Words by Natalie Paris
Complaints related to car rentals have increased sharply in the last two years, according to the European Commission (EC).
Now Avis-Budget, Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt have pledged to align their operations more closely to EU consumer legislation on unfair contract terms and practices.
They have agreed to improve their treatment of customers in a number of ways, including making their websites and booking processes clearer; providing better information about optional waiver and insurance products, being more transparent about fuel policies, making vehicle inspection fairer and giving customers a reasonable opportunity to challenge any damage to the vehicle before taking payment for it.
One example that the EC cited with the announcement of the reform is that of a holidaymaker who rented a car and paid €600 (A$880) as deposit. During the rental period someone had apparently scratched the car causing some minor damage that was estimated to be less than €100 (A$145).
When the driver returned the car, he was charged the total amount of the deposit, with the rental agent explaining that this was in accordance with the contract’s terms and conditions.
To avoid such incidences in the future, the five car rental companies have pledged to stop demanding disproportionate costs.
Most of the agreed proposals will be implemented by each firm by the end of the year.
They have also been told to monitor other practices that holidaymakers complain about including consumers’ liability for damage to vehicles by other people; the behaviour of brokers and intermediaries; the language used for terms and conditions and the type of insurance offered in car rental packages.
Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality welcomed the agreement which will ensure “a better deal for European consumers."
She said car rental terms and conditions are sometimes too vague, lack clarity and that “consumers are too often left with unplanned extra costs”.
But Gill Charlton, our consumer advice expert, said that although issues such as unfair contract terms needed clarifying, the agreement needed to cover all firms.
“The problem here is that only the better outfits have signed up to this EU initiative," she said. "It is voluntary. Companies like Locauto and Goldcar about whom we receive most complaints aren't included here and most people booking through car hire brokers find themselves renting from them.”
Hidden costs and sneaky practices of car hire firms have "plagued airport arrival lounges for decades", Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said.
"We now need all rental companies to be totally upfront about charges, so that people know exactly what they will pay when they book. Even with these changes, our best advice is to always check the small print on your booking."
Consumer complaints on car rental services booked in another country rose from about 1,050 cases in 2012 to more than 1,750 in 2014.
In one of the worst cases that Telegraph Travel has heard of, a reader, Kate Rogers, reserved a car through Goldcar in Madeira and suffered intimidation, a tug-of-war over a booster seat and a demand for €1,200 (A$1450) regarding a scratch which was already accounted for when she first picked up the car.
Telegraph Travel has been campaigning for reform of the car hire industry recently.
The issue that readers complain to us about most is what happens if you choose to take the risk and not pay for excess insurance, or have already taken out an independent insurance policy to cover it.
Our travel advice expert Nick Trend said: “Airport pick-up desks – usually run by local franchises that have a licence to operate under the banner of big companies – may not take kindly to this. They depend partly on the revenue from selling insurance, and the experience of trying to negotiate with them can be very unpleasant.”
Research into the online booking processes of five hire companies published earlier this year found that in most cases customers were not given full information on the cost of extras that could be added when collecting the car.
This article was written by Natalie Paris from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.