Hidden charges and jacked-up insurance bills: nothing can sour a blissful holiday quite like car rental. Last year, the European Consumer Centre (ECC ) saw a 37% rise in the number of year-on-year complaints about supplementary charges for car hire across Europe. So what are the five biggest rip-off charges you need to look out for?
ONE: FUEL CHARGES
"The biggest number of complaints we get are to do with refuelling," says Sonia Payne, legal adviser at the ECC. Traditionally, most car hire companies stipulate that you need to bring the car back with a full tank. If it isn't 100% topped up, you might get stung with an admin fee and an inflated price for the missing fuel.
This happened to Conor Mills, a chef from London, who had to pay €1.76 (£1.47) a litre for the missing fuel, compared to €1.57 at the pumps. Also watch out for companies demanding to check fuel receipts for the last fill. If you can't produce it, you might be charged a fee.
The 'tank full' policy is now often replaced by schemes where you pay for the full tank up-front. As an empty tank is almost impossible to achieve, this inevitably costs you money.
To avoid paying through the nose for fuel charges, try to opt for the traditional 'tank full' option and always read the small print.
TWO: HIDDEN CHARGES
The small print hides all sorts of hidden charges. For example, broker Auto Europe, which deals with most large rental firms across Europe, charges an extra €10 a day for drivers who've held a licence for less than four years, a €250 admin charge in the event of damage or theft of the vehicle (whether you've got an excess waiver or not) and drivers aged 21 to 24 are required to pay a 'young' surcharge locally (cost unspecified).
Other common extra charges include naming a second driver, as well as adding gadgets such as sat navs and baby seats. Auto Express road test editor Ross Pinnock remembers hiring a Fiat Punto in Italy and being hit with a €60 added charge. "I queried it with Avis when I got back and even it didn't know what it was for. I was refunded," he says.
Read the contract carefully, advises the ECC. "Also query anything you don't understand before you sign it," says Payne.
THREE: THE INSURANCE WHAMMY
One of the trickiest extras to understand is the excess waiver, meaning it's one of the charges most often exploited by rental companies.
So how does it work? What we'd call car insurance is referred to as 'collision damage waiver' when hiring a car, and this is usually included in the price. However, that comes with an excess of about €1,000 that is 'pre-authorised' on your credit card at the check-in desk. Damage the car and you'll lose part or all of this.
To prevent this from happening, you buy an excess waiver. But the price of this is rarely quoted by the major companies when you first make your booking. For example, when booking through Avis Moneywise had to specifically ask an adviser for the cost and got this shock: it would cost us €19.25 a day - almost doubling the €125 weekly price we were originally quoted to €218.
Toby Poston, spokesperson for the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVLRA), says: "We would expect our members to provide customers with a quote for excess waiver reduction in advance." However, he also defended them, saying "it can be hard for companies to quote online because they don't know specifics about the driver".
But this doesn't stop online brokers, including Holiday Autos, offering drivers a fixed-price product they can buy before they leave. For our Italian rental, the company quoted us a basic excess waiver costing just £20. Similar products are offered by specialist companies, such as insurance4carhire.com and carhireexcess.com.
You also need to check for exclusions on all excess waivers - favourite exclusions are bits of the car most likely to see damage, especially tyres and windscreens. Damages incurred while parking is also on the list.
FOUR: DAMAGE CHARGES
"Damage to the car is another big cause of complaints," says Payne. "The car looks fine, the trader has taken it back but then you find your credit card has been charged."
It could be that a scratch that was missed in the pre-inspection of the car has been found in the postinspection, which is why it's important to be there for both. "Our advice is to be very critical on the pre-inspection report," says Payne, who also recommends not to return the car out of hours if it can be avoided, so you can supervise the final inspection. Taking photographs of the car at this point will also help your case if you contest any charges.
Of course, paying to waive the excess should mean you're in the clear should any damage be found, but remember that some companies will charge an admin fee to rectify the problem.
FIVE: WRONG ENGINE FOR THE JOB
Rental companies rarely give you a choice when it comes to specific car models or engines, but being handed a petrol instead of a diesel car can really inflate your bill. "You can bank on getting another 15 miles per gallon on a diesel, so multiply that by 1,000 miles over the holiday and that makes a real difference," says Pinnock.
So how do you make sure you get a diesel car?
Broker firms such as Holiday Autos will flag up any diesel offerings, while Hertz's Green Collection cars are specifically good on fuel, whether that's diesel or a petrol hybrid such as the Toyota Prius. Typically, bigger cars will be diesel, while smaller cars will be petrol. However, don't think small always means frugal. Once you fill a small car that has a small engine with luggage and people, economy will suffer because you'll end up having to work it harder.
For high-mileage holidays, Pinnock recommends paying a bit extra for a bigger car that has a bigger engine: with a big diesel achieving better mileage than a small petrol one on long journeys, the saving could make up the price difference between the two.