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Car hire contracts catch out customers

Which? Travel reveals the top five unexpected terms to look out for

Car hire customers are falling foul of unexpected and unclear contract terms, according to new research by Which? Travel

When we looked at more than 40 contracts from 18 car hire brands, we found that terms and conditions for car rental could run to more than 30,000 words. And despite these lengthy contracts, we also found key information buried deep within terms and conditions on the website – or missing altogether.

Only 14% of the Which? readers surveyed had read their last rental contract in detail. But our research found that those who do not read their contract carefully, or trawl T&Cs on the website, could unwittingly agree to restrictions and charges that they didn’t know existed. According to Mintel, 41% of those who hired a car abroad were charged more than expected at the end of the rental.

Our research has picked out five key areas in which to look out for unexpected charges and terms – excessive deposits, late pick-up, administration fees, fuel charges and late returns.

Best and worst car hire companies – our expert guide to how providers compare

1. Excessive deposits

Car hire companies want you to buy their excess waiver products at a cost of around £20 per day. If you don’t buy this extra cover, then you have to allow a deposit or pre-authorisation to be taken from your credit card to cover the cost of any potential damage to the car. But Which? Travel’s research found that the size of this deposit has increased dramatically.

If you hire with Goldcar (rated bottom of our recent car hire supplier survey) in Malta, you will have to leave a deposit of €2,500. Even Avis in Malta can require a deposit of up to €1,500. Customers with lower credit limits may feel that they have no choice but to buy the excess waiver – or be left with a maxed-out card for the duration of their holiday.

2. Late pick-up

According to some contracts, customers who arrive just one hour late to the rental desk risk losing their prepaid hire car – as it will have been given away to another customer. Not only will they have lost their money, but they face finding an alternative car at inflated ‘walk-up’ prices.

In France and Spain, Sixt’s terms state that if the booked vehicle ‘is not collected at the agreed time, the rental charge already paid shall be withheld in full’. And Firefly’s contract in Malta states that it has no obligation to keep a reserved car for longer than one hour after the scheduled pick-up time.

Sixt assured us that it reacts flexibly to the needs of its customers, recommending that you inform the rental station if you are going to be late to ‘ensure that the vehicle is not rented to someone else’.

3. Admin fees

Car hire contracts also set out additional charges or ‘administration fees’ that apply if a car is damaged or involved in a traffic violation.

All the companies that we looked at applied these fees, but some were far higher than others. Goldcar in Greece, for example, applies an admin fee of up to €150 on top of the charge applied to repair any damage to a vehicle. Alamo – covering the same area – charges only €25.

In the UK, Interrent, the low cost sister company of Europcar, charges a £50 admin fee if it has to provide your details to any third party (in the case of a speeding fine, unpaid congestion charge, or any other violation).

4. Fuel charges

Our research found that fees for refuelling the car, if you fail to bring it back with a full tank, can vary wildly (see below).

In Spain, Goldcar’s fees for refilling were the highest at €50, on top of the price of fuel. Goldcar said that this is because ‘if a vehicle does not come back with a full tank it takes us longer to prepare it for the next customer’.

5. Late return

Car hire contracts also stipulate charges for a late return. In the UK, companies such as Avis, Budget, Europcar and Interrent all allow just 29 minutes’ leeway. After that 29 minutes is up you could be charged an extra day’s rental, plus a penalty.

Interrent in the UK charges an extension fee of £40 per day on top of the additional daily rental charge.

Read further details of this investigation and how to avoid the charges in Which? Travel

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