicle, but you probably don’t want to pay for this. Consider what a vehicle upgrade might mean – is it larger (i.e. more difficult to park) and more thirsty on fuel, for example?


If you have a smartphone (who doesn’t?) download Google Maps’ offline maps for the area you are going to and then you don’t need to use data unless you want the traffic information. This is much cheaper than renting a GPS. You can always get roaming data which is still likely to be cheaper than renting a GPS. Remember to take a smartphone mounting bracket and hands-free kit in your luggage.

Pick up from a city depot rather than the airport

Airport pickups carry a premium price for the convenience. If you’re prepared to take a short walk or wait for a shuttle bus you can save yourself sometimes more than 25%.

Return the car to the pickup point

Unless the rental agency has agreed that you can do a vehicle location, you might be charged a relocation fee if you return it to a different location.

Don’t do last-minute bookings

Last-minute bookings can sometimes be more expensive. Other times bookings can be pricey are during holiday periods.

Check the maximum allowed kilometres

Some vehicles will have a limit for the number of kilometres allowed per day, e.g. 250. If you know where you’ll be going, that’s fine, but check the fine print for the price for driving over the maximum as it could be quite steep. Also check that the particular car doesn’t have any geographic limitations, such as only being able to be driven within city limits or not allowed to be driven on dirt roads.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

Posted in Advice