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Look at any car rental agreement and you will find a stipulation about fuel. The trickiest (and most profitable) of the various policies is the "pickup full, return empty" policy. Customers are charged in advance for a full tank and asked to return the car empty.
The "pick up full, return empty" policy becomes a scam when car rental agents in popular weekend destinations routenly enforce it on travelers who are not likely to use more than half a tank, ensuring they make a huge profit in charges for fuel that goes unused. To use an entire tank of petrol in the average 2-5 day rental you would need to drive around 200 kilometers a day, and that's quite a lot of driving! The average weekend traveler drives less than 100 km per day out sightseeing.
The majority of "pick up full, return empty" complaints come from Spain, with numerous reports from vacationers in Malaga and Alicante who say the car rental offices have found a way to double their profits with unfair fuel charges.
"In my case, I got charged almost €100 for fuel and delivered the car back with more than 50% remaining after a week. They said they would not refund me however after complaining several times, had a posting on Facebook confirming they would refund €50 but nothing has arrived."
Which?, the "consumer champion" who makes news of product and service injustices, recently exposed the hidden fuel charges in Spain first hand:
"Day two at Malaga Airport. We're back here to pick up a car. This time we hired Goldcar, and let's see what their policy is. Just paid just over 54 euros for a tank full of petrol, which is showing full, and I have to use it in four days. In a little car like this, that might be impossible. We're driving through Torremolinos, one of the busy roads going down from Malaga."
When the Which? researcher returned the car rental it had over half a tank of petrol. The researcher requested a refund for the unused fuel, which Goldcar refused.
In other fuel policies the scam takes the inconspicuous form of a "fuel deposit." Several major agencies charge a fuel deposit to your credit card, which is to be "released" when you return the car with a full tank. These rates vary a little from company to company, and also by country. For example, in the UK Alamo automatically charges you for the cost of a full tank (based on their calculations of market price and car model) on all rentals of 5 days or longer. This is basically "pick up full, return empty," though a bit more fair as it only applies to drivers who have a good chance at using a full tank.
However, in Spain the same agent (Alamo) charges a €48.08 deposit on your credit card to ensure you return the petrol tank full. If not, you will be charged for the price of the fuel plus €12. AurigaCrown in Spain delivers their vehicles with half a tank of fuel and charges €30 to €65 for it, depending on the car size. They request the vehicles be returned empty, though they offer the option of returning the vehicle with the same amount of fuel if the rental period is 3 days or less.
One of the most unexpected ways that travelers get scammed on fuel from car rental providers is by returning a car with less fuel than the Ts and Cs specified. As stated in the fuel policy from CarHireX.com, "Missing fuel may be charged to your bill or added later to your credit card. The price per litre charged by the rental agent may be significantly higher than the price at the local service station." In some cases this may be up to 50% more than what you would pay at the pump. In addition, you may be charged a refueling fee.
"(The) agent pushed the fuel charge at being the lowest on the island at $3.73/gal. I bought in to it only to find out on returning the vehicle one week later with a 3/8 full tank that I had to pay for a full tank. This was never discussed at time of rental."
TripAdvisor user Ereyac, Enterprise - Maui Airport
Like the traveler above, many customers feel mislead when rental agents offer to sell them fuel, discuss the various petrol rates in the area, but fail to mention that the driver must return the car with a full tank.
Sounds simple, right? Customers loose money in this equation by returning the rental with plenty of petrol they've already paid for. The only way to avoid this is by asking questions, reading the rental terms and conditions, and in some cases you may be able to negotiate unfair terms with the agent.
How much could the fuel scam set you back? At £1.40 per litre you could spend upwards of £70 on 3/4 of a tank of (unused) fuel! That's money you didn't have to spend; like giving the agent a nice big bonus on top of your rental rates.
"Dropped off our rental at FLL airport and got our bill in the mail with $83 extra charged. I called the service number and was told it was a fuel and service charge. I told the lady I had filled the car up before returning it. She then asked how far away I was when I filled it up. I told her it was 1 1/2 miles from the airport and I could show her my credit card bill if she didn't believe me. She then said she would credit the amount back to my card. How do they get away with this?"
Though the fuel scam remains somewhat of a trade secret among car rental providers who routinely cash in on this common oversight, you can easily avoid the high charges. Don't agree to terms which include extra fees in disguise as "fuel charges," and like the traveler above, save your receipts to dispute any unfair charges that might appear on your credit card.