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I have been charged a "vehicle cleaning fee" for a rental car return. The rental car office "believes the car requires more cleaning than usual". I have frequently returned cars much more dirty than this. Are there any norms for how much cleaning is "usual" or is this just a fee that the office may apply more or less at will where the customer has little recourse to challenge? I've returned much dirtier cars without a cleaning fee in the past.

The car return itself was by drop off, and I only found out about the reason for the extra charge several weeks later with the help of a customer service representative at booking.com (the rental car office did not inform me directly).

There was dirt on the outside due to driving on dirt roads, and dirt/sand/grit on the inside coming from shoes. The car was certainly not clean, but I have always returned rental cars in such a state and never run into problems. We did not smoke as we are non-smokers (for smoking I would expect a much larger fee than the €30+tax+meta-fees we were charged).

In case it matters, this was a "Keddy by Europcar" rental in Granada, Spain, booked through booking.com.

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  • Which kind of dirt? Smoking and internal dirt? Unrecognizable colour on outside is "normal". Do you have a photo (e.g. to attach to the question)? [it is good to make few photos at rental return. – Giacomo Catenazzi Jan 28 '20 at 14:50
  • This is a good "best practices" question. Although individual rental car companies might have idiosyncratic policies, what are the general rules of what constitutes clean? Is vacuuming and running the car through a car wash usually sufficient? Should the car receive a full detailing job? – Robert Columbia Jan 28 '20 at 14:51
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    Does the rental document — the contract between you and company — define the condition in which the car must be returned? Interestingly enough, we're on vacation now in rural Baja California South, Mexico, and our car rental contract (in English, from the rental firm in Los Cabos, but not a major player), says absolutely nothing about the condition of the vehicle upon return. I'm a retired attorney, and I'd expect that a reasonably-drafted car rental contract would contain such a provision. – DavidSupportsMonica Jan 28 '20 at 15:18
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    @RobertColumbia I once rented a brand new white convertible (Hertz?) in the US and accidentally drove down a country road that had just been tarred that same day. I got black tar on both sides of the car. When I called to ask what I should do about it the rental manager didn't seem to care (although the workers appreciated my concern). I ran it through a car wash a couple of times and that didn't clean it, and when I returned the car I wasn't charged a cleaning fee. Yes this is anecdotal, but based on that experience I don't believe there is a consensus on what "clean" is. – Peter M Jan 28 '20 at 17:24
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    @AndrewGrimm The complication here was that the car rental office was 500 metre away from the parking garage where I returned the car; near the office, it wasn't even possible to stop, let alone park. Therefore all returns were with key drop, even when returning during opening hours. – gerrit Jan 29 '20 at 8:38
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In general, you don't have to return a car "clean" - they expect they'll have to do a normal wash and vacuum job.

The point where you normally would get charged a cleaning fee is if a normal wash and clean like you'd expect from your corner car wash is not sufficient to clean the car. In your case it's not clear what that was, but probably if they had to shampoo the carpet or something more out of the ordinary. The comment example about tar on the exterior is something that would count as well - a normal wash doesn't get it off, so they have extra work to do.

In practice that's a button that gets pressed if:

  1. They are sketchy and just looking to make extra money off someone (in which case any dirt will do to prove "it was dirty"). It happens, but rarely.

  2. The worker prepping the car had to go out of their way (incurring extra effort and/or expense) to get it to the next patron. That's much more common.

In the end any contractual clause is going to be up for interpretation, so I wouldn't expect a very detailed description of "what's OK" - plus they have zero incentive to not have it be "it's OK if we say it's OK." So push back on charges from normal dirt, but be understanding if you did incur a problem for them. Ask, "if this were my car, would it be clean after a trip to the car wash (without paying for extra services)? If yes, then it should be fine; if no, then it's your responsibility.

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This heavily depends on the country and the rental agency.

Major agencies in the US care very little about dirt that is removable, and in hundreds of rentals I have never been asked to pay anything (and some of those cars went two weeks through offroad and mud...).
The cheaper and shadier a rental company gets, the higher is your chance to get milked for some extra money, and returning a car even slightly dirty is an easy reason to claim - after all, they already cleaned it when you get a chance to disagree, and you are typically already far away.

In Europe, rental car companies are generally much more picky - they try to make you pay for every little dent, scratch, and fly speck (even the ones the previous renter already paid for), and anything more than some dust can result in "extra cleaning needs". Again, the chance for pickyness (and shadyness) increases with cheaper agencies.

Either way, you'll hardly find a clear definition beyond 'more than the usual usage dirt'. If you want to avoid that they milk you, you can ask them when returning the car, take some photos on their site, and have them confirm that it is clean enough. If they say it needs extra cleaning, drive it back out and clean it yourself (even if you pay for that service, you'll probably save money). But it doesn't guarantee that they don't charge you anyway, just because they can.

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