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‘I returned a hire car two days early – and was charged double’

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When Mike Howorth’s brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer the Australian national arranged to fly to the UK to look after him and booked a Hertz hire car to use during his stay. Three weeks after he arrived, his brother died and Mike returned to his family in Australia.

The hire car had been booked for 28 days and Howorth returned the vehicle two days early to catch his flight home. Later he found that he had been charged more than double the £617 rental price. On contacting Hertz he was told that his bill included a £670 surcharge because he had ended the contract early.

“It’s beyond me how they can charge a customer more for hiring a car for less time,” Howorth says. “I was in the UK because my brother was dying, so I did not know how long I would need a car for. If he’d lived longer, I may have needed to return the car and hire another.”

Car rental companies are notorious for funding headline bargains with hidden extras: insurances, upgrades that were not requested, costly fuel policies and sudden debits for unexplained damage can add hundreds of pounds to the quoted hire price.

Howorth’s 109% fee increase was, according to Hertz, part of a policy to keep prices low.

“To offer our customers competitive rates and to manage our fleet we have minimum and maximum day rental rates in place,” a company spokesperson says. “This means that the longer a customer rents a vehicle for, the lower the daily rate will be. However, this only applies when customers keep the vehicle for the intended rental length.”

View image in fullscreenWhen Mike Howorth collected and returned the vehicle, a charge was not mentioned. Photograph: Mike Howorth

Howorth’s premature departure caused his special 28-day deal to be scrapped and the rental to be recalculated at a different daily rate to reflect the time the car was in his possession.

Many customers sign for the keys to their vehicle without reading the small print, which may contain costly commitments of which they are unaware. However, even the most meticulous scrutiny of the documents sent out to customers would not have warned Howorth that an early return would send the price rocketing from £617 to £1,288 because Hertz failed to go into any detail.

“The four-page email confirming my reservation does mention on page four under rental terms and conditions that an ‘early or late return charge may apply’,” Howorth says. “It asks customers to check the terms and conditions. There’s no mention of it in the rest of the document, nor is there a link to any other T&Cs.”

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Nor was any charge mentioned when Howorth collected and returned the vehicle.

A Google search produces a webpage called Your Complete Guide to Car Hire with Hertz, which mentions the possibility of a late return charge but says nothing about costs for an early drop-off. A search for early return charges on the Hertz homepage brings up the warning that customers will not be refunded for any pre-booked hire days if they drop off their vehicle early. There is not a whisper about daily charges being recalculated.

Hertz told Guardian Money that the charge was “clearly outlined” in the terms and conditions on its website, even though we could not find a document there. It sent a link to a booklet that is available to customers when they get to its “review and book” page. Customers are warned that there may be a charge for an early return but they are given no detail about how it will be calculated or when it will be applied.

We encourage our members to take any extenuating circumstances into account and ensure any changes are justifiedBritish Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association

According to the trade body the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, it is common practice for rental companies to use flexible pricing models based on the duration of a booking but additional fees should be reasonable and clearly flagged.

“The rental operator should make it clear at the time of booking, and on the rental agreement if any potential changes to the offered rate may be incurred,” a spokesperson says. “In the case of a vehicle being returned earlier than agreed, we encourage our members to take any extenuating circumstances into account and ensure any changes are justified.”

Hertz was unmoved when Howorth explained about his brother’s death and the restrictive quarantine rules in place in Australia at the time, which gave him little leeway with his return flight.

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“There were reduced caps on the number of residents allowed to fly back to Australia, and talk in the media was of people struggling to return before Christmas,” he says. “Once you managed to get permission to travel, you then had to do two weeks hotel quarantine, which meant I was away a total of six weeks from my family, including a grandchild who was born during my absence. I couldn’t afford to wait.”

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A customer service agent assured him that it aimed to resolve his concerns to ensure he had an “extraordinary experience” on his next visit, then declared that the charge could not be amended. Only when the Guardian questioned the transparency of Hertz’s terms and conditions and reminded it of the BVRLA code of practice did the company relent. It admitted that circumstances such as Howorth’s should be considered on a “case-by-case basis” and refunded the £670 as a “gesture of goodwill”, although it still insisted the policy was made clear in the contract.

But when asked again to produce this clear warning, a spokesperson said: “We plan to review our terms and conditions to make it even clearer to our customers that changing the return time of a rental with us may incur a recalculation of their rate and additional charges.”

How car hire firms can part you from your cash

Damage repairs

These are unannounced, unexplained debits from a customer’s credit card after they have returned their hire vehicle. The excuse is most commonly damage and often there is little detail about the alleged problem and no cost breakdown for repairs. Customers who were aware that they had damaged their vehicle may find themselves charged extortionate sums for repairs that are never carried out. Leicester Trading Standards is in the fourth year of an investigation into Europcar’s alleged overcharging for repairs.

View image in fullscreenIt is a good idea to buy additional insurance to cover the usually very high excess, should anything go wrong. Photograph: clivestock/Alamy

When you borrow a car, make sure you take a close look, photograph any blemishes and ensure they are recorded by the company. On drop-off, check the car with the customer service person if you can, and take more photographs showing its condition.

Pointless insurance

This is how budget companies make their money. All rentals include basic insurance but customers are tricked or pressured into buying unwanted and unnecessary extra cover to reduce high excess liability, when collecting their vehicle. One reader, who had bought £20 insurance from a third party, was asked to sign a blank screen to confirm a £110 hire deal and later found he had committed to a £500 policy for a 10-day rental.

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It is a good idea to buy additional insurance to cover the usually very high excess, should anything go wrong. However, it is far cheaper to buy a standalone policy from a broker before you travel. Decent firms will accept that you have your own cover but when you are asked to sign the hire contract, check what you are signing for and never sign a blank screen.

Unfair fuel policies

Full-empty is a lucrative ruse – the customer collects the car with a full tank and returns it empty. Firms bank on the fact that no driver will return it with a completely empty tank – and they charge a premium a premium for filling it at the start of the hire.

Rental firms will usually give you the option of full-full – you get a full tank and must return the vehicle with the same. The firm won’t charge you for the initial petrol, and you should be able to get a better deal on the refill.

View image in fullscreenFirms bank on the fact that no driver will return a vehicle with a completely empty tank. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Mysterious charges

Outrageous sums can be deducted by stealth for add-ons, including extra cleaning, senior (or young) driver fees and extra mileage. You cannot do much about the second two but you may be able to avoid being landed with a costly cleaning bill by giving the car a quick vacuum before you return it. Some car hire customers have reported being charged to clean up things such as sand or mud in the footwells, which they could have removed themselves.

Late pick-up

This catches out customers who book a vehicle from an airport depot. If they neglect to include their flight number or are unable to warn the hire company that they are delayed, they may find their vehicle has been given to another customer and they are not due a refund. Some firms reallocate cars if a customer is as little as an hour late, effectively earning double money for a single rental period.