Last updated on March 1, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, travelling and renting cars In Spain

10 Common CAR HIRE SCAMS in Spain and How to AVOID them

Unfortunately car rental scams in Spain are not as uncommon and that is why I decided to write this article, based on my real experiences in many years of renting cars and taking road trips in Spain and around the world.

Renting a car in Spain should be part of an enjoyable travel experience, but falling victim to these scams can quickly turn your dream vacation into a distressing experience.

In this post, you will find the most common car rental scams, each accompanied by a real-life scenario. More importantly, I provide practical advice on how to avoid or mitigate these common scams.

But let’s jump straight away to the list.

When parking between blue lines make sure to get a ticket at the closest pay-and-display machine
When parking between blue lines make sure to get a ticket at the closest pay-and-display machine

10 Common Car Hire Scams in Spain

An important disclaimer of expertise before proceeding. Please, keep in mind that I am not an Insurance Professional, a Risk Management Expert or a Financial Advisor. I am just a traveller with 20+ years of experience in renting cars, taking road trips around the world and enjoying the local cultures.

  1. The Bait-and-Switch Tactic: The rental company lures you with a low-cost rental car online and, upon arrival, claims it’s unavailable, pushing a pricier option.
    • Real-life example: Chris booked an economical car for a road trip across Andalucia but was pressured to rent a more expensive SUV at the rental desk.
    • Avoidance tips: Insist on getting the class of car you reserved or demand an upgrade at no extra cost.
  2. Inflated Fuel Prices: This tactic is also called the Full-Empty tactic. Companies will give you the car with a full tank charged at exorbitant rates/litre, expecting the car returned empty
    • Real-life example: Emily was charged nearly double the regular price for a full tank when she rented a car in Sevilla for a road trip in Andalucia
    • Avoidance tips: Choose a full-full fuel policy, ensuring you return the car with a full tank. This is the best way to avoid any fuel-related scams. Sometimes they may ask you to take it back like-for-like which is fair enough
  3. Fuel Mark Up: This tactic is also called the Empty-to-Empty tactic. You will receive the car with an empty tank and you need to return it empty, which honestly is almost impossible unless you are a great planner.
    • Real-life example: Andrew received the car empty before taking his trip to the best places of the Costa del Sol. He tried to plan carefully the petrol consumption but he ended up giving the vehicle back with a quarter tank, which is around 25 Euro worth of petrol.
    • Avoidance tips: Try putting just 10-20 Euros at a time once you get close to the drop-off day. This will minimize the scam
  4. Excessive Extra Insurance Upselling: this is the biggest scam in Spain I reckon. I extensively explained how car rental insurance policies work in Spain. To briefly summarise here, quotes for car rentals include both the mandatory Third-Party Liability and the Collision Damage Waiver which has an excess/deductible typically between 1,000 and 4,000 Euros. I usually suggest adding Full Coverage to cover this possible out-of-pocket money. Nowadays, I rent my cars on the DiscoverCars website, an aggregator that compares local and international providers giving the best deals. They also offer Full Coverage at 8 Euro/day, which is a no-brainer. But once you arrive at the counter they will tell you that they have a Spanish Designed Excess Insurance that works better and covers more, but it costs 3-4 times as much.
    • Real-life example: Tom was pushed to buy the Spanish-Designed car insurance or sign a paper to take responsibility for all the damages up to the excess
    • Avoidance tips: Familiarise yourself with the DiscoverCars Full Coverage. I used it successfully in the past. The only drawback is that, in case of trouble, you will have to pay the rental for the damage up to the deductible (1,000-4,000 Euros) and then submit the claim to DiscoverCars. Read more on my guide to car hire insurance in Spain.
  5. Phantom Damage Claims: You are wrongfully charged for pre-existing damages.
    • Real-life example: Sarah decided to rent a vehicle in Malaga. She returned the car back and was billed later for ‘damages’ she didn’t cause.
    • Avoidance tips: Document the car’s condition during pick-up and drop-off through photos or videos. Do this for both the exterior and the interior. Remember that damages to the interior are typically not covered even by the Full Coverage. They tried once to charge me for a pre-existing cigarette burn. Luckily I documented that with the photo at pick-up time.
Taking photos and videos at pickup and drop off time
Taking photos and videos at pickup and drop-off time
  1. Hidden Fees: check out the additional charges, like ‘administrative fees’ or ‘airport surcharges’, that can show up on your bill.
    • Real-life example: Jack found unexpected ‘service fees’ on his bill after renting in Barcelona
    • Avoidance tips: Review and clarify all terms in the rental agreement and keep all payment records. This is more of a scam when you rent in person and it’s difficult to spot these hidden fees in the small prints of the 2-page contract
  2. Overpriced Extras: Excessive charges for GPS, child seats, or additional drivers are common.
    • Real-life example: Linda was charged a daily rate for a booster seat in Seville, far more than its actual cost over a week period.
    • Avoidance tips: Bring your own accessories or verify rental costs for these items beforehand. On my last trip to Malaga, I rented a car to explore the Spanish south coast for 3 weeks. I was travelling with my little one and the car hire company was charging 8 Euro/day for the booster seat. I bought a new one instead for 30 Euros in a Shopping Centre just outside the airport. I saved over 130 Euros. Also, Google Maps works better than the car navigator, with better-updated maps and real-time traffic data.
  3. Mismatched Vehicle Scam: You receive a different, often lower quality, vehicle than what you booked.
    • Real-life example: Alex booked a convertible for a coastal drive but got a standard sedan.
    • Avoidance tips: Insist on the specific model you booked or an equivalent or superior one without extra charges. If this is not possible ask for a refund of the difference in car models costs.
  4. Late Return Fees: Even when the car is returned on time, some agencies charge for late return.
    • Real-life example: Despite returning his car timely in Granada, Mike was charged for an extra day.
    • Avoidance tips: Document the return time and, if possible, get a company employee to acknowledge it. I usually take a photo of the car dashboard (with the odometer and the km number) including the background of the car park where I drop off the vehicle. Photos and videos on the mobile have a time stamp, most models have also the GPS position
  5. Prepaid Toll Overcharges: Offering toll services at inflated prices is a common trick.
    • Real-life example: Fiona in Alicante was offered an expensive prepaid toll package, unnecessary for her route
    • Avoidance tips: Research toll routes and costs in advance and opt for paying at toll booths. They usually accept credit cards. Keep also in mind that highways are quite expensive in Spain. Try to avoid them when possible (Google Maps > Avoid Tolls). You will be surprised by the amazing characteristic villages scattered in the countryside.
Paying the highway with a debit card
Paying the highway with a debit card

How to Protect Yourself from Rental car Scams

Here are five important things to keep in mind:

  1. Book Through Reputable Sources: Always choose well-known and trustworthy rental agencies. Online platforms like DiscoverCars are excellent as they compare prices from both local and international operators, ensuring you get the best deal. They also offer the option of adding comprehensive insurance for a fraction of the cost compared to direct rental agency rates.
  1. Thorough Vehicle Inspection: Before driving off, meticulously inspect the rental car. Check for any existing damage and ensure it is documented by the hire company. Take photos or videos of the car’s condition, both inside and out, paying particular attention to any pre-existing damage.
  2. Understand Your Rental Agreement: Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of your rental agreement. Pay special attention to policies regarding fuel, insurance, additional drivers, and equipment such as GPS or child seats. Clarify any ambiguities before signing.
  3. Use a Credit Card for Payment: Paying with a credit card offers an additional layer of protection. Most rental companies in Spain prefer credit card payments, and this also helps in disputing any unjust charges should the need arise. Keep in mind that you can also hire a car without a credit card but you will be limited in the choice of cars and rental companies.
  4. Prepare for the Unexpected: Keep handy the contact details of the rental agency and know the steps to follow if you encounter issues like car breakdowns or accidents.
The Gree Zones (Zona Verde) are dedicated to the residents only. You may be able to enter but you cannot park there
The Gree Zones (Zona Verde) are dedicated to the residents only. You may be able to enter but you cannot park there

What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed

There are a few effective steps you can take to address the situation:

Contact the Rental Company: Immediately reach out to the car rental company to dispute any fraudulent charges. Be clear and concise, and have all relevant documentation at hand, such as rental agreements and photographs.

Credit Card Dispute: If you used a credit card for the transaction, you might have additional protection. Contact your credit card company to inform them of the fraudulent charges and initiate a dispute process. Credit card companies often have robust mechanisms for dealing with such disputes.

Report to Consumer Protection Agencies: In Spain, there are consumer protection agencies that can offer assistance. File a complaint because this not only helps you but also warns others about the scam.

  • European Consumer Center Spain (CEC): Assists with EU-wide consumer issues and complaints​​.
  • AECOSAN: Spain’s main consumer rights and safety agency​​.
  • Municipal Consumer Offices (OMICs): Local consumer rights advice and dispute mediation​​. Look up the local office based on where you rented the car
  • Arbitration and Mediation Services: Alternative dispute resolution for consumer issues​​.

Share Your Experience Online: Awareness is a powerful tool against scams. Share your experience on travel forums, social media, and review websites. This can help other travellers avoid similar pitfalls.

Document Everything: Keep a detailed record of all communications with the rental company and any other steps you’ve taken. This documentation can be crucial if the dispute escalates to legal action.

Legal Action if Necessary: If the situation is not resolved satisfactorily, consider seeking legal advice. In Spain, there are legal avenues for tourists and visitors to seek justice in such scenarios.

Driving along the Costa del Sol
Driving along the Costa del Sol

Conclusion

From time to time I receive comments or even read on travel news and major newspapers like The Guardian of these scams. I usually do not like to mention company names because different cities may work in a different way and what it may be scammy in Barcellona it turns very professional in Madrid, or vice versa.

In saying that, I booked my car twice with GoldCar and on both occasions, they tried hard to upsell their Special Full Coverage Insurance and they also tried to charge me for pre-existing damages that I luckily documented with photos at pick-up time.

This does not mean that GoldCar is not a good rental. But certainly, I will not book again with them.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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