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How to return a hire car

Carlton Boyce / 10 September 2019

Returning a hire car can be the most stressful part of the holiday - here's how to make it as stress-free as possible.

Handing keys over to represent returning a hire car

Dropping off a hire car is my least favourite part of the whole transaction; the holiday is generally over, the novelty of driving a car that is new to me is behind me, and all I’ve got to look forward to is finding the drop-off location - and then arguing with the person behind the counter as to what is fresh damage, what constitutes wear and tear, and what damage was on the car before I ever set eyes on it, much less drove it.

Having said that, I’ve haven’t had a single problem returning a rental car in the past ten years or more; unlike the bad old days, the staff has invariably been helpful, friendly and professional and I’ve yet to have a single unexpected additional charge added. That might be because I am well prepared, or simply because standards have risen in the past decade or so in the face of stiff competition.

But, forewarned is forearmed, so here is everything I know about dropping off a hire car to help make the process as stress-free as possible for you too.

The basics of returning a hire car

If hiring a car can be a challenging process, returning it can be even more so. The potential for queries about damage, low fuel levels, unexpected extras and the like always take the gloss off what has always been a pleasant experience until then.

In theory, it is simple: arrive at the drop-off location, return the keys to the desk along with a copy of your paperwork, and then walk around the car with the customer service representative before agreeing that it is fully fuelled and in the same condition as when you hired it.

Simple, eh? As ever, the Devil is in the details, so I’ll walk you through the potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

How to avoid car hire scams

Returning a refuelled hire car

You don’t have to fill your rental car up with petrol or diesel before dropping it off because the car hire company will happily do that for you.

Altruistic? Not a bit of it; you’ll pay dearly for the privilege with a hefty surcharge over the usual pump price. If you keep the receipt for the fuel you put in to brim the petrol tank, you’ll have some evidence in the event of a future query, too.

Again, I have previously had to argue with them after they managed to squeeze in another litre or so but the firms seem to take a more pragmatic approach these days and accept that almost full counts as full. That shouldn’t be abused though; I do still try and fill the tank within a couple of miles of the car hire firm’s premises.

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Damage and wear and tear

You have, of course, kept the paperwork you were given when you collected the car? I hope so, because that will give you all the information you need – and it will have listed every single bit of damage on the vehicle at the point you collected it.

Except it almost certainly won’t. The last few hire cars I’ve had haven’t listed any of the myriad small dents, dinks, and stonechips that they’ve had.

When I’ve queried this, I have been told that this sort of damage comes under the heading of ‘wear and tear’ and that the company expects the car to pick up a few scars (‘Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental’ seems to be the mantra). Most will happily explain the size of the damage and the location criteria they use, and it’s worth taking the time to listen to what they have to say. Knowledge is power, right?

And while I do listen, it always leaves me feeling vaguely unhappy; I like certainty and insist on detailing every single mark down on the handover paperwork. I also photograph it all with my phone, which records the time and date, too. Yes, they probably think I am a pedantic old fool but better that than being an actual old fool…

I recommend you do the same because it will stand you in good stead when you come to drop the car off and have the usual argument about what was there already and what has happened during your time with it.

Except, even that might not work because you will probably have to drop it off at a remote location and post your keys in a secure box. This system is there (like self-service checkouts in supermarkets…) to save the company money at the expense of the consumer and without even the pretence of any customer service.

If this is the case I write on the paperwork something like “no further damage was incurred during my time with the vehicle. There was no-one here to check the car when I dropped it off.” It might not stand up in court, but every little helps. That I photograph every panel and wheel goes without saying.

If there is a staffed desk then I insist on the representative walking to the car with me to check it, even if it is a long way from the drop-off point. Not one has ever done so but they’ve all written that the car hasn’t been checked on the paperwork, which might help my cause in the event of a dispute.

Despite my paranoia (or, perhaps, because of it) I have never been charged for any damage to a hire car. But then that’s as it should be because I’ve never actually damaged a rental vehicle while it has been in my care. (Except the time when I stuffed one into a snow-filled ditch in Canada when it was -40ºC and I was six hours from the nearest habitation. In which case I held my hands up and was glad I’d paid the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW).)

How to plan a road trip

Dropping your hire car off at a different location

I recently hired a car in Canada (no, not the one I damaged…) and paid $500 to drop it off at a different location to the one I’d originally hired it from. And while that seemed steep as they could easily hire it from that new location, I’d have struggled to get myself from the original point of hiring to the airport any more cheaply.

So, dropping it off at another outlet other than the one you collected it from is easy to arrange – even after you’ve collected it if your plans change – and can make a lot of logistical and financial sense. It just might not feel like that initially.

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Dropping your hire car off late

If you are running late you might not be able to drop the car off at the agreed time. This isn’t normally a problem unless it triggers a charge for another day’s hire because the clock has ticked over onto a new 24-hour period.

I’ve been late once due to traffic, and called ahead to warn them. They were fine about it and didn’t charge me any extra, something that most car hire firms say is at the discretion of the individual branch staff.

I suspect that it might have been different if I hadn’t forewarned them - and with good reason if they’d had another driver ready and waiting to hire it.

Remember these old road safety films?

Hire car delivery and collection

Some car hire companies offer a free delivery and collection service. I’ve used this a few times and while airport locations are often excluded, it works well for everywhere else.

The one snag is that you do have to either wait in for them to collect it or arrange to leave the keys with someone on your behalf. If you can do that though it’s a simple and easy way to hand a car over.

Individual hire car policies

The advent of the Internet means that most policies for returning a hire vehicle or rental car are broadly similar among the major car hire companies. So, the above should hold true for almost everyone you deal with, but we’ve put the links to the policies for the biggest half-a-dozen companies below:

Hertz – return policy can be viewed here.

Alamo – return policy can be viewed here.

Enterprise – return policy can be viewed here.

Budget – return policy can be viewed here.

Europcar – general FAQ, including some information on returning your hire car can be viewed here.

Thrifty – general car hire terms can be viewed here.

Do you have a car hire drop-off tip you’d like to share with other readers? If so, email it in to


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.