Hertz scrubs rental car cleaning fee — will others follow?

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 change, which went into effect late last month, represents an important about-face for the car rental company, and perhaps even for the industry.

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.

“There is no profit for charging a cleaning fee,” says Sharon Faulkner, the executive director of the American Car Rental Association, a trade group. “In fact, it’s the very last thing a rental car company wants to do. Whatever the fee, if a cleaning fee is charged, it usually doesn’t cover the expenses of paying someone to work on the problem presented.”

Although scrubbing the cleaning charge will come as welcome news to customers, it’s unclear whether the industry will follow the same route. Nonetheless, any travel company that eliminates a fee deserves the same attention — if not more — as a company that adds one.

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.”

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. The company’s program, called Certified Clean & Safe, includes a 35-point checklist covering the cleanliness of both the interior and exterior of the car, as well as its maintenance.

But here’s an exception to the cleaning fee policy: Smokers will continue to face an “odor removal” fee if they light up in one of Hertz’s vehicles.

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.

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.”

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, recalls renting 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 a good deal of time and a lot of the roller trying to clean the cat hair out of the car. In the end I did get the job.”

Dickerson didn’t charge Budget for the cleaning.

It would be nice if the rest of the car rental industry followed suit by killing this fee, but it is unclear whether it 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.”

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.

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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