Dropping Off Your Rental Car Doesn’t Mean You’re Off the Hook

Dropping Off Your Rental Car Doesn’t Mean You’re Off the Hook Photo (cc) by Rick McCharles

Budget Rent a Car recently quoted Roy Bonney a $96 rate for a one-day rental from Norfolk, Va., to Washington, D.C. But it sent him a bill for $3,374.

The reason? A tire on Bonney’s car went flat only a few hours before his flight back home to Alaska, while he was parked at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, in the District. There was no spare, so he had to call Budget Roadside Assistance for help. Budget promised to send another car and a tow truck to pick up the car with the flat, but it gave an estimated arrival time of more than two hours — not soon enough to catch his flight.

“I asked if I could leave the car for Budget to pick up, since they were sending a tow truck anyway, and I’d make other arrangements to get to the airport,” he said. “A Budget employee agreed.”

Bonney assumed that the phone conversation was an official transfer of the vehicle back to Budget. It wasn’t. The tow truck couldn’t access Bonney’s vehicle because it wasn’t allowed on base. So Budget treated the rental as if he’d never returned it, broadsiding him with a $3,278 bill.

Car rental company representatives say it’s simple: Unless the vehicle is in their possession, it’s your responsibility. The rental contract, which you sign when you pick up the car, is clear on that point. And in an industry that often has razor-thin margins, car rental companies claim they can’t afford to look the other way if a car is damaged on the parking lot after hours or stuck on a military base.

You’re on the hook

Someone must pay.

“Consumers should do more to protect themselves,” says Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association, a trade group.

Of course, most rentals don’t end as dramatically as Bonney’s. If a car isn’t returned in person, it normally sits on the lot without incident. But there are exceptions. Faulkner recently heard from a car rental customer who returned her vehicle at 3 a.m., even though the location didn’t accept after-hour returns. It took the company five days to find the car, and it billed her for every minute of it.

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