Car Rental and Car Hire Fuel Policies Explained


The different fuel policies offered by car rental and car hire companies can be very confusing. In this article I will explain the various options.

The golden piece of advice here is to know exactly what your options are before you book. At the very least, know what your obligations are before you drive away to save yourself additional expense and aggravation later.

OPTION 1: Full to Full

This is by far the most common default policy used worldwide and in my opinion, it also the easiest to understand and fairest for the customer. It is very simple. When you pick up your car it is full of fuel and it is your responsibility to return it full at the end of the rental.


  • If you do not return it full, you will be charged for the missing fuel possibly at a substantially inflated price and often in addition to a “service charge”.
  • We all know that a car shows that it is full even after quite a few miles or kilometers have been driven. Strangely enough so do the car rental companies. It’s not worth trying to fool them over a couple of Dollars, Pounds or Euro worth of fuel – they will dip the tank to check and not rely on what the dashboard fuel gauge displays.


  • When you fill the car you should do it as close to your return time as possible, preferably just before you return the car.
  • Get a receipt for the fuel and keep it somewhere safe for 2-3 months after returning the car.
  • Make sure that you get a return receipt from the rental company and that it notes that the car was returned full of fuel (and damage free but that’s a separate issue).
  • Do all of this and even if the company charges your credit card for fuel after your rental, you will have proof with the return receipt and the receipt from the fuel purchase (which should show the time and date that you purchased the fuel) that any late charges are unfounded.

OPTION 2: Full to Empty as the default policy

This is becoming more and more common as it is a way for rental companies to generate additional revenue outside of the up-front rental price that is used to grab your attention and your booking initially.

Under this policy, the car is full when you pick it up and you have to pay up front for the full value of the tank right down to the last drop. You then need to return the car empty (or as close to it as you can get).

Renter Beware - Full to Empty is a money trap!


  • There are no refunds for unused fuel under this policy. Anything left in the tank you are effectively donating to the car hire company even if you unwittingly fill the car up just before you return it.
  • Some companies will charge you at a per liter/per gallon rate for premium or high octane fuel even though it is unlikely that anything other than standard unleaded is required.
  • It is not uncommon for this policy to be hidden or not made completely clear during the booking process although some companies are improving their practices in this area.


  • It can be very important to know if this policy applies to your rental before you book. If you are only using a car for a limited time or distance and have no chance of using the entire tank, the effective price of your rental can be substantially increased as a result of this policy.
  • You will almost always have to pay for the fuel when you arrive to pick up the car. Even if you pre-paid for your rental, that price does not usually include the full tank that you will have to pay for before you drive away.
  • This policy is most commonly applied by lower cost car rental companies, particularly in Spain and Portugal but it is becoming more widespread – always check the fuel policy if one or a group of companies seem substantially cheaper than others. It’s often a tell-tale sign that revenue is being made up somewhere else.
  • Companies may offer Full to Full as an alternative option for an additional charge. Centauro Car Rental in Spain for example operate a Full to Empty policy by default however you can pay an additional €30 when making your booking which allows you to return the vehicle full (it appears that you still have to pay for the tank when you pick up the car however assuming you return it full, you are then given a refund). The additional €30 also entitles you to use Express Check In when you arrive in this case.
  • Often international travelers coming to the US will have this policy applied by default by car rental companies. In some instances it will be included in the rental price that you pay when making the booking, often packaged with up to 3 additional drivers and sometimes GPS. It is generally made very clear what is included in packaged rates during the booking process in these cases.

OPTION 3: Full to Empty with refund for unused fuel

As a result of relentless pressure from upset clients and the press particularly in Europe, a number of car rental companies have modified option 2 to fit this newer model. It was initiated by Goldcar Car Rental in Spain, Portugal and Italy and other companies are beginning to following suit.

Under this policy again you are charged for a full tank of fuel when you arrive to pick up the car. The difference is that when you return the car, you will be refunded to the nearest 1/8th of a tank for the fuel remaining in the tank.


  • The companies that we have researched who are using this policy are charging a mandatory “service fee” or “convenience charge” for the service which in essence can add anything from around £12/€15/$20 to £34/€42/$58 to the rental price depending on the location, season and type of vehicle being rented.
  • You may also find that fuel charges are at the premium unleaded price as outlined under point 2 or at an average of prices in a given region (this will be outlined in the rental agreement) so you will not necessarily pay a huge premium but you will certainly pay more than the lowest available at gas stations.


  • Do your research before you book. Find out what the service charge is for the period that you are renting and the car type that you need and add it to the price you are quoted for the rental to give you a true estimate of the price of renting the car.
  • If you find that the price per liter/gallon charged by the rental company is substantially higher than you can get at a petrol station, refuel the car before you return it and get a receipt from both the petrol station and the rental company on return showing that the car was returned completely full. This means that you will be refunded in full for the fuel however the service charge remains non-refundable.
  • Companies may offer Full to Full as an alternative option for an additional charge. Goldcar in Spain, Portugal and Italy for example provide an option whereby you can pay an additional up front charge (which increases the rental price but this is clear from the outset) which provides a no strings attached Full to Full fuel policy as outlined in number 1 above as well as a free additional driver for the duration of your rental. This option negates the service charge. This may actually save you money if you require an additional driver but some calculations are required. You need to add together the value of the mandatory service charge for your vehicle under the full to empty fuel policy and the cost of an additional driver for your rental period. Sometimes the additional up front fee for the “Classic” fuel policy is less than the service charge plus additional driver charge that you would have to pay otherwise.


OPTION 4: Full to Empty as an option on pick up

A large number of car rental companies around the world offer this option when you arrive to pick up the car. This usually applies if Full to Full as outlined in number 1 above is the default standard option that applies to all customers.

Under this option, you can elect to pre pay for a full tank and return the car empty but you have to choose and pay for this option when you pick up the car, it is not automatic.


  • As with number 2 above, if you select this option there are no refunds for unused fuel so be sure to have the car running on fumes when you return it to get the most value for your money.


  • Some companies actually offer fuel under this option at a rate 5/10% lower than the price that you would pay at the pump since they know that they will get at least some fuel left in the car that you have paid for.
  • Therefore if you are sure that you can get the car back pretty much empty, you can save a bit of money on the tank of fuel that you used under this option.
  • It can also be very convenient not to have to worry about finding somewhere to fill the car up just before you return it. Depending on your return location and the time of day, gas stations may be hard to find, hard to get into or far away from the return location. No one likes feeling pressed for time when there is a flight to catch and you can certainly shave 20 minutes off your day by not having to worry about refueling the rental car.
  • If you do unwittingly fill the car up before you return it, make sure you get a receipt. Some companies will reverse the charge for this option if you can prove that you returned the car full of fuel but this is by no means a guarantee.

Our Conclusion:

Fuel policies can be confusing are not always clearly outlined when you are making your initial booking, particularly if they add mandatory additional costs to the price that you are presented with to rent the car.

You have to do your research carefully and factor in service charges and non-refundable fuel policies when evaluating the true cost of renting a car. Options 2 and 3 above (which are not actually options, they are mandatory in the cases where they are used) are a way to enable the car rental company to show you a lower up front price to entice you to book – it looks like a great deal, way cheaper than other options – until you factor in the additional and unavoidable mandatory charges resulting from the fuel policy in use.


To get the best deal or at the very least, to do a fair comparison between companies and their offers, you need to ask yourself one or more (perhaps even all) of the following questions:

  1. What is the default fuel policy of the company I am looking at renting with?
  2. What type of car do I need to rent (service charges are higher for large cars and minivans as is the price of filling a tank)?
  3. Do I need to sign on an additional driver and how much will this cost for the number of days that I will be renting?
  4. How many miles/km will I be driving (will I even use a full tank)?
  5. What is the mandatory service charge (if any) for the car type that I need to rent?
  6. Is unused fuel refundable?
  7. How is the price of fuel calculated by the car rental company?
  8. What is the convenience of not having to refuel the car before returning it worth to me?

I wish that I could tell you that it was easy, that the price you are quoted by every car hire company up front is the full price that the rental will cost you (excluding of course any optional extras that you may need, optional being the operative word here).

It’s not always the case however and many people fall for the low price illusion. Your options are very limited once you arrive at your destination, all cars may be sold out with all companies or you may have pre-paid for the rental or paid a deposit that is not refundable. It’s also well known that a “walk up” customer often pays a higher price than on who has booked in advance so switching companies when you arrive might be a costly exercise.

Why can’t everyone just be open and up front and tell you the full price of renting a car including all mandatory charges, taxes and fees to make comparisons between companies fair and easy for the customer? We don’t know. We wish it was this way. But it’s not. For now, the best that we can do is to let you know what your options are and what to look out for.

The final piece of advice – even though it’s no fun, you have to read the fine print before you click on the BOOK NOW button. Regardless of what price you see beside that shiny button, when it comes to renting a car there are a number of other factors that can have a meaningful effect on the final price you pay.


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