Car rental craziness: 6 odd rules -- and how to steer clear of them

  • Pin It

Imagine if a car rental company forced you to pay a "seatbelt fee."

That's a decision parents face every day when they rent a car, and are unable to bring their own safety seat. "For the cost to rent a car seat, I can buy one," says Laura McDonough, a software project manager in Austin. "Yes, I know they are paying for a service, but they give you the absolute cheapest car seats, and are clearly making money hand over fist on this."

You can still check a safety seat on an airline at no charge, and then install it in your rental, but if you've ever tried it, you know it's a hassle. The seats absolutely must be cleaned the night before the flight. Car rental companies should offer the seats at no extra cost, since they're required by law almost everywhere.


Another clever way car rental companies make a little extra is to change their car classes, upgrading them to the next category so they can charge you more money. That's what happened last fall, when Alamo reclassified its vehicles after being acquired by Enterprise. Customers don't take kindly to that kind of thing.

"I know the manufacturer and EPA class rating for many vehicles in the U.S.," says Will Evans, an engineer based in Atlanta who has documented similar reclassifications at Avis, Dollar and Hertz. "They were unswayed by my argument that no one but them classifies the cars like they do."

Lesson? Pay close attention to car rental classes. What they call a midsize the rest of us may call a compact car.


This is the exact wording on Julie Kinnett's recent rental contract: "An automatic USD $13.99 refueling service charge will be applied to all rentals under 75 miles." Presumably, car rental companies are concerned that if someone drives the car a few miles, the needle on the gas gauge will still register "full." (Maybe they should have those gauges checked.)

"We were only charged this fee once, on a trip from Boston to New York," says Kinnett, a training manager in New York. "I assume the car rental folks who filled out the paperwork for the other rentals realized that there are more than 75 miles between Boston and New York.

Why do you need to show a receipt? If the tank is full, it's full." Moral of the story? Keep a receipt if you drive less than 75 miles. Otherwise, you'll buy another full tank of gas.

So when it comes to absurd pricing practices, which industry is worse -- airlines or car rental companies? Sure, some of these rental fees and surcharges are unconscionable, but can anything ever approach the madness of the airline industry? It certainly seems as if car companies are trying.

Let's hope they don't try too hard.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at
  • Pin It
Reporters and editors involved in creating and writing these cruise articles are in no way affiliated with any links that are placed on the pages. Read our full editorial policy.

Deal Watch

This Week's Hot Deals

Don't want to book online?

Call us at 1-866-381-5204