“Renting a car feels like going into battle”

Picking up a rental car should be the least stressful part of your vacation. And for some elite-level customers, it is. The shuttle drops you off; you grab the keys and drive off into the sunset.

But not for everyone. For example, if you don’t belong to Hertz’s “club” you’ll have to stand in a long line and face an even longer upsell pitch.

“Starting a vacation by renting a car feels like going into battle,” says Kate Brewer. “Alas, this was confirmed with my last trip.”

Now, military terminology — using words like “battle” and “war” to describe a difficult situation — is a cop-out in the journalism world. It’s a convenient way to describe a struggle, but it’s a cliché. Unless a car rental agent is returning fire with live ammunition, I would tell any writer to avoid the militaristic metaphors.

Except, maybe, in this case.

I’ve spoken with insiders about the changes at Hertz, and I know that agents are under greater pressure to sell add-ons than perhaps ever before. Maybe they’re not throwing knives or wielding swords, but based on what I’ve heard from some customers, it often feels that way.

Brewer reserved a Hertz vehicle at the West Palm Beach airport recently. When she arrived with a friend, an agent informed both of them that if they wanted to share the driving duties, it would cost an extra $13.50.

Not in total. Per day.

In car rental lingo, it’s referred to as an “additional driver” surcharge and it appears to be a junk fee. There’s no additional cost to the car rental company (at least none that was explained to Brewer), and it can significantly increase the cost of the vehicle. With three people in the party, “this would have raised the rental fee for the week from about $220 to over $400.”

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Here’s the interesting part: Car rental companies often waive additional driver fees for married couples. Some states allow the fees, others don’t. They make about as much sense as charging extra if you have kids or if you prefer driving on country roads instead of interstate highways.

Pure. Money. Grab.

“The first agent was not polite, nor willing to waive or discuss this misleading fee,” remembers Brewer. “The supervisor was polite, said this was standard in the industry, and would also not waive the fee.”

Just because it’s standard doesn’t mean it’s right.

Reluctantly, they paid up, only to discover later that as AAA members, they were exempt from the fee. Why are AAA drivers exempt? Who knows? If Hertz is suggesting that somehow AAA members are safer drivers, I’d love to see the statistics on that.

After returning from Florida, Brewer asked Hertz to refund the $250 extra she had to spend on the additional driver fees. Hertz has given her the silent treatment.

I reached out to Hertz for help and it agreed to reduce her bill by $100. But the refund isn’t the important thing. I’m more concerned about the struggle.

Experienced travelers know that they face fees, surcharges and upsells when they get to the counter. But the average traveler, who rents a car maybe once a year, has no inkling of what’s about to happen. They don’t know the difference between “Plus” and “Preferred” when it comes to car rental loyalty programs. Nor should they.

Point is, you shouldn’t have to be an expert or a consumer advocate to successfully rent a car. You shouldn’t have to wage war with an agent to get the price you were quoted. And the skirmish shouldn’t continue long after you’ve returned the keys.

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Or, put differently, there has to be a better way of earning an honest living from renting cars than by adding preposterous surcharges and fees to the cost of your car.

Should "additional driver" fees be legal?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Ben

    There are some ancillary fees that are justifiable; you can make an argument for baggage fees, for example, because handling and transporting bags represents a real cost to the airline.

    But the majority of the fees that travel companies are increasingly charging are just bogus ways to increase profit while appearing to be competitive on price. It’s easy to see why they do it, consumers are often price-sensitive and market competition drives companies to advertise as low a rate as possible. But that doesn’t make it right; there is no reason for Hertz to charge a per-day additional driver fee or a hotel to charge a resort fee or a cell carrier to charge a monthly administrative fee, these should all be part of the advertised price.

    I’m hesitant to support government intervention, but there is a pretty good argument for fee regulation. The rules for advertising airfares have been a positive change for consumers, something similar for other travel industries may be good as well.

  • Jeff W.

    Is the additional driver free a pure money grab? No. But $13.50 a day is. I think you are looking at the wrong fee to express outrage. Although you can argue about the amount. That seems too high.

    When you get insurance for your personal car, the rate you are given is based on many factors, including how many licensed drivers are in the household. Married couple, cheaper. Under 25, more expensive. Teenagers in the house, open the wallet.

    Rental car companies do not charge rates based on age, but like the insurance companies, can adjust the rate (fees) for multiple drivers.

    Are CAA/AAA drivers better that regular ones? No, but that waiving of that fee for that group was negotiated between AAA and Hertz. Just like when I rent a car using my corporate account — insurance, unlimited mileage, and multiple drivers are all negotiated between my corporate travel department and the car company and included in the rate.

  • Alyssa Bickler

    Why did they opt to pay the fee? For $250 I would have been the designated driver. (And I agree, the fee is ridiculous.)

  • vmacd

    I would think from a risk perspective it would be safer to allow multiple drivers and not put all the driving on a single person. This happened when I went on vacation with my sister. There would have been no additional charge for my spouse to drive the rental car, but the rental company wanted us to pay a lot more for my sister to be added. I wound up doing all the driving. At times I was tired and would have preferred to hand over the wheel.

  • taxed2themax

    I may not like the additional driver fee… but I don’t think that is something that should be formally regulated… I do agree that it makes comparison shopping harder..but again, that alone does not rise to a level that I think state or federal regulations are appropriate. I do support rules to make all fees better disclosed in advance, but I don’t think I can support rules that effectively make imposing them patently illegal.

  • m11nine

    I liken it to cancelling your cable or telephone account and having to deal with highly trained specialists that are working every angle to hook you. You do have to be an expert to get safely through the process.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Just an FYI, this is already being regulated, at least in the state of California, where additional driver fees are not charged by law.

    Here’s what is sneaky about some of the rental agents. In California, when I went to add my spouse as an additional driver, they act as if they are doing you a favor by waiving the fee. It wasn’t until an agent told me that in California, spouses can be added as an additional driver without incurring any fees, that I realized this was the situation.

  • MarkKelling

    You are free to choose the rental car company you feel gives you the best deal. If the one you thought you wanted to use charges extra fees you disagree with then choose another one.

    The AAA extra driver fee waiver is a nice benefit. AAA member ship is not overly expensive and you can easily recover that annual fee by using the many discounts and deals AAA makes available to you.

    And why not join the Hertz “club” if you will be renting from them? It costs you nothing. You have no line to wait in once you join. There is no forceful upsell when you leave the lot as a member, just a couple yes/no questions regarding the prepaid fuel option. Saves me about an hour every time I rent from them. Same with the Avis “club”.

  • MarkKelling

    California also limits the amount the rental car companies can charge for their insurance coverage as well. Insurance on a rental car can easily exceed the daily rate for the rental in most other places.

  • Mel65

    “…like going into battle.” Hyperbole much? Yes there’s a hard sell, yes there are fees you’ll have to decide on, but ultimately, it’s up to you to accept or not. It’s not that hard to say “No, Thank you.” Lather. Rinse. Repeat as necessary. I do think additional driver’s fees are annoying, but *knock wood* we haven’t encountered one in a very long time. It was far more irritating when we were (much) younger and had to deal with the excessive under 25 fees. But they had a choice. Were they planning to drive so many hours a day that there was a real need for switching drivers? Or did they just want the convenience of being able to? Like everything else.. it’s a cost/benefit decision.

  • LostInMidwest

    Chris, about additional driver fees “They make about as much sense
    as charging extra if you have kids or if you prefer driving on country
    roads instead of interstate highways.”

    Actually, charging more if you have kids might make sense because chances are way higher your rental car interior will be trashed. Charging more for driving on country roads instead of Interstate might make sense because chances are higher to trash the suspension. OK, OK, I’ll stop! We don’t want to give them additional ideas …

    Additional driver? As long as they are eligible to rent? ZERO sense.

  • Alan Gore

    So long as both drivers are licensed (and insured, if they are bringing their own insurance) what is the additional risk to the rental company from having an additional driver?

  • frostysnowman

    The risk of not making pure profit off an unnecessary fee?

  • Alan Gore

    Teenagers are in a different risk class than adult drivers, which is why most rental companies have a minimum age of 21.

  • Nathan Witt

    Most rental companies won’t rent to anyone under 25, and if they do, there’s generally an additional fee for that. Which is mystifying, since they’re already charging you the equivalent of $928/mo ($29.95 LDW x 31 days) for insurance. An additional driver fee has no place unless that additional driver would have been charged more to rent the car in the first place. Also, unless you’re paying for the optional coverage, your risk factors have already been assessed by *your* insurance company, and they’re covering your rental with the same coverage you have on your personal vehicle.

  • Nathan Witt

    To quote Nancy Reagan, “Just say no.” The additional fees are OPTIONAL. And if you absolutely cannot figure out how to say no to a counter person, enroll in the free membership club for the rental car company of your choice, and bypass the counter and go directly to your car. Simple!

  • Travelnut

    How would they even know if you let someone else drive the car, as long as you don’t get into an accident? Even then I would say I was too tired to drive, or something. I do take some exception to married couples being entitled to a break on the fee more than unrelated drivers. The distinction doesn’t make sense.

  • Jeff W.

    You are correct that car rental companies impose limitations on the under 25 / 21 set. But those were examples I used for personal car insurance and was attempting to compare that to simplified rules that the rental car companies may use.

  • judyserienagy

    The amount of the fee is ridiculous. Travellers need to start doing their homework before booking; providers are aware that they don’t so that’s how the fees get charged. Works for the airlines, so the car rental people and the hotels might as well enjoy it. This is a simple problem to solve: just list all the fees with the original quote.

  • Skeptic

    Do rental agencies think it’s somehow safer to have one person do all the driving? Last year I spent a week hiking near Moab with several friends. We rented a car in SLC. I’d come in on a red-eye, but since I was the Hertz Gold member and had booked the rental, I ended up doing all the driving the whole week, including the 3-4 hour drive south to our destination after a night spent on a plane. Not much fun to be stuck watching other vehicles’ bumpers while everyone else got to gawk at the scenery, or to be the designated driver night after night. It would have been great to share the driving, but not at the cost of $15/day per additional driver!

  • Lifetime Expat

    We recently rented from Hertz in Atlanta:

    Second driver fee nail on (“Your website says spouses are able to drive for free” “Yes sir, but that doesn’t apply to how you booked”)

    4 YES 4 pushes on buying their insurance

    Tried to slam us into a surprise upgrade fee (Told us what car they were putting us in, no mention of upgrade or any fees, it only showed up on the printouts at the end)

    Told us car wouldn’t be available for 2-3 hours unless we paid for an upgrade

    Altogether a disgraceful CS experience.

  • RightNow9435

    Time to call their bluff in each case

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