Car rental tips: Six classic rip-offs you need to look out for

I'm at the Hertz car rental station in downtown Naples, returning a motor I've been piloting around southern Italy for the past two weeks. Three gents are going over the car in microscopic detail and – horror – they've discovered some scratches on the front of the bonnet. In a conspiratorial cabal they cluster around, wiping a fortnight's grime off the duco and speaking in low voices. Could this be down to me? I'm rewinding the trip in my memory and I haven't hit a thing and I'm the only driver. Maybe someone reversed into me?

This forensic inspection is 360 degrees different from the pick-up experience. After the paperwork, the guy behind the desk tossed me the keys, I walked outside to the car, which was parked out the front in a busy street, threw my gear in the back and drove off. It was raining so I didn't do my usual walk around with camera in hand to check for any damage, thus breaking my cardinal car-hire rule. Was I about to pay for my mistake?

There's a nervous wait while the credit card statements come in. Some hire car agencies are known for the ding sting, "discovering" damage that wasn't there when you rented the vehicle, and inflating the cost of repairs, but to Hertz's credit nothing comes. I'm in the clear.

The car hire industry is larded with "gotcha" moments that ensure the final price you pay is always more than you'd been quoted. Returning the vehicle to another location 50 kilometres away? There's a charge for that. Hiring from an airport location? That's a premium location fee on top. Excess cover? If you don't buy insurance from us we're not renting you the vehicle you booked.

Hire full, return empty

At the car-hire desk you're given the option of paying for a full tank and returning the vehicle empty. Sometimes this isn't optional, it's a condition of hire that might only become known when you show up at the desk. The agency will charge an inflated price for the full tank so it can't possibly lose. There is no credit for any fuel left in the tank when you return the vehicle so the operator gets to sell whatever fuel remains to the next customer. There is no good reason to select this option.

Return out of hours

Important to get an inspection report when you return the vehicle at the end of the hire to say you're in the clear. Tank is full, mileage logged, no damage to vehicle that hasn't been accounted for – but that's not always possible. Car rental desks are not staffed 24/7 so if you return out of hours you need to take care. Walk around the vehicle in the return bay and shoot images, or better still take a video. These are time and date stamped and that could be vital evidence if there's any argument down the track.

GPS navigation systems

A GPS device on hire from your car rental agency can add anything from $12-20 a day to your car rental. Quite often there's a cap on this amount with no extra to pay after a week or 10 days, but considering a GPS unit costs only $200-300 that's still a great return on investment for the rental agency. There are cheaper options via your smartphone thanks to apps that work off GPS satellites, which means no expensive data feeds. Sygic maps for example, give you turn-by-turn voice instructions at a moderate cost, OsmAnd and Navmii are a couple of other options. If you have global roaming at a decent price, Google Maps is always a prime choice and you can download a specific area (eg, one city) to your phone.

Doubling up on insurance

You're at the car hire desk about to sign on the dotted line, the excess for any damages is about $3000 and you're being prodded to take out insurance cover to reduce that down to zero. They're persuasive. Take out the cover and they won't even do a damage inspection when you bring it back, they're telling you. But if you don't…

But the cost of reducing that excess is extortionate. In some cases this excess cover almost doubles the price of the daily vehicle hire. It's these ambush charges that allow some car hire operators to offer an attractive rate knowing they can whack you when you show up at the desk. You might already have coverage. Excess cover is included in most travel insurance policies. If not, you can get all the excess cover you need at a cheaper price if you buy it through a specialist insurer such as Tripcover.


The Upgrade

The agent might tell you the vehicle you've selected isn't up to the job. It's too small, there's not enough room for your luggage, it's not powerful enough for the freeways you'll be travelling on. These are classic ways to get you to pay an extra daily fee for a higher category vehicle, and it won't be cheap.

Another scam along the same lines, it can also happen that your agency might have run out of the vehicle category you booked and you might be offered an upgrade. If so, the higher category vehicle might come at an additional cost, so it's not really an upgrade but an up-sell. If the car you booked isn't available, you're entitled to another vehicle at the agreed price.

The currency conversion sting

Charging your hire in Aussie dollars rather than local currency allows the car-hire operator to bill you at an exchange rate set by them instead of by Visa or Mastercard, and it won't be in your favour. If you're in the euro zone, the bill is in euros, if it's the US, then you're paying in US dollars – the car hire agency has no right to insist you pay in your home currency.

See also: The rip-off e-visa scams that are catching out Australians

See also: The hidden charges costing Australian travellers to the US hundreds of dollars