Car hire customers are paying over the odds for repairs that may never be made, at a price that rental companies refuse to prove is accurate, a Which? Travel investigation has found.
Which? Travel collected photographic evidence of damage from 12 car hire customers who believed they’d been overcharged in locations across Europe. The photos were then presented to Which? Trusted Trader garages who quoted to repair the same damage.
The results showed clear evidence of overcharging. Of the 36 quotes we received from the garages, only eight were equal to or higher than the car rental company’s repair charge. In eight out of the 12 cases investigated, all three garages quoted less than the car hire companies charged. And in four of these cases, the car hire company charged more than double the average cost supplied by mechanics.
It’s not quite a like-for-like comparison because these repairs would have taken place in different European countries. However, Renault and Peugeot told us that prices for parts in the UK will be similar to those in other major markets, such as France, Spain and Italy, and UK mechanics don’t come cheap.
Car rental companies rated – find out who customers voted the UK’s best and worst car hire companies
Chipped windscreen? That’ll be £1,154
With insurance excesses as high as €2,500, repair bills can end up costing more than your holiday.
Following a rental in France last year, Which? member Robin Vicary was charged a jaw-dropping £1,154 for a chip so small he hadn’t even noticed it.
After a month of ignoring Robin’s emails, Europcar eventually sent over an invoice for a replacement windscreen. But Which?’s independent mechanics said there was no need to replace the windscreen – a chip that tiny could easily be repaired for between £35 and £78. Even if a replacement was necessary, the cost of parts and labour should come to around £384.
So at best Europcar applied a mark-up of more than 300%, and at worst the bill equated to more than 30 times the actual cost of repair. Overcharging for repairs is one of the most common complaints from car hire customers, and it’s getting worse. In a recent survey, 44% of Which? readers told us that they’d received an excessive charge when billed for damage. And 18% said that they had been charged for damage they knew nothing about.
Europcar refunded Robin when he queried the bill, charging him £90 instead. It said it was ‘sorry that the original charge for a full windscreen replacement was made in error.’
What’s the damage?
Our gallery of customer images shows the damage to cars and the amount the car hire company initially charged them for a repair.
A dented reputation on damage
In June 2017, Trading Standards investigated Europcar UK after allegations that the company had been systematically overcharging customers for repairs, raking in profits via secret agreements with its suppliers. That investigation, now in the hands of the Serious Fraud Office, could well end up costing the company around £30m. Europcar told us it is ‘fully cooperating with the authorities.’ But is Europcar UK just the tip of the iceberg?
Which? reader Roger Barber hired a Peugeot 3008 at Stansted Airport from Green Motion. When he returned the car he was directed to an imperceptible door dent and a small bumper scratch. The bill came to over £850, but according to our experts, it could have cost as little as £186 to make these repairs.
Roger did eventually receive a refund from Green Motion. It told us that whilst the customer was ‘correctly charged in the first place,’ it had ‘decided to offer a refund as a gesture of goodwill to resolve the dispute amicably’.
Taken for a ride on damage
It’s one thing to be overcharged for a prang or scrape that you were responsible for, but it’s quite another to have to cough up for damage that you have never seen before.
Of the 12 case studies Which? Travel investigated, 10 did not believe that the damage had occurred during their rental. Is it possible that some of this was pre-existing damage?
While a savvy consumer always checks the car before driving off, it’s not always that simple. Thorough inspection can be difficult in a cramped car park, pointless in the dark – and as one reader reported ‘there were so many dents and scratches, it was impossible to list them all’.
Steven Harris was charged £631 for scuffs and scrapes to the inside of the car – including a mark on the roof – which he would never have thought to check for when picking up the vehicle.
The indecent haste with which imperceptible marks were pounced upon when returning a rental car was a common theme in the emails that Which? Travel received, with some suspecting foul play. That suspicion seems less far-fetched in the wake of recent allegations by The Telegraph that Europcar UK staff were paid a £4 commission for every car they marked down as damaged.
Have you been taken for a ride? Find out how to complain about unexpected car hire charges
Car hire repairs that never take place
For each case study, car hire companies were asked to provide an invoice for the repairs. But a number of the repairs had not even been carried out. Many major companies, including Avis Budget and Hertz, admitted they do not always repair the bumps and scratches that you pay for.
Repairs are often made at a later date, allowing companies to fix multiple problems in one go. Or they don’t repair them at all, taking a hit on the resale value at the end of the vehicle’s life.
That means that damage bills may be purely theoretical, based on what’s known as a ‘damage matrix’ of charges – essentially an estimate. Hertz told Which?: ‘this measure is accepted throughout the industry as a reasonable estimation of the loss incurred to the vehicle’s value as a result of the damage’.
Even if repairs are not made, companies must provide evidence of how the charge was calculated. Yet this isn’t happening either. In Which? Travel’s survey, 59% of customers who’d been charged for damage told said they never received any supporting documents from their car hire company.
Remember Steven Harris who was charged £631 for interior damage? The first he knew of the charge was when it appeared on his online account three days after he returned home. He had no idea what he’d paid for, and it took two weeks of frantic phone calls to get a response.
And customers are not just charged for repairs. Another common ruse is to top up takings with an additional admin fee (as much as £129 in the case studies) and a ‘loss of use’ charge (up to £42 per day). The latter is particularly unfair in cases where the repairs were not made and the car remained in service. To add insult to injury, these additional charges are not always covered by excess reimbursement insurance, so there’s no way to claim them back.
Industry insiders told us that a drastic drop in profit margins has led some car hire companies to look for new ways to make money from their customers. Upselling overpriced additional insurance is one way, and excessive repair bills for those who don’t take out that insurance is another.
Read further details of this investigation and how to avoid the charges in Which? Travel