The Basics

A Sneaky Rental Car Scam – and How to Avoid It

a person handing over a car key
Written by Charlie

This is a rental car scam that has been tried on me a few times – here is what it is and how to avoid it in your travels!

There are a lot of scams in the travel space, though probably not a whole lot more than exist in other spaces! But, there are certain areas where companies/people can get away with stuff and this is one that probably gets quite a few people.

A Rental Car Scam Involving Upgrades

This has happened to me a few times (thankfully, I didn’t fall for it!) and I wanted to make other renters aware as well. I don’t know about you but when I rent a car for just me, most of the time, I’m going for something that is the less expensive of the options. If that means a small car, I’m good with that (unless the cost is just a couple of dollars more for something roomier).

I do have top-tier elite status with National and Hertz that allows me to take my pick from a wide selection of cars, which does help. But when I am renting from a different company, this scenario has happened to me.

I’ll rewind to a specific encounter. I was traveling for a marathon and, as my habit is, I was in town for just under 24 hours. Since it was just me and I knew parking would be tight, I went for a compact car.

The Scam

When I arrived at the counter from my flight, a pleasant agent offered me an upgrade to a Ford Excursion for “just $80 more” than what I was paying (which I think was like $30). I said thank you, but no, that is fine. She then offered it to me for $50 saying that she figured I may want something much more comfortable and roomier. I again turned it down and then we got to her final offer of just $30 for the day.

I will say I was tempted at this point since it certainly was a much nicer vehicle than what I was supposed to get, but, again, it was just me and I didn’t need something that big. Also, I was toying with the idea of doing a 7 hour drive that day and I really didn’t want a gas hog so I turned her down again. I told her, “thanks, but I’ll just take the vehicle I reserved.”

And this is where the scam part comes in – she said, “ok, but we don’t have any vehicles in that class available. In fact, the only vehicle we have left in our lot is the Ford Excursion.

That’s right, she tried to get me to pay $80 more for something that she was going to have to give me for free at the end anyway!

That was not the only time this has happened. It has happened at least another half dozen times at various agencies around the world (that specific instance was in North Dakota).

How to Avoid that Scam

So, how do you avoid it? This is what I do. When they offer me some upgrade, I will tell them, no thanks, I think I will just stick with what I have. Now, if I am thinking about possibly upgrading, I just wait.

As we go through the process, eventually the agent will grab the keys for the car I am renting. At that point, I know they do have my selected car in stock so I may revisit the upgrade offer if I am genuinely interested in upgrading. When I see the keys and kind of car they are ready to give me, I know that the upgrade offer was legit and they weren’t just trying to push an upgrade on me – at cost – that I would get for free anyway.

Has this ever happened to you? How much did they try to get you to pay?

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About the author


Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.


  • It’s not a scam when you receive exactly what you have agreed to buy.

    That said there is no reason to ever pay more than what you reserved. Just firmly say “no thanks I’m in a hurry”.

    Perosnally I never have this problem as my car is preassigned in the Avis or Hertz app (though I no longer use the latter because I don’t want to be wrongfully arrested.

  • Yup – this is the reason I always rent the cheapest car. There’s no point in renting something bigger (unless of course you actually need a bigger car) since I’ve found most times they just end up giving you an “upgrade” like you pointed out

  • Experienced this multiple times at Fox Rental in DEN. Reserved vehicle class “A.” Requested a vehicle in class “A” with 4wd/awd (which I know is not guaranteed). Told there are none on the lot but offered an upgrade to vehicle class “B” to get 4wd. Right beside me is someone who reserved vehicle class “C” being offered an upgrade to vehicle class “A” for a 4wd vehicle, which I was just told was not available.