Tank battles

I’ve just handed €30 to a car hire company. I didn’t do anything wrong, I returned the car in perfect condition, but they charged me anyway. And the same thing could happen to you next time you hire a car. Personally, I blame the no-frills airlines.

Ryanair, easyjet and the others advertise rock-bottom fares and then claw the lost revenue back by charging extra for everything they can think of – paying by card, priority boarding, checking-in at the airport instead of online, putting luggage in the hold and, of course, anything you want to eat or drink.
Car hire companies have clearly been watching with interest and, caught in a similar price war, they are increasingly resorting to similar tactics.

First came big insurance excesses (the amount of any damage claim that the hirer is liable for – often €500 or €1,000). If you didn’t like the idea of such a hefty excess, you could buy extra cover for up to €10 a day, which could add up to almost as much as the original hire charge. That was a nice little earner for a while, but then along came companies like insurance4carhire.com, offering separate excess waiver insurance at much lower cost. To fight off that challenge, many hirers now provide all-inclusive insurance.

The latest wheeze – the one that caught me – is to supply the car with a full tank of fuel and charge for it at the time of collection. Some companies had always done that, but not many, because customers didn’t like it and there was the added hassle for the hire company of having to refill every car. So most companies asked you to bring the car back with whatever was in the tank to start with – and charged you extra if you didn’t.

Now they mostly charge for a tankful up front, because doing so has become a lot more lucrative. First, the fuel is worth a lot more – anywhere between €50 and €100 for a tank – and second, the average rental period and mileage covered is dropping as people use budget airlines for short breaks, rather than charter airlines for fixed weeks. As a result, lots of people hand cars back with half a tankful or more. They’ve already paid for that – and the hire company can charge the next customer for the same fuel again. Even if they drive far enough to use a tankful, most people won’t risk running too low on the way to the airport and will leave the car with 10 litres or so in the tank.

I haven’t seen any figures (unsurprisingly, the hire companies are coy about the practice), but I’d guess they are making an average of at least €20 per rental out of this dodgy practice. In my case, I paid a reasonable £70 to hire an Opel Corsa for five days in Spain. I was charged €53 (about £42) for a full tank, but despite driving more than 300 kilometres rather harder than I normally would, there was still almost threequarters of a tank left when I returned it.

What can you do about this? If you think you might not use a whole tankful, check the small print when comparing prices. If you can find a firm still using the old return-as-supplied policy, go for that (if only to support their honourable business methods). Some companies will agree to charge you for only half a tank, provided you return it half full, but usually only if your rental is short (up to 3 or 4 days) and you tell them this is what you want to do.

If you’re stuck with paying for a tankful you won’t use, you’re probably better off with a small car, because its tank will be smaller and cost you less; and don’t pay extra for a diesel model because you won’t get any benefit from its better fuel economy.