Car Rental Scam Fees Explained

Recently, I had a very nice family vacation. Now, I travel on occasion for business, and often when we travel we setup via the same system. The rental companies don’t really bother with the tricks, because they have a blanket contract with the company. This time, however, the family and I went on our own. In doing so, I noticed more than a few of the most common travel company tricks have been updated, and some new ones are out there as well. So, without further ado, let’s look at the latest car rental company tricks to increase your bill.

Rental Car Fee Scams

The travel industry was once the domain of luxury travelers and big spenders. Travel companies just charged high, profitable rates for everything from hotel rooms to car rentals. But, along the way, travelers got savvy. Internet travel websites opened people’s eyes to the vast difference in pricing, and the race to the bottom was on.

car rental scam tricks graphicOne way travel businesses, like rental car companies, compete is by offering a rock bottom, low price, for a car rental, with every intention of boosting those rates back up with fees when you actually rent the car. Avoiding a high rental car rate doesn’t end when you book you rent you car and have a reservation. You’ll have to keep playing defense to get a good rate on your rental car.

Check out my article about Southwest Airlines child fares here.

Do I Need Car Rental Insurance?

Once upon a time, car rental companies made plenty of money by selling insurance along with their rental cars. Rental car insurance could add $25 per day, or more, to your bill by the time it was all said and done. Suddenly, that bargain car rental you got online just got a lot more expensive. Fortunately, the financial advice media were all over this little travel trick, and people wised up and said no to car rental insurance. But, that insurance is very profitable for rental companies and they won’t give up that easily.

Quick tip: Call your car insurance company to see if they cover rental cars. The answer, if you have any of the well-known insurance companies, is that you are fully covered for all liability in an accident, just like you are if you borrow a friend’s car. Whether or not you are covered for damage to the car usually depends on whether or not your have comprehensive coverage on your own car, in which case you are usually also covered for the rental. Next, check your cards. A lot of credit cards offer free rental car insurance if you use their card, often including damage to the car. However, almost no one covers your rental car in Mexico, so double check that.


Don’t get me wrong if you aren’t savvy, they rental company will be happy to sell you all the insurance coverage you will take, but they have some “new” moves as well.

I rented from a combined Dollar Rent a Car and Thrifty Car Rental location. Everything from which people handled your transaction to which cars you could take were the same, so there was no difference between two companies.

First, they found my reservation. No problem there. Then, the upselling car rental tricks began.

Car Rental Trick Fee #1

We’ve talked about how you probably don’t need car rental insurance from the rental company, but that’s still an industry favorite. The person behind the counter simply said, “You’ll want full coverage for the car.”

Of course, I said no I don’t need any of the insurance.

She ticked off a box anyway and said, “This isn’t insurance it’s the waiver.” Then she added, “Most people take this.”

If that’s true, then most people take it because they are confused and don’t know better. The waiver is also insurance no matter what they call it. It is the insurance that covers your usual deductible. So, it isn’t always duplicate coverage, but it’s still coverage. At nearly $10 per day, that adds $70 to a weekly rental. Considering my whole rental for the week was $230, that’s a hefty 30 percent add-on if you aren’t paying attention.

Car Rental Trick Fee #2

The car rental fuel option is a devious trick that sounds like a good deal if you listen to the person behind the counter.

The way this scam works is that you prepay for a FULL TANK of gas at a “discounted” rate. See that highlighted, bold phrase? That’s how the scam works. You pay for that full tank no matter how much is left in the car when you return it. Unless you bring your car back into the rental lot where it runs out of gas, you aren’t getting any sort of discount. In fact, you’re paying extra.

Consider a car with a 12-gallon gas tank. If you ended your rental with a quarter tank of gas, you have 3 gallons of gas in the tank. If the rate at a nearby gas station is $3.75 per gallon and the discounted rate is $3.50 per gallon, then your total to fill up 9 gallons yourself is $33.75. Your pre-purchased full tank of gas costs you $42.00. ($3.50 x 12 – remember you buy a whole tank)


It only gets worse if you leave more gas in the tank.

The way they sell this is by asking, “Will you be using a full tank of gas?” and then pointing out how it is cheaper for them to refill it than you. This would be true, if they actually came and filled up your car when it was empty, but they don’t. You fill it up when it is empty and likely bring it back to the lot with plenty of gas in the tank. After all, who wants to run out of gas on vacation?

Decline the fuel option and save yourself some money.

Rental Car Trick #3

The oldest car rental trick is still in use. “How many people are traveling with you? Oh, a compact car is pretty small. You can upgrade for just $11.”

Now, a compact car isn’t roomy, but if it was big enough when you made your reservation, it’s big enough when you are standing at the counter. Our compact car was plenty big for me, the wife, and our two kids. Don’t let their “concern,” fool you. Remember that $11 isn’t for the whole rental, it’s PER DAY. Make that clear. Ask, “Is it $11 per day or for the whole time?”

If you need a bigger car, get it when you book. You’ll notice that the difference between a compact and a mid-size doesn’t have to be a lot, and another company might have the bigger cars for less. Get what you want when you make your reservation and don’t let them change your mind when you get there.

Car Rental Car Seats for Kids

Rental companies will rent you a car seat for your children. In most states they are required by law to make them available. They are not required to be nice, comfortable, or treated well. At this location, I saw them piled up in a closet. They also cost $10, or so, PER DAY to rent.

Do the math.

For a single car seat on a 7-day rental, that’s $70! You can check your own car seat as a bag with the airline for $20 – 25, and it’s your child’s own car seat that they are used to, not a smelly, tattered car seat. (Fly Southwest and your checked bags are free, or get to a high rewards level on other airlines for no-fee checked bags. That’s an even bigger savings.)

If your kids aren’t toddlers, check the state laws to see if a booster seat is sufficient for your kid. You can buy a basic (no back) booster at Target for less than $30. Put two of them together in a bag to check both for $20 and you saved yourself a lot of dough versus $20 per day ($140 per week!) to rent two seats.

Even better, if your child has a paid ticket on the flight, they are entitled to one carry-on for free, just like any other ticket. Have them carry their booster seats on and you can use them for free! (You can carry them for your kids, and if an employee says anything just point to the child and say, “This is their carry-on for their ticket.”)

There are plenty more travel scams and I’ll be back to cover them as well. Remember, do your research and understand what you want and what you need before you get to the counter and then hold to your own decisions. Don’t let leading questions increase your car rental bill.

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