The Fee Detective rarely agrees with the actions taken by governments, airport authorities or rental car companies. Most cases explored in this series are truly nothing but revenue grabs. Then we see stories such as a fee dispute at the Geneva Airport recently featured by U.K. tabloid The Sun, where customers knowingly returned rental cars to the wrong location and were then appalled when incurring large fees. That's right, the story starts when customers return vehicles to the wrong location, which also happens to be in the wrong country. And the fee is hefty at £375 for these U.K.-based tourists.
Geneva's Airport is entirely located within Switzerland but the northwest border of the airport is shared with France, a clear reason it's great to have the Schengen Zone with no passports required for border crossings! The airport even helpfully puts out a travel resource that describes the "travel situation" in great detail, with six available downloads translated into multiple languages. One of the main access points to France is via a tunnel that runs under Geneva's runways and is closed between 12:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. every day.
Hertz -- like other major rental car companies -- has Geneva Airport locations on both the France and Switzerland sides. If you request a quote from AutoSlash, the quote is always for the Swiss locations. Why? The "French sector" of the airport is only for flights arriving from France while the Swiss sector serves flights arriving from the remainder of the world. And the two different countries have different sets of laws, which are reflected in the pricing:
- Driving in Switzerland on first- and second-class motorways requires paying a 40 CHF vignette tax.
- Driving in France requires a hefty listing of required safety items, including a breathalyzer kit.
Two different sites, two different locations, and two different sets of laws. So common sense (sporadically uncommon) dictates:
- If one picks up a car in Switzerland, one would want to return the car to Switzerland (unless a one-way rental was confirmed in advance) and
- If one picks up a car in France, one would want to return the car to France (unless a one-way rental was confirmed in advance).
The terms and conditions of Hertz rentals at Geneva Airport (and elsewhere in the world) remind renters that they are responsible for returning the vehicle to the *return location* listed on the rental car contract or an additional fee could result. In the "news story" posted by The Sun, the renter picked up the car in France and -- time-compressed at the end of the trip -- couldn't figure out how to get back to France and returned the car in Switzerland instead. And The Sun -- happy to sensationalize the story -- focuses on the £375 fee for a trip that's "only 5.8 kilometers".
Swiss time was running out ... because the renter was supposed to be in France!
Who is to blame?
The Fee Detective rarely says the rental car company is right but we're also willing to assign "at-fault" as a percentage, just like law enforcement in most states after a car accident.
We assign the renter -- whom The Sun kept anonymous -- 90% responsibility in this case; if one's so time-compressed when heading for a flight that one forgets the first step to finding a rental car location on the other side of the airport in France is to follow one of the roads to France (with multiple possibilities around the airport), then the rental car company can't help too much. It's hard (but apparently not impossible) to complain that the person checking in the vehicle doesn't know what the fee might be for returning the vehicle in the wrong country; the person at the rental car return at the airport usually doesn't have any insight into rental contracts (hence the person's on rental car return duty and not at a counter)!
Hertz gets off light with just 10% responsibility. Despite the two different sets of laws that have to be navigated to switch the vehicle from Switzerland back to France (where it should have been returned by the renter), a £375 fee is a bit excessive. Yet Hertz decided to correct the renter's error when contacted by The Sun because a staff member in the return line didn't know the fee for the renter's breaking of the rental contract. Hertz was right but should simply focus on getting the two sites to lower the fee. Yes, we just stood up for the rental car company in a fee dispute!
Returning a rental car to the airport? Arrive early. Not the 5-4-3-2-1 process recently recommended by the Minneapolis Airport for the Super Bowl but enough time to leisurely drop off the vehicle. And if you're returning a car near an international border, first ensure that you're in the proper country! It's impossible to find a French rental car company when located in Switzerland or a Niagara Falls, New York location while in Niagara Falls, Canada!