Hidden car hire fuel charges exposedCheapest deal can become most expensive

21 April 2012

Hidden fuel charges can turn what appears to be a cheap holiday car rental into an expensive one, a Which? Travel investigation has found.

We sent researchers to Spain after scores of Which? members complained about unavoidable fuel charges that were imposed when they picked up the car and which they felt were not made clear at the time of booking. 

Watch our video diary to see what our researchers found:

 

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Video transcript

Holiday car hire deals may look cheap when you book them, but Which? members have been telling us that there are some nasty hidden charges to look out for when you collect your car for some driving in the sun. The most complaints came about car hire companies in Spain that charge for a full tank of petrol when you collect the car, potentially leaving you out of pocket if you don't drive far enough to use it all.

So we sent a researcher to uncover exactly what was going on.

We've received lots of complaints from readers about the cost of fuel at Malaga. So I am here, Kathryn Liston, here in Malaga, to investigate and find out just how much people are being charged. I've just picked up this car from Advantage at Malaga and been charged 58 euros, actually 59 euros for a full tank of petrol.

That's twice as much as I've paid for the rental of the car. And I'm only here for 4 days so I'll never make it.

What r
eally amazes me over here is that you always have to ask what they have taken off the credit card? You're never given a slip to sign that says 100 euros or 60 euros, it's really, really confusing.

Day two at Malaga Airport. We're back here to pick up a car. This time we hired Goldcar, and let's see what their policy is. Just paid just over 54 euros for a tank full of petrol, which is showing full, and I have to use it in four days. In a little car like this, that might be impossible. We're driving through Torremolinos, one of the busy roads going down from Malaga.

Most people would be going down through Torremolinos down Marbella, Puerto Banus, Fuengirola. So, it's not that far really, so you're not going to use too much petrol. So, how are we  going to use full this tank in four days, I have no idea. What makes me laugh about all these car hire companies is not one of them has explained clearly to me what I'm paying when I'm handing my credit card over for.  No, it's only when I've questioned them, what am I paying for, that they mention the fuel.

Just driven 150 kilometres, which is about about two and a half hours of driving today and I've used about an eighth of of a tank of petrol. It's going to go some to use the rest of it. we're off to Mijas today just to see how much petrol we use today. I reckon yesterday in the small little Fiat we did about a hundred and nineteen kilometres in about two hours.

So, I reckon you'd have to do nearly 200 kilometres a day in that little car just to use a tank. If you're only here for four days. So, that's not possible unless you're going to spend most of your holiday or your trip driving around. I don't see how you would ever use this full tank of petrol. We've been doing what any normal tourist would have been doing.

One long trip down to Marbella in to Torremolinos, out to Malaga. Now we're just having a day out. And still the petrol gauge is not even down, so we haven't even used a quarter of a tank of petrol.  It's absolutely ridiculous. Right, just back from Granada, 300 kilometres, 3 hours driving, and we're nearly on half a tank of petrol.

So you really do have to do some motoring to get rid of the petrol. Right, here we are again at Malaga just dropped off the car, used about a quarter a tank of petrol. Asked for a refund. They said no refund. They were quite adamant about that. 

Our researcher has shown that these unavoidable fuel charges can triple the price of a rental, turning what looked like a good deal into a very expensive one. Consumers should not be put in to the position where booking a car rental commits them to paying an unavoidable charge with no refunds.

All charges should be made up front at the time the booking is made so consumers can make the right choice and compare prices easily.

Worldwide complaints 

Members felt they had been ripped off by the policy in places across the world, but the highest number of complaints came from Spain, with most of those coming from Alicante and Malaga.

The charge is made for a full tank of petrol on arrival, and customers are told to return the car empty as there is no refund for unused fuel.

Our researchers rented six cars - three in Alicante, and three in Malaga. And they found that non-refundable charges for fuel imposed at the airport can more than triple the price of a few days car hire.

If you're unhappy with your car hire company, you can follow our guide to making a complaint.

Fuel charges triple price

In each location, we rented from a UK car hire broker, a locally based company, and one of the big two hire firms, Avis and Hertz.

For Malaga, when we booked online, the cheapest initial price, including basic insurance, was from Spanish company Goldcar at €30.25. But when we picked up the car at the airport and the fuel was added, the price more than tripled to €94.25.

In Alicante, the cheapest price when we booked online was through the broker Holiday Autos at €28. It remained the cheapest of the three when insurance was added. But when the non-refundable €68.27 fuel charge was added by the local car provider Record Spain, the total price including insurance increased to €144.77. This made the Holiday Autos rental the most expensive at the point of picking up the car.

Hidden charges

Researchers were given little or no information about the impact of these charges before they booked the car and any information that was provided was buried in the terms and conditions.

For the Goldcar rental it was possible to book the car without knowing the fuel policy. You had to read to clause seven in the terms and conditions before you were told there was a 'choice' of fuel policy, even though the pick up full and return empty policy was compulsory for all rentals longer than three days.

One of the brokers, Carhire3000, sent our researcher a confirmation voucher saying 'Paid in Full' in large type. It was only in smaller print lower down that it said fuel had to be paid for on arrival.

Fuel prices

Which? members complained that the policy was a rip off because it was all but impossible to use the fuel when renting for a week on a small island such as Menorca. And one of our researchers found they would need to drive nearly 140km a day to use up their tank of petrol.

There were also complaints about car hire companies charging exorbitant rates for fuel. We found two companies adding mark-ups on local prices - a hefty 32% by Record Spain, and 5.4% by Centauro.

Which? Travel expert, Rochelle Turner, said: “It’s clear from our investigation that consumers are not being given the full facts about these extra charges. Our research has shown that these unavoidable fuel charges can triple the price of a rental, turning what seemed like a good deal to potentially a very expensive one.

“All charges should be shown up-front at the time the booking is made so consumers can make the right choice and compare prices easily.”

To read the full report,  subscribe to Which? Travel.

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