car rental cleaning fee

The really strange case of a $450 car rental cleaning fee for dog hair

Russ DeVries’ recent car rental experience in Boston is about as strange as it gets. He picked up a midsize sedan at Logan airport, drove to a meeting, and returned the car the next day. When he handed the keys back to a Budget employee, no one said anything to him about a $450 rental cleaning fee for dog hair.

But a few weeks later, that’s all Budget could talk about.

The company charged DeVries’ credit card $450 without notifying him, as car rental companies usually do for clean-ups. Budget waited for him to discover the charges — and contact the company.

Budget’s verdict: DeVries had been traveling with a dog. Not just any dog, but a shaggy, shedding canine that coated the back seat in fur.

And, although the company had cleaned up the mess, the $450 car rental cleaning fee would stick.

But there’s just one problem: DeVries doesn’t have a dog. He was traveling alone.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this. Oh yeah, there’s no shortage of stories about car rental cleaning fees for smoking and various other ridiculous charges. I’m working on another case in which Avis charged a renter for having sand in his car, even though he’d never gone close to a beach. I’ve also received a surprise bill for a nonexistent pet. Seriously. It happened to me a few years ago when I lived in Sedona, Ariz.

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These are strange cases. Cleaning fees for smoking when no one smokes, for dogs when there are no pets, for sand when there’s no sand. What in the heck is happening here? I’ll tell you in just a minute.

“I never had an animal in the vehicle at any time”

First, let’s find out what happened to DeVries.

He had flown to Boston for a business trip. And, as he emphasized to me several times, it was about as ordinary as business trips get. He picked up his car. He drove to a meeting. Then he checked into a hotel and returned the car the next day.

“I only had the rental car for one day,” he says. “I never had an animal in the vehicle at any time.”

DeVries’ rental didn’t fit the profile of a pet owner. The employees at the Budget location in Logan must have seen that he was a business traveler, and they would have seen a dog if there had been one.

But there was no dog.

Budget: “We understand this can be frustrating,” but …

A few weeks later, Budget charged him $450 for cleaning the car. As soon as he noticed the charge on his card, he contacted Budget to find out what the charge covered.

Budget replied:

Thank you for contacting Budget Regarding the Vehicle Cleaning Fee. We understand that this can be frustrating and apologize for any inconvenience caused.

We find that the location has provided significant documentation of the condition of the vehicle at return.

As we do not have documentation on the rental agreement, nor do we have any file supporting Customer Service was contacted about receiving the vehicle under this condition, we find that the charges are valid and no adjustment is due.

We are sorry we are unable to provide you a more favorable solution.

Budget is right about one thing: It did not have any documentation of the condition of vehicle at return. Or before it started cleaning the car.

Actually, there was no proof that DeVries had returned the car with dog hair — no photos, no invoice, not even an eyewitness. It was his word against Budget’s.

Let me be clear: If you’ve trashed your rental car, you should pay a reasonable car rental cleaning fee. If there had been any evidence that DeVries went for a joyride with his Alaskan Malamute, I would have rejected this case. But there was no such evidence. He was guilty until proven innocent. And Budget said he was guilty.

What is Budget’s policy on car rental cleaning fees?

Budget’s current policy is not entirely clear. Its site has numerous warnings about a $450 cleaning fee for smoking in a car. But what about pet hair? Only its rental terms address extra charges for cleaning a vehicle.

b) You will also pay a reasonable fee for cleaning the car’s interior upon return if any stains, dirt, odor, or soiling attributable to your use cannot be cleaned with our standard post-rental procedures as determined by us in our sole discretion.

Budget doesn’t define a “reasonable” fee. We’ve seen the fees range from $125 to $450. DeVries’ fee was on the high end. Nor does Budget disclose its post-rental cleaning procedures, or how it determines if a deeper cleaning is necessary, or how it will document the damages.

Budget also doesn’t say that it will simply charge you without asking — again, that’s a standard car rental procedure, but it doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of a customer. Shouldn’t customers like DeVries know why they’re being charged before Budget swipes their card?

A closer read of Budget’s rental terms suggests that it gives itself the broad right to charge whatever damage fee it wants. It doesn’t have to show any documentation or invoice. It can just do it. After all, you agreed to the rental terms when you picked up the car.

How to avoid a $450 car rental cleaning fee for dog hair

You don’t have to get broadsided with charges for dog hair. Here are a few tips for avoiding this problem.

Take “before” and “after” photos of the car

That’s very important for any rental, but particularly true if you’re traveling with something that might leave a mess, like a baby or dog. Document the interiors and exteriors with photos or videos. Pro tip: Get a picture of the VIN number. Even car rental companies often confuse their own cars. More on that in a moment.

Clean before returning

You probably expect trouble if you’re vacationing with an Afghan hound. Bring a handheld vacuum cleaner and make sure your best friend doesn’t incur a $450 cleaning fee. By the way, this also makes sense for any rental, not just one with pets. If you have kids or a fellow passenger who likes to snack on Oreos in the car, do yourself a favor and clean up before returning the vehicle.

Show the car to a representative and get a sign-off

If you’re unsure about the condition of your car, get a second opinion. Ask a car rental employee to inspect the vehicle with you when you return it. Also, find out if the car will get a cleaning fee. If that person says “no,” then get a name, email and phone number. That way, if you receive a bill, you can go back to the company and relay the conversation with the employee. Even better: Get something in writing that says the car is clean.

Check your credit card bill frequently

If you’re not doing that regularly, you could fall for the same resume scam that I did. I hope you don’t. If you see a mysterious charge for anywhere from $125 to $450, contact the car rental company immediately and ask for an explanation. You may have been dinged by a cleaning scam.

Leave Fido at home

I know, Captain Obvious. I don’t want to spend too much time on this one because I don’t want the fur to fly, as it did in this 2013 story for my friends at Frommers. But it is true that no pet has ever asked me to go on vacation, so maybe your cat or dog is better off staying home.

Are car rental cleaning fees a profit center?

You may be wondering if these car rental cleaning fees are a source of profits for companies. I’ve spoken with car rental consultants, employees and travelers in my many years of advocating for car rental customers.

And the answer is yes, without a doubt.

Car rental cleaning fees have skyrocketed from less than $100 to nearly $500 in the last few years. And the way in which car rental companies impose them, and the frequency with which they’re added to their bills, leaves me with zero doubt.

It would not surprise me if car rental companies rewarded their employees for earmarking dirty cars for professional cleaning. Even if the company is earning a few dollars of profit on each cleaning, it adds up.

How do you reach Budget car rental customer service?

If you’re stuck with an unwanted fee from Budget car rental, you can always reach out to one of the executive contacts at Budget, which I publish on this site.

Budget’s phone is (800) 621-2844. But I recommend that you send a brief, polite email through the Budget site and ask about the car rental cleaning fee. That’s what DeVries did.

What happened to this car rental?

I asked DeVries for the correspondence between him and Budget.

The correspondence was troubling. Here’s Budget trying to explain the fee to him.

Dear Russ Devries,

Thank you for contacting Budget regarding the unrecognized charges on your credit card. We are sorry for the inconvenience this scenario has caused. We are aware of how frustrating and time-consuming these situations can be. Rest assured, we will be more than happy to assist you.

We have carefully reviewed our records and we find that the charge is related to your rental and was caused for a cleaning fee.

Charges for cleaning vehicles that are returned in such poor condition that the vehicle must be sent out for detailing, will be charged in proportion to the level of cleaning that is needed. This includes, but is not limited to, vehicles returned with food stains on the seats, dog (or animal) hair that cannot be removed through normal vacuuming of the car, excessive odor, smoke odor, and cigarette burns. We find that the location has provided documentation of the condition of the vehicle at return.

We appreciate your comprehension and thanks for choosing us.

But Budget didn’t send DeVries any documentation — no photos, no cleaning invoice. It just charged him.

Is that fair? The car rental company would argue it is. But DeVries feels otherwise.

Here’s what Budget did about this car rental cleaning fee

This case leaves me with so many questions.

First, did Budget really clean DeVries’ car, or did it confuse his rental with another one? It’s easy to do that because, chances are, there were a hundred other midsize sedans in Boston that day.

Did Budget just get the wrong VIN number and hand DeVries a bill for someone else’s mess? That’s possible. I’ve seen it happen several times. In fact, I have two active cases now where they charged someone for the wrong car. All the more reason to take a picture of your VIN when you rent the car.

Why didn’t Budget show him the proof? Had it done that, I might not have even advocated the case. A timestamped picture of a trashed car taken the day of return is a slam-dunk. Every car rental company should send documentation like this with their bill.

And finally, why ambush a customer with a $450 charge? That doesn’t make any sense. When you make a late charge like this, you have to let the customer know as a courtesy. Otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to hide something.

I contacted Budget on DeVries’ behalf. Shortly after that, the company agreed to refund his $450 — without explanation, of course.

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