Many Americans associate domestic travel with the open road and a long road trip. Over Memorial Day 2017, AAA estimated more than 34 million travelers drove over 50 miles from home as part of their vacation; for the 2.9 million who flew to their vacation spot, many itineraries included a rental car as part of their vacation as well.
Car rental agencies are a regular fixture at airports all around the world, each promising travelers deals on automobiles to take them far and wide. However, many of those deals evaporate quickly when car agencies add on a number of hidden and blatant charges to a traveler’s invoice. Fees and deposits for damages, cleaning, road tolls, and more can blow a budget up without notice.
When it comes to what rental agencies you can trust and which you cannot, there are many factors that help determine the best and worst car rental companies you'll find in America. According to user ratings at the non-profit Consumer Reports and data from the 2018 J.D. Power North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study, smart travelers should think twice before renting from the worst rental car agencies in the United States.
Founded in 1966 and headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, ACE Rent A Car was once the top-ranked rental car companies in the United States by J.D. Power. The company earned the top spot in the 2011 industry survey, followed by earning placement among J.D. Power’s Customer Service Champions in the next year.
Since then, travelers have been critical about their experiences with their over 350 affiliated locations across the United States, naming them one of the worst rental car agencies. In 2016 and on, ACE was not rated by J.D. Power, along with several other companies appearing on this list.
In the 307 reviews left at Consumer Affairs, many focus on the condition of the cars. Travelers claim their automobiles were dirty, “in poor shape,” or with outdated GPS equipment. Another common complaint focused on hidden fees, including automatic daily fees for tolls.
Before accepting a rental car, travelers should first understand all of the potential fees they could be responsible for absorbing. Before agreeing to initial anything on a paper or digital system, have the agreement explained, and be sure to ask about all other options. Finally, request a printed estimate of all charges and fees, in order to understand your agreement and how items are being added to the rental car total.
Often associated with the lowest prices for rental cars, Advantage Rent A Car is one of the worst car rental companies as rated by customers on Consumer Affairs. Additionally, the Better Business Bureau gave this rental car company an “F” grade with seven negative reviews and nearly 500 consumer complaints.
Among the most common complaints against Advantage Rent A Car is the addition of collision damage waiver (CDW) fees without proper explanation to the customer. Many customers claim they verbally requested to decline CDW policies because their credit cards or travel insurance policies cover damages or loss to rental cars, just to have it added later. When it comes to signing the agreement, travelers accuse the agents of misrepresenting approvals or denials, resulting in additional charges.
Before signing any agreement, travelers need to understand what charges are added to their account, as well as what travel insurance will and will not cover. While there are some situations where travelers may be forced to purchase additional insurance, most domestic itineraries will be covered through many other means. If a desk agent is being too aggressive in having a deal signed, ask to either slow down or speak with a supervisor to clarify any situation.
Another “low cost” rental car company, Fox Rent A Car advertises cars available for as low as six dollars per day, or deeper discounts through other prepaid reservation websites. Despite their position as the fifth largest rental car company in the United States, many travelers have expressed their dissatisfaction with Fox as one of the worst rental car agencies.
Of the many negative ratings attributing to the one-star Consumer Reports rating, the most common complaint against Fox Rent A Car focuses on hidden fees and deposits for insurance, tolls, and second drivers. One traveler complained Fox kept a deposit for second drivers while another claimed they were charged for an alleged cracked windshield, which they say was never cracked in the first place.
Travelers who are suspicious of the condition of their vehicle should document everything during contract acceptance. This includes taking time-stamped pictures of the vehicle that note any pre-existing damage. All damages should be submitted in writing on the rental agreement with verification from an employee as failure to do so could result in costly claims and a long consumer complaint battle.
The last of the rental car companies not ranked by J.D. Power in 2018, Payless Car Rental offers travelers low prices on cars in the United States and Europe. As many travelers have learned, the other side of those low prices often come in hidden fees and pressure to pre-pay for gas at the rental counter, which makes them one of the worst international rental car agencies.
The most common complaint in the reviews left at Consumer Affairs revolved around purchasing additional insurance or pre-paying for fuel. Some complain they were told they would get a better deal in buying gas from the rental car counter and would only be charged for what they used. Instead, those travelers say they were charged for a full tank of fuel at a higher price than at gas stations outside the rental locations.
Although pre-paying for gas can be a tempting offer, experts say avoid this at all costs. Travelers who want to ensure they don’t get charged for extra gas should refuel within 10 miles of the rental car return, and keep a copy of the receipt as proof they filled up on fuel prior to their return.
Combined through a purchase by Chrysler, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group represented J.D. Power’s two worst rated rental car agencies in 2016 but have improved slightly above Budget in 2018's rankings.
In 2016, Thrifty earned a score of 764 while Dollar only scored 774—both below the industry average of 804—but in 2018, Thrifty scored 819, Dollar scored 816, and the industry average rose to 830.
The most common complaint among the ratings on the Consumer Affairs website is the handling of toll roads. Travelers who rented with Dollar or Thrifty say they were talked into paying a daily fee for toll transponders. In truth, many of those roads offered cash lanes, despite the desk agent’s insistence they did not and warnings of fines for every toll road infraction.
When planning for a trip, the smart traveler should consider every part of their route so they can understand what tolls they might encounter on their trip. While renting a transponder may be easier for those who are frequenting toll roads, it may not be the only option available to the frugal traveler.
Budget Rent-A-Car was the third-worst rated rental car agencies in the 2016 J.D. Power Survey, edging out Thrifty and Dollar by just 10 points. Compared to the industry average, Budget scored 20 points lower, for reasons reflected in complaints left on Consumer Reports, which have only gotten worse in recent years.
In numerous reviews, customer service issues were the most problematic among regular travelers. Former customers took to the nonprofit website to complain about experiences ranging from being overcharged on insurance to being “upgraded” without their knowledge or agreement to pay a higher daily rate.
While travelers may find themselves in a hurry to get out of the airport, it is important to read all of the fine print and understand everything they are being charged for before they leave the rental car lot. Those who are not in a hurry after they land should consider renting from an off-site rental agency in order to save money and get better customer service. Outside of the airport, travelers can avoid taxes, surcharges and upgrade fees with a little distance and some patience.
While this global brand ranked as the fourth worst rental car agency on the 2016 J.D. Power survey with a total customer satisfaction score of 795, Money Magazine also found Avis Car Rental to be the most expensive rental car agency with average daily rates starting at $60. However, in 2018, their score improved significantly to 824, just six points below the industry standard, and reviews have gotten kinder in recent years.
The ratings on Consumer Affairs focus on two major problems with Avis: customer service and the cars' condition. Across complaints, travelers say that the inflated price they paid did not correlate to a better experience when renting or returning their cars, with hidden fees added including a per-mile and upgrade fee. Other complaints accuse the company of renting cars that were not cleaned, had obvious wear spots, or had malfunctioning equipment. The 2016 J.D. Power survey discovered this was a growing problem among car rental companies, as 21 percent of travelers reported problems with their vehicles. Specifically, 16 percent of complaints revolved around optional equipment, including GPS systems and toll road transponders.
Travelers who are dissatisfied with their rental have several means to get satisfaction with their rental. Before a trip, experts recommend doing homework on their rental companies and reading reviews ahead of their trip. For those who experience an issue with their rental car, experts recommend calling the rental company directly to resolve the issue or returning the vehicle to the location where it was rented from to discuss a proper replacement.
Although dealing with a rental car issue can be a time-consuming and difficult process, travelers do not have to be sidelined due to a scam. By avoiding these seven rental car agencies and being aware of their hidden fees, travelers can avoid paying extra for insurance, getting talked into a toll transponder, or paying more for what they believe is a “free” upgrade.