Don’t Get Fleeced on Your Rental Car This Summer

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The car-rental business is taking a page from the airline industry, trying to upsell customers and broadside them with junk fees. Here's what you should know to avoid paying too much.

When you rent a car this summer, don’t look for one price. Look for three.

There’s the low rate you’re quoted when you’re shopping for wheels, the final and more expensive rate after all required taxes and fees have been added — and the real price.

Yes, it’s that complicated. Consider what happened when Brian Scios rented a car from Hertz in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, recently. He thought his “final” rate would be $150, but after his plane arrived late, the car rental company upped it to $550.

“I argued with a representative for a few minutes, showing him my confirmation printout, but he said that’s what he had on-screen,” says Scios, who works for a nonprofit organization in New York. “It was late, we wanted to start driving, so I just paid it and figured I’d fight it later.”

This sleight of hand, which is all too common in the travel business, is now a full-fledged epidemic in the car-rental industry. The rental price for a Chevrolet Spark “or similar” from Hertz at the Fort Lauderdale airport is $106 per day, but after all required taxes and fees are added, it jumps to $140. And at the counter, you might pay even more, as Scios did.

A 2015 survey by the Australian consumer research firm Canstar Blue found nearly 3 out of every 5 consumers are confronted with extra charges when they return a rental vehicle. A quarter of those surveyed disputed the final cost, according to the research. (Many of the car-rental companies operating in Australia answer to American owners and operate under rules similar to those in the United States.)

What’s going on? The car-rental business is taking a page from the airline industry, trying to upsell customers, broadside them with junk fees such as frivolous charges for “damage” to the vehicle or find a way — any way — to charge more. And make no mistake: Car-rental companies have you in their crosshairs this summer.

But you don’t have to overpay for your wheels. Carefully reviewing the fine print and knowing the traps and meticulous documentation of the transaction can ensure that you pay exactly what you expected.

Hertz spokeswoman Lauren Luster says the company’s records showed two reservations under Scios’ name, which “caused the initial confusion,” noting, “Mr. Scios wasn’t charged as a result of a fee.” After he contacted the company, Hertz adjusted his rate by applying the original prepaid rate to the reservation, which generated a refund of the price difference. Scios says he made only one reservation.

“We have extended our apologies to Mr. Scios for the inconvenience he experienced following his rental with us,” Luster says.

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