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How To Return A Rental Car: All Questions Answered

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This post details the simple steps you need to follow when returning a rental car. These tips and advice will help you save time and avoid any unexpected charges. We will first answer some common questions and then explain step-by-step how to return a rental car.

This guide will also be able to assist you with any questions you have regarding airport car rental returns. There are some key points that apply in any situation! If you found this guide useful you might also like our step-by-step guide on the cheapest way to rent a car.

When I’m renting a car I usually use the Rental Cars platform to compare prices prior to booking!

Let’s start by answering some common questions…

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How Long Does It Take To Return A Rental Car?

If you interact with an agent of the company then returning a rental car usually takes around 10 minutes. This allows time for the agent to inspect the vehicle and complete a rental car return form. You will provide the agent with the keys and then continue your journey. If you are using a key drop service, then it only takes 2 minutes to return the vehicle.

Can Someone Else Return My Rental Car?

Someone else can return your rental car if they are a named driver on your rental agreement document. If this is not the case, then you must contact the rental company and request an amendment to the agreement. This could incur an administration fee so only do so if necessary. This is required in order for the other person to be insured on the vehicle.

Should I Clean My Rental Car Before Returning It?

You do not need to clean the exterior of your rental car before returning it. Companies will have cleaning facilities that they use to prepare the vehicle for the next customer. It’s important to clean the interior of the car as failure to do so may incur a valeting or cleaning fee. Common causes of incurring a charge are sand, upholstery stains, and smoking.

How To Return A Rental Car Step-By-Step

A black SUV rental car parked on the side of the road
My rental car during a recent road trip in Spain

Here is the step-by-step guide on how to return a rental car. You can also use these tips if you are dropping off the rental car at the airport.

Confirm the drop-off location and plan your route

Usually, you will drop off your rental car at the same place you picked it up from. Take some time to plan the route you will take on the final day of your rental and establish an appropriate departure time.

Also, take into account potential traffic conditions and the need to stop at a gas station before drop off.

Clean the interior of the car

On the final day of your rental, ensure you remove any rubbish from the car interior. The car needs to be returned in a reasonable state of cleanliness. If there is significant material within the car you will need to give it a vacuum before dropping it off. You will not be expected to wash the car exterior, as this will be done by the rental company.

Pack all of your belongings into your luggage

It’s a good idea to pack your bags fully on the final day or the night before. This removes the stress of trying to fit everything in at the drop-off location on short notice. When you depart for the airport or your drop-off location, it’s nice to have a clean car interior.

Put all of the key items in a backpack so that you can easily check that you haven’t forgotten anything. This takes the pressure off when dropping the car off.

Refuel the car before dropping it off

Most rental policies involve a full-to-full agreement. This means you are given the car with a full tank and must fill the tank up before returning it. In order to avoid overpaying for gas, look to fill the tank at a cheap gas station nearby to the drop-off location. Avoid going to airport gas stations. Use an app like Gas Buddy to find cheap stations nearby.

Look for signage on your approach to the drop-off location

Often times using an app such as Google Maps or Waze will be sufficient to guide you directly to the correct location. You may find it easy if you are dropping off at the same place you picked up from.

If you are unsure of the location, look for signage while nearby. If you are dropping off at a new location we suggest allocating an extra 15 minutes into your plan to account for struggling to find it.

Arrive at the drop-off location and look for an agent

When you arrive at the drop-off location look for a representative of the rental car company. They will usually do an inspection of the vehicle. Ask for a copy of the inspection sheet with a signature to prove that you have returned the rental car in the correct condition.

This is the key evidence you need in case of any unexpected charges or difficulty retrieving your deposit.

If there is no agent then look for a key drop box

Many rental car companies have a key drop box to allow you to leave the rental vehicle without interacting with an agent. These are usually located near the office of the company.

Before dropping the keys in the box, make sure you have fully checked that you have all your belongings from the car and that it is locked.

Take photos of the car

When you drop off the car, take some photos of the vehicle. This is to make sure that you aren’t accused of causing any damage to the car which you didn’t do. Take photos that show the location of the car with background reference points to prove it is at the drop-off location.

As an additional step, you can email these photos to yourself to create a record. Remember to take a photo of the gas gauge to show that you returned the car with a full tank.

Check your account statement in the future

It’s important to check your credit card statement in the future to make sure there are no unexpected charges on there. You will likely have paid a deposit when renting the vehicle so it’s key to check that they have not added charges you weren’t aware of.

If you are thinking of renting a car for a road trip we have a full post on that!

Returning A Rental Car To The Airport

airport rental car return

When you are looking to return a rental car at the airport there are a few additional things to consider. Gas prices are often more expensive near the airport, so look to fill up around 10-15 miles away to get a cheaper price. Make sure you know where the drop-off location is in advance.

If the rental car is dirty or there is any damage, make sure you arrive much earlier than usual. You do not want to be under pressure to catch your flight if you are likely to require an extended conversation with the company agent.

Off-Site Rental Car Return

Many rental car companies will have a location that is a short distance away from the terminal. You should use Google Maps to check the location of the drop-off point relative to the terminal you are departing from.

Many companies operate a free shuttle bus from the drop-off location to the airport terminal, but you should allocate at least 30 minutes for this. If you want to arrive at the terminal 2 hours before your flight, this means you need to arrive at the drop-off location 2 hours and 40 minutes prior to your flight departure time. This allows for 10 minutes to drop the vehicle off before waiting for the shuttle bus.

On-Site Rental Car Return

In some circumstances, the rental car provider will be operating out of the terminal itself. There may be an on-site car park where the exchange and drop-off take place. If this is the case, you can arrive 2 hours and 10 minutes prior to your flight departure.

Returning A Rental Car FAQs

Can I return my rental car dirty?

You can return a rental car with a dirty exterior. If the interior of your rental car is considered too dirty, then you may be charged a cleaning fee by the rental provider. Common reasons for a valeting fee to be charged include upholstery stains, sand in the vehicle, or smoking inside the car. The fees can be as high as $400 in the US. Avoid eating and drinking inside the vehicle to keep it as clean as possible.

Do you have to vacuum a rental car before returning it?

You should vacuum a rental car before returning it if there is considerable material in the interior, especially on the upholstery. Rental car companies can apply a discretionary cleaning fee if the car is considered too dirty. If you have been eating and drinking, or there is sand in the car, you should definitely consider cleaning.

How do you return a rental car when the office is closed?

If you are looking to return your rental car when the office is closed check with the rental provider to see if there is a key-drop service. This will involve leaving the rental car at a specific location and then dropping the keys into a box. Always take photos of the condition of the vehicle before leaving.

Do I have to return my rental car with a full tank?

Car rental companies usually operate a policy requiring you to return your rental car with a full tank of gas. Check the fuel policy on your rental agreement to confirm that it is a full-to-full arrangement. Companies will always check the fuel level of the car upon its return so remember to fill up the tank in advance to avoid a charge.

What happens if you return a rental car without gas?

Check your rental car agreement to confirm the fuel policy in place. Most companies operate a full-to-full policy that requires you to return the rental car with a full tank of gas. If you choose to return the car without gas there will be a charge from the company which is often above the local pump price. The best solution is to always return the car with the same amount of gas as when you received it.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a qualifying purchase, but this is at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Road Trip Expert.

Image of Iain The Founder Of The Road Trip Expert

Iain Salter

Founder & Editor of The Road Trip Expert

Iain founded The Road Trip Expert in 2019 and continues to manage the website to this day. The inspiration to start the blog came during an extensive road trip around Europe with two friends that spanned several months and involved over 25,000km of driving. He first developed a passion for backpacking in 2014 and has had the pleasure of exploring over 60 countries.