Car hire firms are on a road to nowhere when it comes to fair treatment of customers
Hidden charges and sharp practice made an unpleasant motoring experience even worse, says Fionola Meredith
It all started when I walked out of the petrol station and discovered that a woman had reversed bang-slap into the side of my beloved car, which was parked at the pump while I went in to pay. Wild-eyed and flustered, she told me that her car had acted entirely of its own volition, zooming backwards all by itself. "Do you think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?", I refrained from asking, seething with suppressed rage. Then she reversed into my car for a second time.
And so began the endless hassle of getting the darn thing fixed. To be fair, the other driver instantly admitted full liability, and her insurance company were sympathetic, helpful and swift to act.
The real problem involved the courtesy car I was given, provided by a well-known rental company with offices in Belfast. After a particularly busy and trying day, I managed to put £20 worth of petrol into the tank of the diesel-fuelled car, ironically enough at the same garage where the woman pranged me in the first place.
Cue panicked phone call to the rental car people. I was pretty wild-eyed myself by then. Was I going to have to cough up hundreds to get the fuel tank drained? No, no, they assured me, I was safeguarded by the "excess protection" payments I'd signed up for, which meant I was covered no matter what I did to the vehicle.
Phew. A friendly mechanic was dispatched from Ballymena to rescue me and the stricken car, and within two hours we were back on the road.
But that wasn't the end of the story, because I subsequently got an aggressively rude letter from the hire company, demanding payment of an as-yet unspecified sum for the tank drainage, plus damage to the vehicle (there wasn't any, because it wasn't driven after the misfuelling) and an alarming list of associated costs.
Tucked away in the small print of the initial rental agreement was a sub-clause which stated that I'd be liable if incorrect fuel was used, despite signing up for optional protection payments.
It turns out I'm far from alone in being financially wrong-footed by a hire car company.
A new report by Which?, the consumer group, which investigated more than 40 car hire contracts from 18 providers in the UK and abroad, claimed that "unnecessarily complicated documentation" is common practice across the industry.
Which? discovered all sorts of hidden fees being levied, including charges for repairing damage to cars in addition to the cost of the repair, charges for failing to return a car with a full tank, and even a charge if customers failed to print out their rental confirmation.
As Which?'s travel editor pointed out, few people have the time or inclination to read these lengthy, clunky contracts, and this can lead to consumers being slapped with steep fees.
Worst of all is when your holiday gets fouled up by hire car charges. That's where these companies can really sting you badly, especially in Spain, where two firms have already been fined for poor treatment of customers.
Here's how it goes: you think you've got a great deal online, you turn up at the airport rental desk to collect your car, and suddenly they're pressing you to pay vast additional sums for excess insurance (often far higher than the initial rental payment) so that you're covered if anything goes wrong.
You don't want to be spending your well-earned sunshine holiday worrying about colossal penalties if the car gets a dunt, as the hire companies very well know, so you cough up the cash. What they aren't so keen to tell you is that, in many cases, the tyres, windscreen, roof and undercarriage - the very bits you're most likely to damage, in other words - aren't actually covered by the excess insurance anyway.
What if you turn down that persuasive offer of additional protection? Think again. It was recently reported that rental firms are charging up to £8,400 if you damage a family saloon in Europe and haven't bought extra insurance.
All of which adds up to a monumental rip-off, whether at home or abroad.
As for me, I'm digging my heels in and refusing to pay - even once the rental company deigns to tell me exactly how much they're planning to sting me for. Whatever microscopic sub-clauses may have been lurking in the contract I originally signed, the fact is that they told me I was fully covered when I called them for help.
The rental industry should take note of growing public resentment. Trading on small-print obfuscation and unreasonable demands is a policy which could end up backfiring on them spectacularly - and deservedly.