What happens when you return a rental car seven months late?

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For one thing, the police issue a warrant for your arrest, as one man with an overdue rental car in Pennsylvania recently found out.

According to the Patch.com site for Moon Township, Pa., a man from Pittsburgh picked up a Budget rental car last fall and was scheduled to return it November 20. When did Budget get the car back? Not until early June, after the renter, who'd driven off to Florida, found out police had obtained a warrant for his arrest for felony theft and unauthorized use of an automobile.

Police said the man wracked up nearly $900 in late fees on the vehicle, which given most rental agencies' propensity for charging fees and how severely late the car was returned, sounds surprisingly low.

Indeed, the late fees could have been a lot worse. The renter in question had a monthly rate for the Hyundai Sonata he'd taken to Florida, and the policies and late fees for monthly rentals are different from daily or weekly rentals. Budget's website lists its late fee policies for the typical daily or weekly rental, which includes a 29-minute grace period in which no fees will be assessed. Return that vehicle 30 minutes late, however, and you'll be hit with an hourly charge. If you return it more than 90 minutes late you might as well keep it a whole extra day -- because you'll be charged an extra day regardless. Actually, there's one reason to not keep the car an extra day, and that's a $10/day fee for returning a vehicle more than seven hours late and not calling the agency with a head's up.

Doing some rudimentary math, if the renter now charged by police with theft of leased property had rented by the week rather than the month, he potentially would have been hit with fees of $10 a day -- which over 210 days would add up to $2,100. So, in light of the roughly $900 in fees the renter is now facing, he got off relatively easy. Imagine that: being grateful for a fee of "only" $900.

Besides late fees, and the outside possibility of jail time, there are other reasons travelers should do their best to return rental cars on time. Typically, when a driver returns a rental car late, the agencies charge an outrageous per-day rate. If a weekly rental rate was $300, it wouldn't be uncommon for the agency to charge $80 or even $100 for keeping the vehicle one day beyond the week's agreed-upon period.

There's the possibility of other fees and problems with credit as well. Avis's policy, for instance, is to charge a flat $10 service fee if the customer wants to extend a rental beyond the original return date. That's if the customer contacts Avis and requests an extension, and there's no guarantee that the original daily or weekly rate will be extended. On the contrary, most agencies are likely to charge higher "rack" rates for rental extensions. If the customer never calls, he'll pay an extra $10-per-day late fee, on top of the charges for extending the rental itself. What's more, Avis explains:

Also, if you choose not to return the car on or before your originally scheduled return date, we will place an additional hold on your debit or credit card to cover the additional expected rental charges. Upon your return of the car, the holds will be released, and the actual cost of the rental will be charged. Your bank may take up to two weeks to post the released credit hold to your card. Unfortunately, we cannot be held responsible for any returned checks due to debit card hold processing.

The moral is: It behooves you to return your rental car on time. If that's not possible, contact the agency right away -- before the original return day (and well before the authorities need to get involved). Then, don't simply accept the first rate quoted to you for extending the rental. Try to negotiate. Mention that you're a loyalty program member, say that you've liked the service so far, and that you plan on renting from the company again -- but only if you're not gouged because you're in a jam and need to bring the car back a day late. Most rental agencies won't budge on the fees and rates if you wait until after the original return date has passed. Call them ahead of time, and you've got a much better chance.

While returning a rental car seven months late is unusual, returning a vehicle one or two days late is not. Rental agencies understand this. They also understand that it's bad business to lose a good customer over some unreasonable fees.


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