What Happens If You Return Your Car Rental Early (Or Even Late)?

There are usually two pairs of important information that you should know when renting a car. The first one is the pick-up date and location, and the second one is the return date and drop-off location. These dates and locations are part of the terms of your contract or agreement with the rental company. As a legal instrument, this contract binds you to pick up and return the rental at the appointed dates and locations. This isn't typically a problem when plans push through.

But, if there's one thing about life that we can depend upon, it's life's ability to change our well-laid-out plans in an instant. When this happens for whatever reason, you might need to cut short or extend your use of the car rental. However, when the rental terms aren't followed, you'll basically be breaching your agreement with the rental company and this action comes with consequences. These consequences vary between different companies, so always read and understand the fine print. Ask questions if you have to, but you should know what happens when you return your rental early or late. We'll take a look at what you would typically expect to happen when you return your rental before or after the designated date.

Returning your rental early

Again, if your trip was cut short and you need to return your car rental before heading home, you're breaching the contract. Depending on the company's refund policies, you may or may not get your money back or get charged an early return fee. Typically, if you prepaid your rental, you shouldn't expect any refunds, but this largely depends on the method you used to pay for your rental, per Motor & Wheels.

If you didn't prepay your car rental, the company might not use the rate stipulated in your initial contract and instead give you a new price based on a new rate, which may be higher than the original rate. Your base price usually changes when you were able to avail of a special or discounted pricing; if you had a weekly or monthly setup; and if you had to drop off the vehicle beyond or outside of the company's office hours.

And, if you return the car more than a day before the agreed-upon time, the company might impose an early return fee for non-prepaid rentals. In addition, you might also have to pay a contract modification fee. You have a higher chance of avoiding these fees if you inform the rental company as soon as your plans change. This isn't a guarantee, though, but as it will give them more time to adjust their schedule, they might be more lenient with you.

Returning your rental late

If you're running late returning your car rental — say you arrived at the drop-off location less than 30 minutes late — you might not need to pay a late return fee. This is because rental companies typically implement a grace period of 29 minutes, according to Rentalcars.com (check the fine print to be sure). You may then be charged an hourly late fee and beyond that, you'll have to pay for an additional day that most likely will be based on a different (possibly higher) rate.

Another fee you need to take note of includes a contract modification fee (also known as a change fee or last-minute fee) — a charge for basically having the rental company change the contract. An out-of-hours fee might also be imposed if you had to drop off your rental outside of company office hours. And, if you rented the vehicle from one of the airport car rental companies, you might also have to pay airport taxes as well. Again, the best way to avoid these fees is to inform the car rental company that you'll be running late so they can change the contract and be more accommodating to you.