Renting a car is a complicated process. When you search for a good rental car rate, you'll probably be quoted the "base rate," which is the daily charge for a specific class of car. The rental car company adds on required state, city or county taxes, its own fees and surcharges, sales tax and facility charges (generally assessed by airports). You'll see items like "vehicle licensing fee" – that's the amount the rental car company charges in order to recoup the cost of registering and licensing the car – and "energy recovery fee" – this one is similar to a fuel surcharge.
You may not be able to find out about all the fees you'll be charged until you show up at the rental car counter to pick up your car. When you arrive at the rental office, carefully scrutinize your contract to be sure you understand all the charges. Look for fees triggered by specific events. You may want to ask about some of these charges before you sign your contract.
Types of Rental Car Fees
- Early return fee, sometimes called "rental change fee." You can be charged a fee if you return your rental car early. Alamo, for example, charges $15 for an early return.
- Late return fee. If you turn your car in late, you'll probably be assessed a fee as well as an hourly or daily rate for the extra rental time. Note that many rental car companies have short "grace periods" – 29 minutes is the norm – but the grace period does not apply to optional charges such as collision protection plans and GPS rentals. Expect to pay a full day's charge for these optional items if you return the car late. Late return fees vary; Thrifty charges $10.99 per day.
- Refueling fee. Some rental car companies charge a fee if you do not bring the car back with a receipt for your fuel purchase. This typically happens if you rent a car for local driving only, use very little fuel and return the car. To avoid this fee, refuel the car within ten miles of your rental car office and bring the receipt with you when you return your car. Budget assesses a refueling fee if you drive less than 75 miles and don't show the rental agent your fuel receipt.
- Additional authorized driver fee. Some rental car companies now charge a fee to add another driver to your contract. Even spouses may be subject to this fee. Find out more about additional authorized driver fees.
- Frequent traveler program fee. If you decide to use your rental car miles for credit on a frequent traveler program, such as a frequent flier account with your favorite airline, expect to pay a daily fee for the privilege. Hertz charges up to $1 per day to add miles to your frequent traveler account, with a maximum of $5.25 per rental.
- Lost key fee. If you lose your rental car key, expect to pay for its replacement. Charges vary, but, given the high cost of today's "smart" keys, you'll probably be looking at $250 or more to replace one key. Beware the two-key key ring; you'll be charged for both keys if you lose them.
- Cancellation fee. If you rent a luxury or premium car, you may be asked to guarantee your reservation with a credit card. Be sure to find out how far in advance you'll need to cancel your reservation if you decide not to rent the car, because some rental car companies charge a cancellation fee if you cancel after this deadline. National, for example, charges $50 if you cancel your guaranteed reservation less than 24 hours before your rental time.
If You Are Billed in Error
When you return your rental car, carefully examine your receipt to be sure you weren't charged any of these fees by mistake. If you were charged incorrectly and the rental car company refuses to remove the fee from your bill, you can contact your rental car company directly (email is best). You can also dispute the charge with your credit card company if you paid by credit card.