Hidden charges: Car rentals - ever felt you've been taken for a ride?

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The Independent Online

It was a bad weekend for Martin Shipp. First he was kept waiting for three hours because no one from the easyCar hire firm turned up to give him the keys. Then, when he finally got behind the wheel and drove from London to Kent, Mr Shipp got there too late for his friend's wedding, the whole point of booking a car in the first place. Perhaps, he reasoned, that's the risk you run doing business with Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the high-profile owner of an empire that also includes the easyInternetcafés and a stake in easyJet. After all, at just £7.97 for the day's hire, the price was more than competitive.

It was a bad weekend for Martin Shipp. First he was kept waiting for three hours because no one from the easyCar hire firm turned up to give him the keys. Then, when he finally got behind the wheel and drove from London to Kent, Mr Shipp got there too late for his friend's wedding, the whole point of booking a car in the first place. Perhaps, he reasoned, that's the risk you run doing business with Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the high-profile owner of an empire that also includes the easyInternetcafés and a stake in easyJet. After all, at just £7.97 for the day's hire, the price was more than competitive.

Except, as he discovered, there was also transaction fee of £2.55. Then there was the insurance waiver of £4.26, a credit card charge of £2.55. And VAT, of course, at £3.03, bringing the grand total to £20.36, an increase of more than 150 per cent on the figure he had in mind.

Small print and infuriating supplements bedevil the car rental industry, as our Hidden Charges campaign and readers such as Mr Shipp have made clear. They have been hit with a mystifying array of surprise penalties that make a nonsense of the rates advertised by the car hire giants.

As Sean O'Grady, motoring editor of The Independent, explains, there is little chance of a rental firm sticking to the original quote: "It's the small things and the lack of clarity that cause the trouble. I have frequently used hire cars, but I've never ever agreed the bill at the end of it. I have always argued with them and got it down. It seems very difficult to get a price at the beginning that you then pay at the end - even if you return it with a full tank of petrol and with no dents."

Gary Harbutt, a businessman from Bermuda, was astonished to find that the car he booked with National contained an additional £20 charge purely for the privilege of picking it up at Heathrow. He described this "premium location" fee as "a classic case of hidden charges - to raise revenue on a lower rental charge". National responded by saying that this charge is levied only on corporate accounts, not on retail customers.

David Cook from Leeds is one of several readers to complain about rental companies that retain an entire £200 deposit in response to the most minor damage. This, in his case, was the penalty for a dented wing mirror which, he maintains, was already damaged when he picked up the car at the office. "It took more than a year to get back £113 from Budget," he complained.

"Most people would have given up. I only think they paid me because it cost more to deal with my calls."

Phil and Sarah Jarvis from Leeds were angered when Hertz France charged them £50 for two children's booster seats (which can cost as little as £1 a day with other companies). They were also charged for a full tank of petrol - even though they had filled it and have receipts to prove it. Hertz has taken details of their complaint and told The Independent on Sunday it will mount an investigation.

EasyCar has come in for particular criticism. Take the case of the missing deposits. The firm has responded to the fact that some people incur parking and congestion charge fines by holding on to customers' £50 deposits for 30 days after the vehicles are returned, racking up a decent rate of interest, no doubt. Other companies give the money back straight away and take the cost of subsequent fines from the original credit card. Fortunately, however, another new easyCar rule has been scrapped. This said that unless you ask for your deposit back within three days of returning the car by filling in a form online, you could forfeit the cash altogether.

Mr Haji-Ioannou is even fighting the consumer protection laws through the courts. Any customer who orders a service online or over the phone has the right to cancel the transaction within seven days, without charge. Mr Haji-Ioannou says that should not apply to him because hire cars are "transport", an exempt category.

"Either we offer last-minute cancellations or low prices," said a spokesman. "We can't do both." He apologised for Mr Shipp's three-hour delay. But he said that all the additional charges for easyCar are spelt out on the website. "We refute any suggestion that the charges are 'hidden'," he said. "Our policy is to make things as up-front as possible."

Your views: 'The whole idea of restaurant service charges is crazy'

In Hidden Charges we've featured covert rip-offs from restaurants to banks. Now, here are some of your bugbears:

There is another aspect to mobile phone charges, which you featured last week. Picture phones, it is claimed, can send photographs by email. My Orange phone guide details the procedure. However, most ISPs reject such messages. They read the pictures as viruses. It took me three visits to three different Orange shops, plus endless phone calls, to establish this. When I asked why the Orange guide does not mention this problem, the supervisor at Orange technical support told me that if the guide listed all the ISPs that would reject messages it would run to over a thousand pages. He also blamed the ISPs for having firewalls that reject photographs sent from picture phones. Orange seem untroubled that they provide no warning about this.
Mark Haworth-Booth
London SW18

Regarding service charges in restaurants, I now have a different perspective as I live in Italy, but for many years in London I was always displeased by open gratuity areas on bills. In Italy tipping is not the norm. Some restaurants, though not most, include a small, non-scaling cover or coperto, usually €1 or €1.50. The whole idea of paying for service seems crazy to me now, especially given the generally average or low-quality service that one receives in London.
John Kramer
via email

I am especially outraged that even when booking tickets online - as I have just done for a ballet at Sadlers Wells in London - I am still charged a booking fee. By booking over the internet I have done all the work for the booking, it has not involved any staff and nobody is sending out the tickets to me. If you buy a book in a bookshop, does the cashier charge you a handling fee for the pleasure of taking your money?
Marc Boettcher
via email

IoS campaign: How you can help

Each week our Hidden Charges campaign focuses on different goods and services, highlighting the tricks and concealment that consumers are up against.

So far, we have examined restaurant service charges, box-office booking fees, bank charges, mobile phone charges and car hire. Next week we will focus on holidays.

Tell us how you think you've been ripped off in these or any other areas, and we will investigate and report back. Email hiddencharges@independent.co.uk, or write to: Hidden Charges, Independent on Sunday, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS.

Whichever way you choose to contact us, please include your full postal address and a daytime telephone number.

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