Car rental smoking fees are on the rise. What can you do about it this summer?

Car rental smoking fees are on the rise. Here’s how to avoid them

Warning: Car rental smoking fees are on the rise. If you rent a vehicle this summer, you could be next — whether you smoke or not.

Just ask Kimberly Brodesser. Hertz charged her $400 when she rented a car in Roanoke, Va., recently. Or DeShante McMullen. Thrifty billed him $400 for allegedly lighting up in his car in San Bernardino, Calif. Or Christine Benedetti, also broadsided with a $400 cleaning bill by Hertz.

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Sean Dungan got one too.

“Hertz charged me an erroneous smoking cleaning fee of $400 on my most recent car rental,” he says. “They refuse to reverse the charge. I don’t smoke, I was the only person in the car until the moment I returned it and returned the car clean.”

In fact, that’s a common thread in these car rental stories. None of the drivers smoke. None of their passengers smoke. The cleaning fee comes as a total surprise.

So why are people getting socked with these car smoking fees? What’s the latest on these troubling cases? And how do you avoid these questionable fees? These questions come at an awkward time for the car rental industry, as it deals with what may be the biggest car rental shortage in the industry’s history.

Who is adding car rental smoking fees — and why?

There’s a pattern. A majority of our cases come from Hertz, which also owns Dollar and Thrifty. We have a few outliers from no-name rental companies, but it’s mostly Hertz, and always a $400 late charge for cleaning added to a customer’s credit card bill. I’ll have more on late charges in just a minute.

The rise in cleaning fees coincides with the Hertz bankruptcy filing in May 2020. We had a handful of cases last year, but they really started to pick up in 2021 as more people began to rent cars.

It’s easy to imagine a vice president at Hertz assigned to squeeze revenue from a bankrupt car rental company, declaring, “Let’s charge more cleaning fees!” But those probably weren’t the exact words. It’s more likely Hertz directed its managers to take a zero-tolerance policy on cars that were returned in less than pristine shape. The $400 fee more than covers the cost of cleaning, so it could help the company generate some much-needed profit.

Smoking fees aren’t new for this car rental company

The Hertz car smoking fees have always been an issue. Here’s a case from 2013. Back then, Hertz only charged $300 to de-smoke its vehicles. Interestingly, Hertz eliminated its cleaning fees back in 2015, when times were better. Back then, standard cleaning fees ranged from $50 to $100, which seemed quite reasonable.

I contacted Hertz and asked about the wave of smoking fee cases. I asked if it had changed its internal policies on cleaning fees. In response, it sent a statement with its policy:

All Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty vehicles are non-smoking.

A $400 cleaning fee will be assessed to cover the cost of vehicle cleaning when evidence of smoking is present. De-smoking requires a vehicle be taken out of service for up to 24-hours so it can be thoroughly cleaned with a natural deodorizer and an oxidation process.

When receiving a vehicle, we advise customers to inspect it before leaving the rental location to ensure it is smoke free. If evidence of smoking is found at the time of rental, customers should notify an employee.

What will happen with these complaints?

Without getting into a discussion about smoking — no, really, let’s not go there — let me say this: Smoking in a rental car is wrong. If you do it, you should own up to it and pay for a cleaning. Car rental companies should charge an honest cleaning fee when that happens, not one that covers the cost and then some.

So what’s going to happen to Benedetti, Brodesser, Dungan and McMullen? Will they have to pay $400 even though they don’t smoke and didn’t smoke in their cars?

All of their cases are still in progress. Our forum advocates are working with them to prove to Hertz that they didn’t smoke in the cars and shouldn’t be held responsible.

How to avoid smoking fees after your next car rental

In a sense, these customers couldn’t have done much to avoid the smoking fees. Take a look at Hertz’s frequently asked questions on smoking, and you’ll understand why.

How is it determined that a vehicle has been smoked in?

A Hertz employee must either:

Witness the customer smoking in a vehicle,
Find evidence of smoking, such as ashes, cigarette butts or burns, or
Smell smoke within the vehicle.

The employee also determines whether to charge a $400 cleaning fee. So Dollar’s bar for this smoking fee is low. All an employee must do is catch a whiff of tobacco smoke. And that person is under no obligation to tell you at the time; your card will be automatically charged.

But there are ways to ensure you don’t have to pay a smoking fee.

  1. If you smell cigarette smoke when you pick up your rental, don’t accept it.
    In most of these cases, it appears someone may have smoked in the car before the renter received it. Telltale signs include the odor of stale cigarettes. Also, the steering wheel will feel sticky to the touch. Do not accept the vehicle. The car rental company could hold you responsible for the smoke if you take the car.
  2. If you smell cigarette smoke later, report it immediately.
    Sometimes, a car rental company will sanitize the vehicle with strong cleaners. The smell will overpower any other odors. But those odors will eventually emerge after you’ve driven the car for a while. If that happens, call the car rental company right away and let them know that 1) you don’t smoke, and 2) It appears someone smoked in the car before you.
  3. Ask for a sign-off when you return the car.
    Car rental employees are usually in a hurry to get your car returned and see you off to the airport or wherever you’re going. Slow down. Ask the employee to take a look at your vehicle. You may even want to request a sniff test, which might be awkward, but it sure beats having a $400 bill.
  4. Watch your credit card.
    Car rental companies are notorious for adding late charges to your bill even after you’ve received a final invoice. If you see anything suspicious, report it to your credit card issuer immediately.

How can you prevent a late charge to your credit card?

Late charges are an industry term for charging something to your credit card after the transaction. For example, hotels can charge a late fee for damage to furniture. A vacation rental platform may charge your credit card even after you’ve departed to cover an unexpected expense like a fee to cover damages.

I don’t think late charges are always wrong. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do them. In almost every case, a late charge is avoidable by asking the company to verify the room or car is in good shape. With your rental car, you can ask an employee to give the vehicle a once-over, for example.

But if something gets missed, there’s a wrong way to charge a late fee. And that’s pretty obvious. If a company simply bills you without notification and with no opportunity to dispute it, that’s wrong.

Merchants often do this because they can. It also makes some sense from a business perspective. Once customers see the questionable charges, they’re often past their 60 days. That’s how much time you have from when you receive your credit card bill to dispute a charge with a card issuer.

The best solution to late charges is to use a burner card. Try Privacy.com, which lets you generate a unique credit card number for each transaction. Some restrictions may apply for car rentals. There’s a reason none of the so-called travel experts recommends Privacy.com: You can’t earn points or miles with a burner. But you can turn off the card to avoid a late charge, avoiding a $400 car smoking fee or other junk charges.

Bear in mind that you can’t use this strategy if you’re a member of a car rental or hotel loyalty program. The company will find you and send you a bill. If you don’t pay, you could lose all of your points or get blacklisted from renting from the company or staying at one of its hotels. But denying a company a chance to charge you a $400 car smoking fee is worth it.

*Looking for more Hertz shenanigans? Here’s another outrageous car rental tale.

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