Hertz scrubs rental car cleaning fee — will others follow?

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By Christopher Elliott

Hertz has quietly dropped one of the car rental industry’s most unpopular surcharges: the cleaning fee.

“Although we appreciate when a vehicle is returned in clean condition, we do not charge a cleaning fee to vehicles reflecting normal wear and tear,” Hertz spokeswoman Beth Davis told me.

The recent change, effective late last month, signals a significant reversal for the car rental company and possibly the industry.

Cleaning fee chronicles

Hertz’s terms and conditions previously warned that “all rental vehicles should be returned in the same condition they were rented in.” If a car came back “dirty,” the terms noted, “there may be a cleaning fee charged to the rental.” It didn’t disclose the fee, but typical cleaning fees range between $50 and $100. Under the new policy, only vehicles returned “excessively dirty” will incur the fee.

“Sharon Faulkner, the executive director of the American Car Rental Association. A trade group, states. “There is no profit in charging a cleaning fee.” “In fact, it’s the very last thing a rental car company wants to do. Regardless of the fee, it usually doesn’t cover the costs of hiring someone to address the issue.”

However, a travel company removing a fee deserves equal, if not more, attention than one adding a fee.However, a travel company removing a fee deserves equal, if not more, attention than one adding a fee.

For renters like Drew Tipton, the fee’s elimination is good news. He was taken aback when he rented a car from Hertz in Monterey, Calif., recently, and an employee told him to return the car “acceptably clean” or face a fee.

Tipton, a technical marketing engineer and a frequent traveler, says the fee betrays a double standard. “Considering that I’ve gotten vehicles in the past dirt-caked, with old food and used Kleenex and the like, I’m wondering just what ‘acceptably clean’ is,” he says. “I’m thinking this is just another way for them to make money off of something that they’d do anyway.”

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Cleanliness commitment

As part of its change, Hertz redoubled its commitment to cleaning its vehicles. “All of our rental cars go through a rigorous cleaning process prior to each rental,” says Davis, the Hertz spokeswoman. Hertz’s program, Certified Clean & Safe, has a 35-point checklist for the car’s interior, exterior, and maintenance.

Smokers will face an “odor removal” fee if they smoke in one of Hertz’s vehicles, an exception to the cleaning fee policy.

That policy is being enforced now more than ever. Jonathan Beyer recently contacted me after facing a $50 charge when he rented from Hertz in New Orleans. “I was advised the charge was likely because on return they smelled tobacco in the car,” says Beyer, a lawyer from Palm Beach, Fla. (Related: Was this car rental insurance really mandatory? I want a refund!)

Even though he told Hertz that he had never smoked in his life, the fee stuck. I asked Hertz about Beyer’s cleaning bill, and the company dropped the charges.

When it comes to rental cars, cleanliness is something of a dirty word, at least among some travelers. Kristina Portillo, a personal trainer from Boulder, Colo., recalls her last rental from Budget Rent-a-Car in Houston.

“When I got into the car that I was assigned, I noticed there was a sticky substance — likely juice or soda — spilled all over the interior passenger door,” she says. “I requested a different car.”

Dirty cars and cat hair

Unfortunately, the cleaning staff at the Houston location had apparently taken the day off. “The interior of car No. 2 was just as disgusting, with stained seats and crumbs all over,” Portillo says. She finally accepted the next car and cleaned it herself.

Oddly, I’ve received numerous complaints about cars with cat hair, perhaps because it’s hard to remove with a vacuum cleaner. Brent Dickerson, a financial manager from Lubbock, Texas, rented a car from Budget in Little Rock for a job interview. He wore a suit, which is one of the best cat-hair magnets of all time.

“The car seats and seat belts were covered in cat hair,” he recalls. “I found a Walgreens and bought a lint roller. I spent considerable time and effort trying to clean cat hair from the car. In the end I did get the job.”

Dickerson didn’t charge Budget for the cleaning.

It would be great if the rest of the car rental industry dropped this fee, but it’s uncertain if they will. Neil Abrams, a car rental consultant, says regular cleaning, along with fueling, will continue to be a normal part of the vehicle prep process before the car goes out. In the past, he says the cleaning fee was “not a frequent event,” and he adds: “I can’t imagine rental operators make much if any money on this.” (Here’s our guide to renting a car.)

But a cleaning fee is sometimes justified. An excessively dirty car — with, say, grease stains on leather seats — can affect the vehicle’s after-market value. “And that can have a financial impact on the car rental company,” Abrams says.

Taking control

Maybe the only way to make sure you don’t get stuck with a cleaning bill is to take matters into your own hands. That’s what Tom Coyle did when he rented a midsize car from Hertz in Temecula, Calif.

“There was dirt throughout the car,” remembers Coyle, who works for a data security company in Carmel, Ind. “It was full of cat hair and generally dirty. We took it through a car wash and later I spent half an hour with Spic-and-Span cleaner. The seats, steering wheel and dash needed a lot of cleaning, and the rags came away quite dirty.”

Eliminating cleaning fees won’t solve these problems. But at least drivers won’t get stuck with the bill for a mess they didn’t make.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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