Car-hire firms are cashing in on flight delays by charging holidaymakers hundreds of pounds extra if they are held up.
Travel chaos has plagued the summer, with flight disruption now expected to continue into the autumn.
Yet many rental companies are hitting travellers with hefty ‘out-of-hours fees’ or ‘no show’ fees if they arrive late.
Highway robbery: Car-hire firms are charging holidaymakers hundreds of pounds extra if they are held up
Others are cancelling customers’ bookings, forcing them to pay inflated prices at the airport rental desk.
Car-hire costs have already soared to record highs this year, with the average family now paying more than double that of 2019’s rates.
Now they are facing additional costly bills after being delayed through no fault of their own.
Yet consumer experts warned that airlines were likely to reject compensation claims from passengers left out of pocket — leaving them to navigate a maze of trade bodies and dispute services.
Meanwhile, complaints about car-hire firms have soared by 170 per cent since last year, according to the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA).
And more than one in ten customers report being charged more on arrival than they were originally quoted — typically £101 extra, according to Which?
Guy Hobbs, editor of Which? Travel, says: ‘Consumers deserve much better than a car-hire market that can too often feel like the Wild West.
‘Action must be taken by the relevant authorities to hold car-rental firms to account when they exploit customers.’
Plane delays and missed bookings
Millions of trips have been affected by an airport staffing crisis — with one in 20 flights from UK airports cancelled in the last week of June, according to aviation data company OAG.
Yet despite this, holidaymakers are receiving little or no leeway from car-hire firms who are perfectly aware there is a good chance customers could be delayed.
Costly delay: Imogen Blake and fiance Ed Warren
Travellers often assume rental firms will know from their flight number that they have been held up.
But while many will hold a booked vehicle for passengers if they call ahead, they may still charge an ‘out-of-hours’ fee, which can be as high as £75.
Other customers are turning up to discover the counter is closed and there is no way to get the car they have paid for in advance.
Joe, 41, and Julia Roper had spent £99 on a hire car for two days when travelling with their son Joshua, 12, and daughter Rosie, ten, to Germany last month.
They had booked via their airline easyJet’s website. But their flight was delayed by an hour and seven minutes, and by the time they arrived at Alamo’s counter at Hamburg airport at 10.40pm, it had closed.
In the end the couple from East Sussex had to pay £250 to hire a car from another firm whose counter was still open.
Enterprise, which owns Alamo, charges £125 cancellation fees for ‘no-show’ bookings’.
As the Ropers paid less than this, they did not receive a penny of their £99 back. EasyJet also refused to refund the money.
Julia, 47, who works in a GP surgery, says: ‘It’s so frustrating. EasyJet had our flight number when we booked our car, so we assumed staff would know we had been held up.’
An Easyjet spokesman says another firm manages its car-rental bookings and the company did not respond to requests for comment.
Imogen Blake and her fiance Ed Warren were also caught out after their Ryanair flight to Toulouse was delayed by two hours.
They had paid £104 to book a car for four days in June through comparison site economybookings.com.
But they did not arrive at the Enterprise-owned National counter until after midnight and it had closed.
Some firms are cancelling customers’ bookings if they are delayed, forcing them to pay inflated prices for a new hire car at the airport rental desk
The couple, who are both 31 and live in Bury St Edmunds, paid €100 to stay at a hotel near the airport so they could collect their car first thing in the morning.
Yet the next day they were told it was no longer available and had to pay another €700 to hire a vehicle from another firm.
Imogen, who works in PR, says: ‘We had flown out because our friends were getting married, but neither of us could enjoy the wedding because we were so upset about how much we had ended up spending.’
The couple did not receive a response when they complained to economybookings.com. When Money Mail intervened, it refunded the cost of their original booking.
A spokesman says the couple had not entered their flight number into the system.
Ryanair did not respond to requests for comment.
Consumer expert Sue Hayward says: ‘While prices are going through the roof, it seems some car companies are cashing in by renting out vehicles — which are not picked up in time — at higher prices. I do think firms should be putting their customers first in these cases –— especially when it is not their fault.’
Higher costs and complaints
Motorists are now paying an average of £650 to rent a car for a week — up 109 per cent from £310 in 2019, according to icarhire insurance.com.
But prices at some destinations have soared even higher. In Geneva, holidaymakers are typically charged £933 for a week, a 164 per cent increase compared with £353 in 2019.
And in Dubrovnik, motorists pay £806, up 179 per cent from £289.
Prices can be hundreds of pounds higher if customers do not book in advance and need to secure a vehicle at the desk on arrival.
Many rental companies are hitting travellers hefty ‘out-of-hour fees’ or ‘no show’ fees if they arrive late
Experts say soaring costs are largely a result of firms selling off their vehicles to recoup losses suffered during the pandemic.
Since then, companies have struggled to replace their fleets owing to a shortage of parts.
But it’s not just soaring prices that are infuriating customers. Many complain of being hit by a host of unfair and sneaky fees.
The BVRLA says complaints about charges for damage are most common, making up 42 per cent of the cases.
One in six gripes are about additional insurance policies flogged at the counter, and others cover unexpected charges for everything from petrol to children’s car seats.
Car-rental firms based in Spain receive the highest number of complaints.
And a poll by Which? found Spanish firm Goldcar was one of the worst-rated companies by customers — scoring zero stars out of five for clarity of fees.
The BVRLA says that complaints have soared, though they are lower than before the pandemic.
Amanda Brandon, director of fleet services at the BVRLA, says: ‘The summer of 2022 has resulted in instances of people missing their booking because of flight and travel delays.
‘If a customer is delayed but arrives the same day, the rental company will endeavour to accommodate them.
‘However, if they arrive the next day, the booking may be invalid. Customers may be able to claim on their travel insurance if this is the case.’
What are your rights?
Solicitor Gary Rycroft, of law firm Joseph A. Jones & Co, says: ‘It is unfair to have to pay more for your car hire if you are late through no fault of your own. But there isn’t a straight route to get compensation.’
If you think your airline is at fault, complain to them first.
For flights delayed by three hours or more, you are legally entitled to compensation — unless the cause was outside the airline’s control, such as bad weather.
Shorter delays that cause car-hire disruption are not typically eligible, so you may struggle.
Consumer expert Martyn James adds: ‘Airlines tend to compensate only when they really have to. But this is something that absolutely needs to be addressed.’
If you used a third party, contact the booking site for help. Alternatively, you can approach the car-hire company direct.
Car hire costs have already soared to record highs this year, with the average family now paying more than double than in 2019
Firms should make their operating hours clear in your contract and offer a ‘grace period’, which can vary from 30 minutes to two hours.
After this, the company is not obligated to hold your vehicle and may consider you a ‘no show’. So always contact the vehicle provider as soon as you know you may be late.
Motorists can also complain to trade bodies such as the BVRLA, or the European Car Rental Conciliation Service if a firm is in the EU.
And the European Consumer Centres Network can also offer advice.
You can also try to claim compensation from your travel insurance provider, but many will not offer this type of cover.
A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers says: ‘It is vital that you check your travel policy and know exactly what you are covered for, as it may not cover delays shorter than a specified length of time.
‘Policies may also have a fixed cash payment associated with the length of the delay rather than covering specific expenses.’
You could also try your credit card provider. Under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, lenders can be held equally liable for purchases over £100.
An Enterprise spokesman says it ‘categorically’ does not cash-in on delays, adding: ‘In both cases we fell short of the high standard of service which our customers expect and we would like to apologise to them.’
He explains that, ‘where possible’, staff will wait up to two hours for a delayed customer to arrive or arrange for the car to be collected the following day but that this requires a flight number and third parties do not always provide one.
I was stung by Alamo for €300 extra… at 1am
By GUY ADAMS
More hire ‘surcharges’: Guy Adams and family
I count myself a world expert in car hire rip-offs, having over the years been asked to pay for fictitious scratches, misread fuel gauges, and, on one occasion, a handful of sand from a Sicilian beach that triggered a £150 ‘excess cleaning’ fee.
So when I booked this summer’s family holiday on the Costa del Sol, which has long been regarded as a sort of Mecca for these dodgy practices, I did everything by the book.
That the rental firm Alamo still attempted to purloin almost 300 of my hard-earned pounds lays bare the brass-necked cynicism of an industry that has completely lost its way.
Before doing business with the firm — slogan: ‘Drive happy!’ — I did my online research, with Which? magazine informing me it’s one of the better operators (the very worst, according to its survey, is Goldcar).
In late May, I duly paid £792.26 for a week’s use of an ‘Intermediate SUV’, a figure that, according to my receipt, covered fees, taxes, VAT and unlimited mileage, plus £71.99 so my wife could be an ‘additional driver’.
As a good Money Mail reader, I also made sure to shop around for cheap insurance, rather than buying one of the extortionate policies from car hire salesmen, which cost upwards of £30 a day. My policy from icarhire insurance.com cost £50 for a whole year.
Fast forward to a Saturday in early July. This being 2022, our easyJet flight touched down in Malaga behind schedule, and by the time we’d cleared customs and waited for a bus to Alamo’s local branch, it was 12.30am — an hour after I’d told the firm we were planning to arrive.
An employee named Mariano took copies of our driving licences and passports, and showed me a shiny new car. Then the fun began. Jangling the keys, Mariano announced there was one small problem: because we’d arrived after midnight, I’d have to pay a €50 ‘surcharge’ for ‘coming here late’.
It was news to me, since the existence of this fee was neither disclosed when I’d booked the car, nor on the confirmation email. Neither could I find any mention of such a ‘surcharge’ on Alamo’s website.
Yet when I challenged Mariano, he responded that if I didn’t like it, I could simply walk away without the car I’d already paid for.
Since it was by now 1am, and I was with three very tired children (aged six to 12) on an industrial estate somewhere on the outskirts of Malaga, I had little choice but to hand over my credit card. Then things took a second strange turn.
After entering my pin code, I was handed a receipt informing me that Alamo had not charged me €50, but instead had taken more than €300. Mariano said he’d billed me for ‘IVA’ — Spanish VAT — along with around €10 per day for registering my wife as a second driver.
Since I’d already paid both charges when I’d booked the car, and had the receipt to prove it, I told him the payment needed to be cancelled.
At this point, Mariano’s grasp of English mysteriously disappeared. I was placed in the hands of his manager, a lady named Maria, who proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone talking in Spanish to someone further up the Alamo food chain.
I was eventually informed that, while the firm agreed that I might have been incorrectly charged, it was sadly unable to sort things out until sometime the next day. Meanwhile my wife and three exhausted children were perched on a pile of suitcases, in a sweltering garage, as the clock ticked into the small hours.
At 1.40am I surrendered to fatigue and agreed to drive away in Alamo’s SUV, €300 poorer. We arrived at our holiday villa two hours later, crawled into bed at 4am, and I spent the first morning of my holiday writing a lengthy complaint to the firm’s customer services department.
Upon receipt of that email, the company promised to ‘investigate’, and by the end of the week had agreed to cancel the fictitious charges.
The cash has now been returned, along with a full refund of the original booking as an apology for falling short of its service standards.
But only because I was sufficiently outraged to make a formal complaint. Plenty of other customers wouldn’t have bothered, or might not have kept paperwork that proved they were being taken for a ride. And that is how so many weary holidaymakers get cynically fleeced.