The major rental car companies in the United States and Canada run smoke-free rental car fleets. In fact, smoking in a rental vehicle is the single most common reason renters get stuck paying cleaning fees for rental cars.
A small subset of renters insist on smoking in rental cars anyway, and the consequences are not pretty.
Cleaning Fee for Smoking in a Rental Car
If the rental car company discovers that you or another passenger smoked in a rental vehicle, expect to get hit with a very hefty cleaning fee. Non-smokers often will not accept a rental car that smells like smoke, so companies have to go to great lengths to get smoky odors out of a car. De-smoking requires taking a vehicle out of service for up to 24 hours so it can be cleaned with a natural deodorizer and an oxidation process.
If you break the rules and smoke in the car, the amount of the penalty depends on the rental car company but it is always substantial. For example, Budget assesses a cleaning fee of up to $250. Hertz and Dollar impose a penalty of $400.
How Do Rental Car Companies Know if You Smoke
When you return the vehicle, an agent will inspect the vehicle. If an agent witnesses you or a passenger smoking, or if there is physical evidence of smoking (ashes or butts in the vehicle, cigarette burns, etc.) or the scent of tobacco, you will likely receive a bill a week or more after returning the car.
How to Get the Smell of Smoke Out of a Rental Car
Consider paying for a professional cleaning before returning the car. The rental car company will not look the other way if you return the car with tobacco odors. Many car washes offer interior cleaning services for under $30, often including a choice of deodorizing scent. Consider ponying up for this service, as the cost is much less than what the rental car company would charge for de-odorizing.
How to Fight a Cleaning Fee for a Rental Car
If you pick up a rental car that smells like smoke, it's important not to accept it and drive away. When you return the car, if the agent detects the smell of tobacco, you can be on the hook for the cleaning fee.
Anytime you pick up a rental car, it's a smart idea to take a few precautions so that you can protect yourself from false claims when you return the car.
- If you smell tobacco or see evidence of smoking, refuse the vehicle and ask for a replacement.
- When you pick up your car, take a few minutes to look over the car before driving away. Take pictures of every dent, ding, and scratch on the vehicle's exterior and interior. Take photos of the wheels and the windshield. Don't believe the rental agent when he tells you that small dents or scratches "an inch or smaller" don't count. You could be held accountable for those dents later on. Unless the car is brand new, there will likely be some damage you'll want to capture. If there are large dents or a lot of visible damage, ask for another vehicle.
- Before you drive away, document all scratches and dents on a form where you can note the condition of the vehicle. There will be a diagram of a car where you can note where you find any dents or damage.
- When you return the car, take another round of photos of the car's exterior and interior. Cover the same ground as you did when you picked up the car and pay attention to the windshield. Ideally, the before and after photos will be virtually identical.
- Ask the car rental agent to walk around the car with you. Ask the employee to sign off on the inspection form, confirming that the car was returned in the same shape as when you picked it up.