Car rental absurdities I’d change if I could

Not a day seems to go by that I don’t hear from an angry car rental customer — folks like Craig Solomon, who rented a car in England from Avis for two weeks recently.

“Toward the end of the rental one of the tires blew out,” he says. “It ultimately cost about $500 to replace, and Avis has been unwilling to date to accept the responsibility.”

The way Solomon sees it, Avis should have rented him a car with good tires. He wasn’t taking the vehicle off-roading, and had driven it safely and never gotten so much as a parking ticket.

“The repairman wrote onto the service receipt that the tire was punctured due to very low tread showing, and he told me Avis would try to charge me, but that it was definitely not my fault,” he says. “I also took photos of the tire.”

The way Avis saw it, the tire blew out while he was renting it, and it was his responsibility. End of story.

Solomon’s case, and the many others like it, all have something in common: They narrate a bigger story of an industry that can’t seem to figure out how to make money honestly, and the silly things they decide to do to line their pockets. Those include sneaky surcharges and fees, bogus damage claims and duping drivers into signing contracts for services they didn’t want or need.

It’s over

Avis is right about one thing, though. This is the end of the story – at least it is for me. This column, which has been appearing on every Monday for the last two years and on this site every Tuesday, is signing off at the end of the year.

Related story:   6 secrets for getting a travel company to see things your way

Frommers is under new ownership, and even though our ratings are pretty decent, the new bosses are taking this site in a new direction.

I wish them well.

What would you do if you were given one month to live? If you said, ‘Tell the world about the travel industry’s most ridiculous things!’ then give yourself a brownie point.

That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.

Starting now, with rental cars.

You don’t have to work in the car rental industry to figure out the problems really fast. Renters like you and me are unwilling to pay high rates. So car rental companies quote you a low “base” rate and then slowly add to it, piling on taxes and mandatory fees, and then try to “upsell” you on optional fuel-purchase and insurance. In order to squeeze even more profit, car renters allege that companies try to fool them into signing contracts in which they agree to buy optional insurance. And, like Solomon, they go after every damage claim – even the ones for which renters aren’t responsible.

Ridiculous? You bet.

Repairing car rentals

There are three fixes. Let’s start with the one for Solomon: I contacted Avis on his behalf and said, “Really?” Avis reviewed the correspondence and photos and said, “No, not really,” and it refunded the $500 he paid to have the tire fixed.

Honestly, it could have been much worse. If the tires were bald, as Solomon claims, then he could have been in a serious accident, and then Avis would be dealing with a much bigger problem than an invoice for a new tire. I’m talking hospital bills and lawsuits.

Related story:   We lost a day and one half of vacation on the island

But I digress.

Solution number two: Customers, practice a little defensive driving when you rent your car. Read every contract. Make sure your insurance is in order, by which I mean, check your credit card coverage and your car insurance to make sure that if something happens to your car, you won’t be responsible for the bill. Take pictures of the vehicle, pre- and post-rental.

The car rental industry needs to get its act together, too.

You can’t build a business on fees and false damage claims. In the short-term, maybe. But over the long term, your customers will walk away, no matter how “low” your base rates are or how aggressive your promotions are. Some forward-looking car rental companies already know this. But most are in denial.

And frankly, I’m offended by the car rental industry’s business model, and you should be, too.

How stupid do they think we are? Eventually, every state attorney general and legislature is going to clamp down on these questionable practices. No amount of lobbying and influence can turn back this tide of angry renters.

It’s only a matter of time.

Do car rental companies need to come up with a better way to make money?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • I’m sorry this isn’t about the OP, but what about your column? Will it and this website cease to exist at the end of the year?

  • Thanks. You’re reading this story on my site, which will continue to exist. As far as this column, it’s “in play” — which means that I’m looking for a new home for it. I’m in discussions with several interested parties at the moment.

  • $16635417

    I hardly consider the inclusion of government imposed fees and taxes as “piling on” by the rental car agency. Every time I rent, those fees are disclosed in the reservation process.

  • I would, particularly if an agency quotes a “low” base rate but then adds taxes at the end of the transaction. It makes customers believe they’re getting a deal when they’re not.

  • 1. Your column is one of the truly useful, sane vestiges of travel journalism left. It must find a happy home, and I’m glad you are leaving the antiquated world of Frommer’s.

    2. Rental car companies are rip-off artists of the first order. I use and hate them all. Bring back Ugly Duckling, which at least you suspected might not be safe but was affordable get-what-you-pay-for.

  • Pat

    When I see a car rental rate of 13, 15, 18 dollars a day…that seems fair. When I book the car and it is more like 30 , 35 or 40 with taxes and fees I feel hood-winked. Just tell me how much the car will cost up front. Period.

  • Rob Hoffmann

    The solution is to require car rental firms to do what airlines had to do — list their rates after required fees… who can we lobby for this?

  • Take over as Conde Nast ombudsman! I used to love that column but it’s gone to the dogs in recent years.

  • Alan Gore

    “Take pictures of the car before you leave the rental lot” has become standard advice by travel writers. I suppose we now have to add”…and the tires, too.”

  • Steve Rabin

    Here’s the way I see it regarding car rental repairs: if the rental agency can stick it to the consumer, they will. Even if 10% of these claims work, they come out ahead since they need the car fixed, and a car that’s not on the road isn’t making money. If they can get someone else to pay for the repairs, they’re really happy!

  • DC Atty

    I have also voted with my feet. It has been over ten years since I rented a car. Even if the airport is miles away from my destination, I find some other way to get there: airport shuttle, hotel shuttle, bus, taxi, mooch a ride from the client, anything but renting a car.

  • J. Random Driveby

    @Mikegun, most of those “government imposed fees and taxes” are NOT in fact government-imposed. I discovered this by accident a while back, while checking rental rates at Enterprise in Dallas TX. I checked two locations, DFW airport, and one in Dallas proper. The DFW quote was full of “government imposed fees and taxes”, the Dallas proper one had NONE of those “government imposed fees and taxes”. HOWEVER, comma, the bottom line quotes differed by less than one dollar! Translation for the not-so-clueful: Enterprise was charging the same high rate at both locations, but telling creative stories at DFW to make the customer THINK the high rate is due to “government imposed fees and taxes”.

  • mattandyianna

    I have to admit, I think I end up benefiting from the current means of pricing rental cars. I shop ahead of time carefully and I waive everything I don’t need and choose the optimal fuel option. It’s “selfish”, in that I’m sure on average my rentals do not fully cover the costs, which is made up for by others paying more than they need to. But at least everyone has the same opportunity if they approach car rental with the right degree of shopping savvy.

  • ldvinva


  • MarkKelling

    It seems to be the way all businesses are going – charge ridiculous additional fees and keep adding more and more until either the customers quit using your services or government steps in and says stop and then whine about not being able to make a profit.

    Rental cars are about the worst right now from all the companies I have to deal with. You see a great rate, but then by the time you get to the final price quote it is double what you expected. And this is without their insurance and fuel options. The insurance doubles the price again. So that $20 a day rate ends up being $40 or even $80. I recently was in Hawaii and looked at renting a car. With insurance, it would have cost me $1000 for the week for a compact basic car. (Due to previous issues with renting cars in Hawaii, I always take the insurance no matter who I rent from.) I could have bought a car at a used lot for about that much, used it for the week and sold it back and came out better. I recently got a “free” rental day from my usual rental agency — which cost me $20 in fees and taxes. So much for “free” but was still better than the $60 it would have cost me if it wasn’t free.

    I think the most ridiculous example of this business model was actually a government entity where I live. They started taking debit cards for all payments and everyone seemed happy. But, because the debit cards are guaranteed payment, the lost most of their hot check fee income. This fee income was over 20% of their budgeted income. Even after reducing their staff that handled processing of hot checks, they could not reduce their expenses by an amount equal to the lost income. Because they lost that income, they stopped taking debit cards! You have to again pay in actual cash or with a check. So their bounced check fees are now back up where they want them. What kind of model are they using where they have to depend on fees from bad checks to make their budget??

  • Becky

    I have been fighting with Hertz on their way of doing business. I
    rented though Hotwire, I had been charged 5 day when I had the car 4,
    I had 3 cars in 3 days and was taken across PA by a hertz driver I
    didn’t know, in a area I didn’t know and dropped off to yet anopther
    nightmare. They ( Hertz gave be $75 in coupons I will never use.)
    Hertz says I rented from Hotwire, Hotwire said that it up with
    Hertz…Oh I rented the car for $32 a day that came up to $57 plus
    after taxes and charges.. and than hotwire emailed me a half hour
    after I booked at say I could have gotten the car for $19 a day,
    however, When I called them they stated I had already booked so
    there was nothing I could do. …

  • MarkKelling

    Avis is actually pretty good about being truthful on the taxes and fees, at least where I rent. I have needed to rent one way to or from the airport and they almost always have a great rate to the airport. I tend to pay $25 for the one way to the airport, but from the airport it is $75 with all mandatory fees and taxes. I know this will vary depending on where you rent and what types of taxes the local government imposes at non-airport rental locations. But, the rental companies are free to charge whatever they want and we are free to not rent from them if we think the price is excessive.

  • MarkKelling

    Sounds more like a Hotwire issue.

    I have had bad cars from Hertz and other rental places – it happens. And sometimes the way rental companies count days doesn’t make sense but they all do it the same way. At least Hertz was there to help you out when you had issues with your cars.

  • writenow

    What’s wrong with Frommers?

  • technomage1

    I’ve noticed this on several sites. I would go through the entire transaction and the next step would be to confirm it and only then did the taxes show up. I had to back out of the entire transaction to see if a nearby counter was lower – which is was by a significant amount. If you’re showing a rate for location 1234, then that rate should include the taxes up front.

  • Linda

    I can’t believe this column will be gone! I am a travel agent (brick & mortar) and I look forward to your column in my email every morning! Find a home soon, please!

  • Diver Gary

    I voted NO. They know how to make money. Do they need to be more transparent ethical and user friendly, YES. When I go to a resturant they do not sell me a steak for 9.95, then latter charge me for a plate, knife, and chair/table rent. (Althouf=gh at the San Francisco Airport Burger King has a small sign (it is osted) about a 1% charge for employee funding)

  • emanon256

    I love Chris’s witty surveys. Because clearly the up-sells and damage claims do work, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be using them.

    I am glad to see you taking on the car rental industry, I think they are shadier and more scammy than airlines.

    And I am pissed at Frommers.

  • SoBeSparky

    Why did you rent through hotwire, and not directly from a car rental site? Hertz always, and I mean always, gives me the precise total cost of the rental which appears on my charge card. I think your problems originate and conclude with hotwire.

    Third-party reservation systems frequently just gum up the works, especially when they add no value but collect a commission from the travel vendor. Use a travel agent or book yourself at the source.

    I violate my own rules above (slightly) by booking with AAA (adds value) which has a special agreement and discount policy with Hertz. No matter which special I find myelf, when I use AAA I always come up with the lowest accurate price. No upsales, no bait and switch, just “here are the keys, drive safely.”

  • emanon256

    Its not selfish, its smart.

  • emanon256

    I am mad at Avis. I got a nice letter in the mail saying no more blackout dates or restrictions for coupons, and it included 10, 1 day free rental coupons that said they could be combined up to 7 days at a time. I had switched my account from earning miles to free rental certificates earlier in the year and was wondering when they would come. They finally did.

    I tried to use them for work, found out thy are not valid in NY. I tried to use them for a family vacation, found out they are not valid in March due to spring break. I tried to give them to a friend, and found out they are not transferable.

    I called and complained and was told they lifted most restrictions, but not all. That they still blacked out holidays, spring break in warm places, winter break in warm places, Colorado during ski season, and apparently they can never be used in NY & NJ ever. They also expire at the end of March, so no way to ever use them.

  • Thank you. I am looking for a good home. If you hear of something, please let me know! ;-)

  • Frommers is ending all of its columns. It was bought by Google, and is heading in a different direction. I totally understand why. It’s just one of those things.

  • You’ll still have this column every day on this site. It’s just not running on Frommers anymore after December.

  • I’m already National Geographic Traveler’s ombudsman, a job I dearly love. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues at Conde Nast. Resolving travel problems is not easy.

  • TonyA_says

    Google bought them and they are not interested in columns.

  • TonyA_says

    James, it could be an alarming trend.
    Google bought ITA software, Ruba, Zagat and Frommers (did I miss anything?).
    The first two for technology, the last two for content.
    It will be much harder to find the line between travel search and marketing.
    Whenever you try to search and read what other (individual) travelers opinions are, you might be sold a bunch of BS with it.
    It is nice to be on a site that is powered by people for people that does not have too much influence by the corporate world.
    This one is one of the last ones.

  • Mary Schaer

    I have a dupped feeling every time we rent a car. On Nov. 19th we rented from Advantage in Phoenix. The promo said 2 or 4 door. We asked for the 4 door. We first were told it was a Mustang which would not work with 2 suitcases and 2 golf bags. It then changed to a 2 door Altima. Nice car but too tight for our cargo. They would not budge without a higher charge so we ended up stuffing everything into the Altima. So far we do not have any extra charges but the rental agencies are not trustworthy.

  • TonyA_says

    Include hotels, too.

    I read that there is recent FTC action on hotels regarding this.

  • emanon256

    They didn’t mean you could pick a 2 door or a 4 door, then meant you might get a 2 door, or you might get a 4 door. Depends on how they feel that day :p

  • oldpro

    Me, too! No more rentals for about 3 years now…A lot of my travel is on the east coast, where public transport is plentiful and reasonable…even the occasional taxi keeps my total local travel expense in line

  • y_p_w

    It’s getting a bit confusing since some of your published articles are also reprinted on this blog.

  • y_p_w

    Hows this for fees on a recent rental at SNA (John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA). I have the receipt in front of me:

    T&W (I think this is the base weekly rate): $87

    Concession Fee: $9.67

    Tourism: $2.48

    Sales Tax 7.75%: $7.49

    Total: $106.64

    Less than $20 in fees for what turned out to be a five-day rental. And the car had 6 miles on the odometer when I got it and brand new OEM tires.’

  • TonyA_says

    I believe that CE is a syndicated columnist. Pls. correct if I am wrong.

  • y_p_w

    I understand that. However, some of those weekly columns apparently end up republished on the blog. He’s got his family’s “Away Is Home” block that he sometimes links to here as well as articles on National Geographic Traveler. Also specific entries from this blog are syndicated to various newspaper websites around the country.

    Chris is all over the place. In a good way.

  • DrewT

    I had a similar situation a few years ago in Las Vegas with exactly the OPPOSITE result. I rented from (name not to be mentioned, but they are a huge RED-liveried rental car company), and checked on the rates renting both from the airport and from a hotel-based location. The airport location had a massive amount of those “taxes and fees”, including a tourism tax, a concession fee, an airport access fee, and many others. The hotel-based location had the tourism tax and sales tax (which incidentally was a lower tax rate than at the airport!), but the rate was slightly higher (I think it ended up being $5 more a day). I asked about the possibility of getting the lower rate from the airport and was told that the rate was higher in the hotel due to the rent that they had to pay. (I actually called the location instead of going through Avis corporate.) The gentleman I was speaking to (apparently one of the area managers) stated that it was funny–they could charge a concession fee to pay a lot of their rent at the airport locations, but they couldn’t do the same thing at their hotel locations, so the rates were higher…

    So I don’t necessarily think that the rental companies are doing as you suggested–and using “creative stories” to raise the rate–I think a lot of the fees do exist, but people that don’t travel frequently through airports don’t understand all of them.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I subscribed to National Geographic Traveler specifically because CE has a column in there. Lots of travel eye candy, but little substance otherwise. His column and a couple of other small features make the magazine a lot more legitimate than the merchant endorsements thinly disguised as articles.

  • Nikki

    I so agree here. Chris, you’re like the Consumer Reports of common sense (of course, whoever said sense was common, lied). There’s no way I could have handled even a fifth of that stuff – the letters you get – without wanting to just simply punch somebody in the jaw.

  • You’d probably be interested in CBC Vancouver’s expose on the local Budget car rental franchises… Inflated repair bills by the repair facility owned by the same person, and repairs that weren’t actually made. Former employees have come forward with lots of details and Budget corporate is “investigating”. Interesting to see if anything comes of it, but it made me think of you and all your similar stories.

  • y_p_w

    If you’re comparing rental agencies based at the same airport, the taxes and fees will be pretty much comparable. I think there might be a difference comparing on-site vs off-site rentals, where the off-site rentals might have lower airport fees. I understand off-site rentals might come with a fee for shuttles, but on-site might need to pay for everything.

    I just rented a car quoted at $87/week and the total cost when returned was less than $107. I have an upcoming rental at $13.99/day for four days (about $56) but with all taxes, facility charge, airport fee, etc, the total is going to be about $105. The irony is that the former was airport on-site and the latter will be off-site at a consolidated facility.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Should have checked the tyres 1st (you Americans need to learn how to spell English words).
    Not eveyrone is this world is a rip off merchant.
    Rental car companies get taken all the tiime. Stories of people switching engines & other parts, destroying brakes & tyres through mishandling & abuse & then they expect car co’s to wear it.
    Give them a break.
    We used to hire “stuff”. People used to destroyit & expect us to accept it as normal wear & tear. In these cases, we simply said, keep it you now own it (which is why anyone renting anything, inc DVD’s should get a signed credit card imprint for just such cases)
    PS. don’t think rental car co’s are a very good investment, as don’t think they make much money

  • Asiansm Dan

    Me too. Year 2000 and before, I rented 60 days per year. Now I rent once per year. Recently I found Taxi, Shuttle and Public transport are much less expensive and less stressful. Many countries they provide Car including driver for less than 50$ a day.

  • Yes, Frommers was running my syndicated column and also commissioned an original column, called “That’s Ridiculous” which ran here on Tuesdays.

  • Awww, thanks! You’re the best.

  • $16635417

    Like when a washing machine or TV is advertised at one price and you end up paying tax on top of it to get it out the door?

    I don’t recall ever paying more for a car than what the reservation discloses. I generally compare rates through orbitz or kayak and see the total base and total with tax. If I then go through the car rental company’s website, I also pay the rate shown with taxes and fees included. They also disclose the optional insurance options, satellite radio, gps..etc. Where else is everyone renting cars that don’t disclose the total?

  • $16635417

    But this total is disclosed when renting. When does the “piling on” happen? I end up paying the total that is disclosed in my reservation.

    Here is what I have at O’hare for my next rental:

    2 days at 16.19 USD32.38



    Vehicle Subtotal53.47 USDTaxes6.48

    USDTotal Approximate Charge59.95 USD

  • TonyA_says

    The car and driver is a great way to go. I am beginning to see signs on my local neighborhood for this kind of service. Wish it was more common in the USA.

  • Chris, is it unusual in the online world to be able to write an original piece on one site and then be able to post it on your own site? Did you have to work out a special deal? The sites I’ve dealt with tend to have a clause that you can’t use it for 3-6 months… Just curious!

  • If it’s an original piece commissioned by a magazine or newspaper, then they usually buy first rights or all rights. But if it’s a syndicated column that you’re publishing, everyone gets it at the same time, and it’s understood that the story is being shared. These economies of scale made syndication a workable model for some writers, but not for everyone. It’s a tough sell in travel.

  • MarkKelling

    That is good. You can still find rentals that are reasonable like you did, but it gets harder. Even in Houston TX where I go often, the two airports charge wildly different prices because the big airport (IAH) with all the international connections has lots of local government taxes added for various things and more renters, but the smaller airport (HOU) does not. For example, with Hertz for a two day weekend rental, the total at HOU is $72.35 which represents $50 in rental and $22.35 in taxes and fees. Not too bad. The exact same car for the exact same days at IAH is $134.43 which is $88.98 for rental and $45.45 in taxes and fees. The airports are 30 miles apart within the same city limits but the cost where they have more customers is nearly twice! Why, because they can.

  • y_p_w

    I mentioned another rental (Las Vegas actually) I have coming up, where I’ve got the estimated breakdown. It’s a base rate of $56 for four days (a real steal) but the taxes and airport fees are $50. There’s a $15 facility charge ($3.75 a day). It might actually seem like a lower percentage if my base rate were higher.

    The other issue (and a reason I didn’t book opaque) is that Las Vegas car rentals have different hours. I saw some pretty good rates from other companies, but some of the rental agencies shut down before midnight while others are open 24 hours. My flight is arriving around closing time for some of the companies.

    I also really liked John Wayne Airport. Small with rental right there across the street. I think at LAX I would have been looking at taking a shuttle and long lines burning about an hour of my time. At SNA that took less than 10 minutes. That’s in addition to being closer to Disneyland. :)

    I actually wanted to drive from Northern California, but my wife thought it was a bad idea. Heck – I think I probably could have rented so I wouldn’t put wear and tear on our own vehicles. I saw some pretty good weekly rates at OAK.

  • y_p_w

    It’s not that we don’t understand that there isn’t abuse of the system as well as out and out people who deliberately cheat the rental agencies and/or damage or abuse rented vehicles. We understand that it happens.

    Where we as consumers shouldn’t cut the rental agencies a break is when they deliberately force their customers to pay for damage when they have no idea who is responsible. There are many stories that seem to indicate that the rental agencies have threatened people who are sure they had nothing to do with damage or abuse just because they were the last person to rent a particular vehicle. Or even the possibility that a later renter damaged a vehicle, but that they just had to find someone to pay even if they couldn’t pin down who was responsible. They used to consider these things a cost of doing business when they had a healthy profit margin. Now they run on razor thin margins (I still don’t know how they made money on my $86/week rental) and then try to get their customers to pay for things that used to be a write-off.

    The rental agencies can really only turn a profit if they sell their vehicles as used at a decent price. They also have the depreciation of the vehicles as a tax write-off. However, they do get pretty good prices from fleet sales, so you can’t necessarily judge by MSRP.

  • Miami510

    Dear Christopher,

    I’m sorry to hear Fromers has dropped your Website. I hope you will keep my email (and all the others) on file and let us know where you can be found.

    Life is a learning experience. The learning experience in life is often
    painful, so there is a big advantage to learning from the experience of others…and that’s what you column affords.

    Good luck.

  • BeckyAintheBay

    The SFO Airport thing is not just at Burger King. It’s a city ordinance that restaurants in SF are required to cover health insurance for their employees (full and part time) and all restaurants in the city (not just at the airport) charge this extra fee

  • y_p_w

    Again – we understand that things get damaged by renters or under the renters’ care. However, what we don’t appreciate is when the rental agencies don’t seem to care if the bill they send out is to the actual responsible party. There are way too many stories of a cursory glance at the return with an OK given and suddenly a bill or charge to a credit card shows up the next month. It seems pretty apparent that sometimes they just find SOMEBODY, whether it was the last person to rent out the car, or maybe just the one three renters before.

    If I don’t have enough time to check my car for dents and I suddenly find a new one in a parking lot, I don’t put a note on the closest car blaming the driver or occupants for damaging my vehicle and asking for compensation to make the repair. I need to chalk it up as a cost of owning a vehicle or perhaps contact my own insurance company.

  • Michael__K

    I’ve had similar frustrations with Avis’ free rental day certificates.

    Tried to use one this summer and the website wouldn’t accept it even though none of the spelled out restrictions seemed applicable. I eventually reached a customer service agent who couldn’t explain either why the system wasn’t accepting it but they did offer to manually credit me a rental day.

    I don’t know if this helps you, but according to the printed terms I’ve seen the NY/NJ restrictions only apply to (quote:) “Newark, LaGuardia and JFK airports or at any metropolitan New York location.” In theory (and according to what I’ve been told), the certificates are supposed to be valid for locations like ISP, SWF, Trenton, etc. Of course there’s still the “participating locations” cop-out.

  • dr44

    Good column, but you state: “You can’t build a business on fees and false damage claims.”

    I wish I shared your optimism, but as you’ve pointed out eloquently, the airlines have been trying to do this for several years, and show no signs of stopping. Well, not false damage claims, but fees for everything. The only recourse for me is to refuse to buy from airlines & car rentals that behave this way. It restricts my travel choices sometimes, but such are the times we live in.

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