How to Avoid Surprise Rental Car Charges

Car rental company counter at the airport

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Living on the Cheap.

Brad Cross expects to pay only $350 to rent a Honda Accord for four days in June from Avis in Salt Lake City. Instead, the rental car company gave him a surprise charge of $2,974 to his credit card.

“Avis said the lease extended to a one-way rental and canceled in another state,” said Cross, a software developer from Maple Grove, Minnesota. “But it’s not me.”

The accusations, it turns out, were falsehoods, but customers have been hit with more “surprise” car rental fees lately — some on purpose, some not.

But there are ways to avoid these higher costs. Whether it’s an incorrect charge like Cross or a smaller incidental fee, here are a few tricks.

Know the most common car rental costs

Pile of coins with the word fee in front
Billion Photos /

Car rental costs are up 14% this year, according to JD Power. Fees include fees to offset airport rental fees and extras for fuel and insurance.

Here are the most common fees.

Additional driver fee

Hand signing document, with key and credit card.
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If there is more than one driver, your car rental company may charge extra.

Companies can waive fees if it’s your spouse or if you rent frequently.

Fuel purchase options

The driver fills the tank
SofikoS /

Rental car companies will offer to fill the tank at a premium, so you don’t have to refill before returning the vehicle. You can avoid these costs by filling the tank yourself.

Also note that rental companies do not refund you for unused fuel.


the word auto insurance in a magnifying glass
Lucian Milasan /

Agents at the counter will try to upsell insurance to customers. And that’s a hard sell.

They may tell you that your car insurance policy isn’t enough or your credit card won’t cover you – neither of which are usually true. Additional insurance can sometimes double your rental costs.

To avoid this upsell, read your card member agreement or auto insurance policy to make sure you have coverage.

Garbage fee

Angry angry man looking at ridiculous trash charges

This can include airport concession fees (which cover the fees companies pay to operate at the airport), license restoration fees (which cover car license and registration fees) and even tire disposal fees.

You can’t negotiate these fees off your bill, but they’re usually disclosed before your rental, so you can avoid locations that charge them.

Avoid renting at the airport

Car rental assistant with customers

One of the main complaints from travelers is the extras added to the bill for concessions or airport transportation. This is nothing new, but airports are almost always upgrading it.

Airports pass this on to car rental companies and sometimes use the money to build car rental facilities. Last year, Honolulu International Airport opened a new $377 million car rental facility that was funded by an additional $4.50 fee added to each renter’s bill.

“Airport concession fees can increase your bill by up to 20%,” says Roger Broussard, a frequent traveler publishing site for pilots.

His advice for lowering your car rental bill: “Avoid renting a car at the airport,” he says.

You can use a courtesy van to get to your hotel and rent from there.

Or you can share a ride to an off-site location, although the cost can be more than what it costs to rent at the airport. But keep in mind that some car rental locations near the airport also charge a fee, so you should pay attention to the fine print.

Try the ‘pay now’ option

Senior businessman coming home from work with cash

One way to avoid cost overruns is to set a price before you rent a car. You can book through opaque sites like Hotwire, which offer prepaid “Hot Level” rentals, allowing you to select a rental location but not an agent, which is revealed after you book.

The price you see is the total price you will pay. The risk is that you can get a rental agency with bad reviews.

“To avoid surprises, you can use the ‘pay now’ option when ordering a car,” advises Julie Flores, vice president of operations at Rate Highway, a car rental technology company. “Not only will you see exactly what the final taxes and fees will be, avoiding any surprises, you can also get a modest discount by paying your rent in advance.”

Dave Dzurick, a retired broadcast engineer from Tucson, recently discovered, a site that offers several prepaid options. He used it to rent a Hertz sedan in Victoria, British Columbia.

“I paid for everything up front, and there were no surprises,” he says.

But there’s a catch: “Pay now” rates, while sometimes cheaper than “pay later,” can be non-refundable.

Take a photo of your vehicle

Young Man Photographing His Car

Travelers say rental car companies add a lot of “gotcha” fees after the rental.

For example, when Shanna Schultz dropped off her Sixt rental car in Paris after a family vacation, her company tried to charge an additional $200 for the lost trunk cover. Thankfully, Schultz is a trip advisor and knows the pitfalls of renting. He had taken video of the entire rental when he took it.

“I showed the car rental company a videotape from the moment we rented the car,” he said. “That suggests the trunk cover in question was not in the vehicle in the first place.”

The car rental company dropped his claim.

He says taking pictures of your rental is the best way to avoid bill surprises. “Before you even tuck your luggage in, take a video of it,” he advises. “Inside, outside, up and down: you never know where they are going to say the accusations are coming from.”

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