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You should never return a rental car dirty. Here’s why

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Messy people, beware! Car rental companies will charge you up to $450 if you return a dirty vehicle. 

Avis customer Bart M. recently found this out the hard way. Shortly after returning his last rental car, Avis notified him that the vehicle was excessively dirty. As a result, the company intended to bill him hundreds of dollars to clean the car. 

Bart admits he left behind “some” garbage in the rental car when he returned it. 

He says there is no way it cost Avis much of anything to remove that trash. He suspects the fee to clean the messy rental car is just an illegal cash grab.

Now Bart is hoping Consumer Rescue can convince the car rental company to drop its pursuit of the cleaning fee. 

But just how dirty was this rental car?

Let’s have a look.

Vacationing in Hawaii with a rental car from Avis

In January, Bart and his family were enjoying a tropical vacation through the Hawaiian islands. For three days, while they explored the Big Island, they rented a car from Avis. 

On the day Bart returned the rental, he was aware that there was some trash in the car.

“I’ve never had a problem before returning a rental car with a bit of garbage,” Bart told me. “It was business as usual as far as I was concerned.”

Bart handed over the keys to the Avis attendant, and his family was on their way. He never expected any problems.

But within hours, Bart found out that it is unwise to return a dirty rental car, no matter what his previous experience had been.

Avis found its rental car to be excessively dirty

“I returned the rental car, and on the same day, I got a notification,” Bart explained. “The message from Avis said the car couldn’t be cleaned by normal procedures.”

The email went on to alert Bart that he should be on the lookout for the final cost of the cleanup of his rental car. 

That follow-up message came a few days later. Avis billed Bart $250 for the clean up of what it called “excessive garbage, excessive dirt, and excessive sand.”

This Avis invoice details that its crew found excessive garbage, dirt, and sand throughout the rental car.
Avis: The attached photos show “excessive sand throughout the van, as well as trash in all areas of the rental, including all side doors, the back trunk, and the seats.”

When Bart received this email, he immediately contested it with Avis and also cited a regulation from the Department of Commerce in Hawaii.

“According to the Hawaii commerce department, I read it’s illegal [for a car rental agency] to collect any damages without a mutual agreement or court order,” Bart argued. “I have not agreed to anything.”

Avis responded by reiterating that the photos provided the evidence that supported the $250 surcharge to clean the vehicle. 

But Bart still wasn’t convinced, so he attempted to file a credit card dispute. 

Consumer Alert: File a credit card dispute only as a last resort

The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to file credit card disputes in cases of fraud and billing errors. Before filing a credit card chargeback, the consumer must attempt to resolve the problem with the merchant. 

Bart was unable to show that the charge was a billing error or fraud. So, as other consumers have experienced before him, (See: Here’s what happens when you don’t want to tip on a cruise) his credit card company rejected his dispute request.

A tale of two Avis complaints

When Bart’s complaint hit my inbox, I was also in the middle of mediating another case involving Avis. In that case, Shiv Patel had been blindsided when the car rental company tacked on a $450 fee to his final bill. 

Shiv told me that as a lifelong nonsmoker, he had no idea why Avis had slapped him with this bill. 

Hi Michelle, I saw your article about fake rental car smoking charges. I hope you can help me. I was charged $450 by AVIS for a cleaning charge due to smoking. 

I don’t smoke, I have never smoked, and I am able to ask my doctors to pull medical records of my attestation to that. I rent cars frequently, and this is the first time something like this happened.

Shiv Patel

So now it seemed that I had two valid complaints to bring to our always helpful Avis executive contact.

That is until I received the photos of what the interior of Bart’s rental car looked like when he returned it.

Don’t expect car rental employees to clean up your mess for free

Note: I am obscuring Bart’s last name because it is not our intention to embarrass anyone who asks for our help. The Consumer Rescue team aims to successfully mediate as many cases as possible and offer teaching moments when we can’t. No one (even messy car renters) should be afraid to ask for our assistance for fear of being publicly shamed.

As it turns out, I would only be sending one of these cases to Avis. When I reviewed the plethora of photos taken from the inside of Bart’s rental car, I had to break some bad news to him. 

He owed the money. The rental car was filthy. The photos showed half-eaten food, drinks, sand, dirt, rotten fruit, empty boxes, tissues, etc. The vehicle looked like a mobile garbage can.

A very dirty rental car, garbage in a rental car, messy rental car, bottles, cups, half-eaten food, sand and dirt in this rental car.
A sampling of the photos Avis provided shows just how dirty this rental car was when the customer returned it. Travelers, You should not return a rental car like this.

I explained to Bart why we would be unable to pursue his request with Avis.

Hi Bart,

Those pictures didn’t come through in your initial email. Now that I see them, I have some bad news for you. I believe that you owe the $250. I’ve seen Avis and other car rental companies charge customers up to $450 for a cleaning fee for rentals that look much less messy than that car does. 

The reason car rental companies can charge these amounts is that they take the dirty vehicle offline for a day or two to send it out for detailing. So that fee includes the days they were unable to rent the car. This is why we have warned our readers to always return a rental car in the same condition as you found it, or you could get hit with this type of fine.   

When we take a case to mediation, we have to be able to show that the company is operating outside its terms and conditions. I’m afraid in this case, Avis will just refer us back to those photos, and it is hard to argue that the car wasn’t returned with excessive garbage and debris inside. I wish I had better news, but this isn’t a case we could successfully mediate.

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer reporter and ombudsman columnist

Asking Avis about a nonsmoker being hit with a smoking charge

With that battle lost, I turned my attention back to Shiv, the Avis customer who told me he had never smoked a day in his life. But that didn’t stop the car rental company from hitting him with a $450 smoking fine. 

Hi ****

This morning I have an Avis customer, Shiv Patel who rented a car back in November out of Chicago O’Hare. On Jan 13, when he returned from vacation he found a notice from Avis that smoke was detected in the car and that he was being charged $450. He has been unable to reach anyone at Avis to explain how this is not possible and to plead his case.  Shiv is a lifelong nonsmoker and is able to provide medical documentation of this fact.  He believes this is a simple billing error.

Would you be able to ask your team to take a look at this case? (If you need the doctor’s note, I can send that to you as well).  Thank you!

Michelle to Avis

The good news from Avis: This nonsmoker will receive a refund

Very shortly, our executive contact at Avis reviewed Shiv’s plea and sent the good news. He would receive a refund. 

Shiv was thrilled with the outcome and so are we. 

Hi Michelle,

Gosh, I was stressed about this, but I see the $450 has been credited back to my credit card. You have no idea of the worry you lifted from my shoulders. THANK YOU! I’m glad I reached out to Consumer Rescue first before attempting [a credit card dispute] and muddying up the waters.

I was so confused because I have never smoked, and the car did not smell when I picked it up. I left it clean, with maybe an empty water bottle or two lying around, certainly nothing worth a $450 cleanup. I read some of your articles and saw that sometimes companies lie and post false pictures and complicate things. I was hoping that wouldn’t be so in my case. Whatever the misunderstanding was, again, I am so happy you resolved it for me! Thank you!!

Shiv Patel

No, you don’t have to clean your rental car before you return it… unless it’s very dirty

Getting charged to clean up an excessively dirty rental car is a terrible way to end your vacation. Here’s how to increase your chances of avoiding that expensive fate. 

  • Don’t use your rental car as a mobile garbage can. Regular readers of my column know that I’ve taken my daughters and an assortment of their friends on a cross-country road trip adventure every summer for the past 19 years. As you can imagine, 4-5 teenagers quickly generate a lot of wrappers, cups, containers, and other debris. Since I don’t like driving around in a mobile garbage can, I make it a habit of emptying the trash every time I refuel the car. This is an easy thing to do since there is always a trash can at the gas pumps. If you maintain that system, too, you’ll never end up rolling into the return lane at the car rental agency with a filthy vehicle overflowing with garbage. 
  • Vacuum the vehicle: If you’ve been to the beach or desert in your rental car, you should quickly vacuum the vehicle before returning it. Many gas stations and car washes have self-service vacuums that typically cost $1 for 3-5 minutes. That $1 is a great bargain when considering the hundreds of dollars the car rental company will charge you to do it for you later. 
  • Drive through a car wash: If you’ve gone adventuring off the highway to more obscure muddy or dusty areas with your rental vehicle, you should consider washing the car. Paying $10-12 to quickly drive a dirty rental car through a car wash is a small price to pay to eliminate the possibility of paying a $450 cleaning fee later. 
  • Don’t introduce unusual smells into the rental car: Of course, you should never smoke in your rental vehicle. That is an almost guaranteed way to find yourself with an excessive cleaning fee at the end of your vacation. However, smoke is not the only offensive smell a traveler can introduce into a rental car.  Perfumes, food, lotions, rotting garbage, and even air fresheners can cause offensive lingering smells inside the vehicle. Car rental companies charge the same giant fees to remove odors from the car as they do to clean up visible messes. 
  • Be careful where you park the vehicle: Lastly, be careful where you park your rental car. Specifically, you should avoid parking under trees where birds live. Bird droppings are very difficult to remove from the exterior of a vehicle. So save yourself that headache by never parking directly under a tree or anywhere else where birds perch — or you might have a difficult mess to clean up before you return the rental. 🦅😛

Special note to smokers: You may still bring the smell of smoke into your rental car via your clothes and belongings. If you do, you’re at risk for a smoking fee, the same as if you had lit up in the car.

The bottom line

The pandemic hit the travel industry hard, and the major car rental companies are still trying to recover. One way they’re doing that is by increasing various fees – including cleaning fines. Keep that in mind before you return your next rental car. Don’t make yourself an easy target for these hefty car rental fees.

Before heading into that return lane, take a good look at the vehicle with fresh eyes. If you don’t return the rental car in the same condition as you initially found it, you’re at risk for extra charges. 

Never return a rental car dirty. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind paying hundreds of dollars for someone else to clean up your mess. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue) 

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.