Picture this. You arrive at your destination airport after a long time in the air, the horrors of checking in and security in the UK, queuing to get in to the country where you’ve landed and then claiming your bags.
After all of that, tired and grumpy, you have one last task. Picking up the hire car.
Car hire companies know you feel like this when you get to the pick-up desk and some exploit this. In the last few months, I’ve recently noticed a worrying rise in the number of complaints that I’ve been hearing about all aspects of hiring a car in a foreign country.
Car hire companies already have a pretty woeful reputation when it comes to the service that they provide. But recently a few new trends seem to be emerging. Chief among these is the ‘this is not the car I ordered’ manoeuvre.
My friends Aki and Tsukasa – who recently came to visit me from Japan – experienced this. They decided to spend a few weeks in France and had hired a car so they could visit their friends in the countryside. Despite specifically requesting an automatic and a smaller make of car that they were familiar with – and confirming with the car hire company in advance – on arrival they were faced with a much bigger, manual transmission vehicle. With little experience in this sort of car, a wing mirror soon got damaged and they were hit with inappropriately high charges to repair it.
I was furious when I heard this story, but I soon found out it was part of a wider pattern. Loads of readers have been in touch to say that they have arrived at their destinations only to be told the vehicle they had booked was not available, or in some cases they had been ‘upgraded’ despite the fact that this was the only option.
I have some major concerns over this worrying new practice. Firstly, giving people a vehicle they are not comfortable in or feel able to drive is dangerous. It significantly increases the risk of damage, which some businesses profit off by charging ridiculous fees for repairs. To add insult to injury, these repairs sometimes don’t even get carried out!
Now I wouldn’t accuse car hire companies of deliberately changing vehicles to increase their profits, but this behaviour is becoming worryingly common. If they’ve got the hump that I’m highlight it, then here’s all they need to do to sort things out.
Car hire companies should work with their competitors to find and swap comparable cars if there’s a problem providing the original vehicle (a bit like hotels do when they’re overbooked). And charging extra cash for insurance and extras when the booked vehicle isn’t provided should be banned outright. Easy.
So what else do you need to be wary of? Here’s my guide.
Plan for the worst
Most people book online when it comes to booking a car to hire abroad. Never, ever just go for the lowest price. Part of the reason the industry has such a bad reputation is the drive to cut quotes to the lowest level possible. But they then make this up with extras and add-ons – and shady practices like massive excess fees for damaged vehicles. In short: pay less upfront, pay more in the end.
Save or print off the terms and conditions and take a few screenshots of any ‘guarantees’ or promises the firm makes. As I often say, call the customer service line or email before you book. If you can’t contact an actual person, then don’t bother with the business.
If you book a last-minute holiday, don’t wait to hire a car at the airport (or anywhere else at your destination). You’re much more of a target for unscrupulous sales practices when you arrive – and there are too many documents to scrutinise to understand all the costs you could incur if something goes wrong.
When you arrive at the collection point, be prepared to be firm. Show them your documents and make it clear that you will not accept any upgrades or vehicle changes at the last minute. Watch out if they try to charge you for things that weren’t mentioned when you booked the car, like child seats or roof racks.
Credit and debit cars
When you hire a car, the company will usually insist the driver must pay the deposit and costs on a credit card in their name. This is down to issues around liability if something goes wrong. The credit card you use will need to have a set amount of available credit on it before the car hire company will let you leave with the vehicle. This will be checked too.
One of my pet hates is the way some firms ‘ring fence’ a deposit for excess fees for damage. This effectively stops you from using that money while you are away.
The car hire firm will automatically debit your account for any damage or contract dispute costs when you return the vehicle, preventing your from arguing your case. This is daylight robbery and many countries are reportedly looking in to this practice. But be wary for now.
I’ve also heard that some firms are now taking separate debit card payments for extras or upgrades. I can only assume that this is because they can (and have) chosen to debit accounts for similar disputed costs without being bound by the main contract or laws like the Consumer Rights Act that give people more protections with credit card payments.
Car hire excess insurance
Without a doubt, the one issue with car hire that grinds your gears the most is when the business accuses you of damaging the vehicle – and hits you with a major bills for repairs.
The business will already have third party cover on the vehicle to cover them for most issues. But if a vehicle is ‘damaged’ you will be charged an ‘excess fee’ that you have to pay as part of the repair of the damage. These fees can be bonkers. I’ve seen people get debited over £1,000 for minor damage, like scratches to bumpers. In fact, I once demanded that a car hire company posted me the bumper that allegedly had to be replaced after a car hire complaint (they backed off).
To avoid this problem, you will need to take out an insurance policy to cover the excess fee. Many businesses have become quite militant and are insisting that you have to take out their own branded policies. This is rubbish. An insurance broker in the UK or Europe cannot compel you to only take out their policy. This is important because an excess fee purchased direct from the car hire firm can cost £250 or more. A quick check online though and you can buy cheaper policies with better cover in the UK for a couple of quid a day. You will need to make sure that the policy covers the make and model of the vehicle you are hiring.
Of course, you’ll need to cover your back before you drive off in the vehicle. I would photograph the car from all sides (including inside), look in the boot and compartments inside the vehicle and photo the fuel and millage dials. The firm should mark-up existing damage on the car on a diagram and give you a copy. Check it and make them mark down everything that you’ve spotted too.
Add-ons and extras
Some car hire firms have incomprehensible rules when you return the car. Petrol rules alone can be wacky. Different contracts specify if you have to return the car with a full tank, half full or even empty. Even if they refund you for petrol you’ve put in the car, you’ll probably face a ‘processing fee’.
Some contracts will bill you for any mileage over a certain amount specified in the contract. Don’t forget to check this before you book.
There are also an annoying range of additional ‘add-on’ charges levied by some car hire firms. These can include:
- Out of hours’ pick up or drop off
- Late arrival fees.
- Roof racks, luggage holders and child seats
- Cancelation or amendment charges
- Additional drivers
As a general rule, you’ll need to complain to the care hire firm in the country where you hired it – even if they have UK branches. Put your complaint in writing by email explaining what went wrong and what you want them to do to sort it out.
The European Car Rental Conciliation Service (ECRCS) can help with cross border car hire complaints – but only in the EU. The European Consumer Centres Network (ECRCS) can help you for free if you’re struggling.
In the UK, The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) can help with complaints.
If the complaint is about an insurance policy sold by the car hire firm, there are ombudsman schemes for banking and insurance abroad and you can find a list at FIN-NET
Payments taken on a credit card could also be disputed through making a section 75 claim under the Consumer Credit Act to your card provider too.
Featured in Mirror – Martyn James