The Ten Scariest Rental Car Horror Stories

Murphy's Law of rental cars states, "anything that can go wrong with your holiday hire car, will go wrong." These ten horror stories from Jalopnik readers only prove the maxim.


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Photo Credit: Roger Penguino


10.) Once you're on your third rental car, you'll get arrested

Suggested By: autojim


What happened: Renting a car should be a relaxing experience, it should not involve two rental cars in a row breaking down. It should definitely not involve one of those cars getting towed by surprise to a small town impound yard, as it did for reader autojim, who concluded his vacation by nearly getting a warrant put out for his arrest.

Back in the days when I was designing/testing cooling systems for a living, I rented a 2000 Taurus from Hertz in Phoenix to use as a support vehicle for a 3-week test trip. Drove it for 3 days, and then it developed a heinous misfire and a CEL, so I swapped it out for another 2000 Taurus the day before we were leaving the confines of the then-Chrysler proving grounds for the road portion of the trip.

Car #2 made it 5 days without a hitch. Then, while we were driving from San Diego on I-8, bound for Laughlin, Nevada, with 4 people & luggage aboard, it started losing power. Full throttle was good for about 25 mph on uphill, 35 on downhill. It is acting like the catalytic converter is completely clogged up. Coasted in to the thriving metropolis of Pine Valley, California, population: not many. No cell coverage. Find a place with a pay phone, call Hertz toll-free number. Nearest office is in El Cajon, toll-free operator can't patch me through. Get a mess of quarters, call them, ask them to call pay phone back. They do. After some discussion (full credit here to the Hertz guys in El Cajon, who were polite as could be), they agree to come get us (me: "Make sure whatever you bring has room for 4 adults + luggage, as I'm not leaving anyone or anything behind." Them: "[long pause] Oh. I'll have to get a minivan, then." "Thank you."). Hour and a half later, they arrive, pick us up, note location of car at the Frosty Burger, and drive us the hour back to El Cajon. Much paperwork later, we have Car #3 and we're on our way.

Easy, right? Well, no, not really. Because when the Hertz tow truck went back to Pine Valley to get the car, it wasn't at the Frosty Burger. Which resulted in it being reported stolen. While it was theoretically still in my custody. Frantic phone messages waiting for me once I got into cell phone coverage again 2 days later (Las Vegas). They're looking to hang the cost of the car on me, plus Car #3 isn't shown on my account and *it* is on the verge of being reported stolen as well. Got *THAT* sorted out in a hurry. I suggested they talk to the owner/manager of the Frosty Burger in Pine Valley. Calls were made, and, indeed the "abandoned car" was towed to a local gas station/impound yard. Across the street from the Frosty Burger. Visible from where it was parked. Owned by the brother of the Frosty Burger's owner. Pine Valley isn't really that big of a town.

I was told the good news was that I'd called back before they'd issued a warrant for my arrest. Yeah, no kidding.


Photo Credit: Ford


9.) First flooded, then stolen

Suggested By: T6 EVO


What happened: It's a shame if you take your dad out to a Dallas Mavericks game, only to be stuck in torrential rain and get your rental flooded up to your calves. When you have to make an unplanned stop at a different hotel and your car is inexplicably reported stolen, however, that's a really shitty vacation.

Don't even know where you begin... My dad lives abroad and is an ex basketball player and still a fan. Loves the game, not just any team. I used to be that way... Anyhow, in March 2006. When my dad was on the plane, I already made plans to drive him down to Dallas to see the Dallas Maverick's play and thought he would get a kick out of it.

Rented a Dodge Intrepid and we started driving down from the airport (xna) to Dallas. Weather was ok and as we started getting closer to Dallas the rain picked quite up and within 30 minutes, Dallas got HAMMERED with raid and the massive flood started while we were on the road trying to go to our hotel in downtown Dallas. The ramps were blocked off by the Dallas PD and wouldn't let anyone off. I called up the hotel and they literally told me that we would need a boat to get there... We took an exit that wasn't ours because I knew where the hotel was so I would detour us to it but little did I know is that I had water up to my calf inside the car. We battled the water and decided to seek the high grounds and we did. We parked at another hotel, picked up some Styrofoam cups and emptied out the water inside the cabin. The car was running like a champ, then we decided to head back home but while eating a restaurant we realized there is a holiday inn express and decided to crash there.

The next morning, I get a call from our rental company asking if I knew where our car was. I had to have her repeat it a few times as I didn't know she was saying what I think she was saying... I looked out the window and the car was there, however... there was an APB on the car as it was reported STOLEN from MULTIPLE counties and cops were looking for it... After waiting 8 hours for a wrecker to tow the car (rental company sent it to get it back) and another 4 hours of waiting for a new rental we finally did drive back home and made it safe and sound without drowning or getting arrested with grand theft auto...

I wish I had gotten the VIN of that intrepid so I could just buy it and made my storm chases car for shits and giggles as it seemed to be the honey badger of cars!


Photo Credit: Dodge


8.) Pay for a covered accident, please

Suggested By: ex.saint


What happened: Every time you rent a car, you're faced with the same dilemma: do I get the insurance and admit I'm a horrible driver, bound to wreck this car in some way, or is this insurance a total rip off that I, Mario Andretti, don't need? Reader ex.saint did get the insurance, but when he slid on ice into a ditch, his rental company tried to screw him into paying for repairs anyway.

When I was 23 I started renting cars - I was only able to rent from Discount because I did not have my own car and therefore did not carry my own insurance. They were the only rental company in my city (save Airport locations, which is not feasible to get to) that would rent to someone under 25 that did not have their own insurance. Discount's insurance covers most things so long as you're not intoxicated.

I rented about once a month for over two years before this occasion. I'd already turned 25 at the time, but Discount had always been "good enough" and they did have a good rewards plan at the time so I continued to rent from them. Also relevant, I live in Ontario.

I was given a Mazda 3 (2009/10) to drive to my grandmother's funeral for 3 days (Mon-Wed) in February. The Monday was above freezing so the roads were slushy. However, I waited until the evening to make start my trip and by then the roads had turned to ice. About halfway through my trip, I got caught in an ice rut and started to slide (I was doing about 70km/h in an 80 zone). Following skid school training, I turned the wheel about an eighth of the way into the skid and turned more into the skid as the rear end started sliding more. It never caught, and I wound up entering the snow bank on the right side of the road, going about 40km/h.

I tried backing up but was stuck (can't remember the term when the car is held up by something and the wheels spin freely). I called my own roadside assistance provider and was winched out. I also called the police (because I know how rental companies work).

The tow truck arrived about 30 minutes later and about 2 minutes before the officer did. He apologized for taking so long but said they were both at another scene about a km further up the road. I thought 30 minutes was still a good response time considering I was in the middle of nowhere.

After the tow truck pulls me out, we look underneath and the brush guard/engine under cover is in pieces. I grab whatever reasonable sized chunks of plastic I can and throw them in the trunk. It's also apparent that I've cut the hose for the windshield washer fluid.

I continue on my "merry" way and pull over about 6kms down the road. Something is rubbing when I turn left. I stop in a "blink and you miss it" town and crawl under the car for a better look. More plastic bits hanging low that are rubbing on the right front tire when I turn left. I also notice the tires are relatively worn. I'm not prepared to driver another 100kms like that, so I call my provider again for a tow.

Since my coverage is up to 200kms, I have it towed to the nearest Mazda dealer closest to where my personal destination was (about another 40kms north of where I was headed).

I call the Discount branch and tell them what happened. They tell me they'll have another car ready for me the next day at a local branch. I tell them not to worry about it on Tuesday, but I'll need on for Wednesday. OK.

On Wednesday I pick up an "older" Sonata. It's 2007/8. It's got bald tires and the windshield wipers are harmful that helpful. The shocks were also beyond shot. I point this all out to the Discount where I originally rented the 3 from on Wednesday. They apologize and say that was actually a 'decommissioned' vehicle and I'm likely the last rented to drive it. Whatever.

On Friday I get a phone call from Discount head office. They're sending me a bill for $2500 because the damage was caused by a "clearance issue" and the insurance I purchased from them was not valid. I politely explain that I lost control of the vehicle due to ice and the crappy all season tires on the car did nothing to help. This is irrelevant, apparently. I ask for a definition of "clearance issue" and am given "any incident in which the proper clearance was not allowed and has damaged the vehicle." I suggest that by that definition that ANY incident is a "clearance issue". The woman asks when I can send the money. I laughed at her and said I wasn't going to pay a cent as I had purchased their insurance and followed their policies and towed the vehicle using my own coverage (not Mazda's). She seems surprised. I reiterate that the coverage was bullshit and if they think I'm paying anything, they can serve me and I'll see them in court. I remind her that I've got a police report stating the incident was not my fault and that it was a weather related issue. She hangs up on me.

Dumbfounded, I start to wonder if I should contact a lawyer when she calls me back, asking if I had a copy of the police report. I said I did and that I had faxed one (as their policy stated) to their insurance company - Crawford - complete with all required information. She asks me to fax it to her, personally and that she'll follow up and call me back. I tell her I'll send it on the following Monday.

I didn't hear from Discount for six weeks so I called the head office representative (who I told to serve me) and get the voicemail, stating that she was no longer in the claims department. That's it - no forwarding information or anything.

Two weeks later someone else from Discount h/o called and left me a voicemail saying that my claim had been closed, insurance had paid for the repairs/loss of vehicle and the towing (cause they didn't want it repaired at a Mazda dealer?) but they still really wanted to talk to me.

I called back a few hours later and got said person's voicemail. I left a message for them to call me back and never got a response.

I've never - and will never - rent from them again.

Photo Credit: Mazda


7.) Never let a friend drive on Spring Break

Suggested By: _Gonzi


What happened: Never letting a friend behind the wheel of your rental car during Spring Break sounds like sagely advice, but after watching his friend immediately rear-end another car, reader _Gonzi thinks it's best never to rent in your name at all.

Spring Break 2010: Group of friends and I went down to Miami via rental car. In what would prove to be a major lapse in judgment I rented the car under my name and didn't get the insurance with it. One day one of my friends insists it's his turn to drive and promptly rear ends a woman in a Subaru. No damage to her car but the grille is damaged on my rental. 1 week later upon its return I inform the rental company of what happened. A few days later I receive a lifetime ban letter in the mail along with the bill to repair the car.

Lesson: Don't be the guy with the rental car under his name, Don't let your friends drive your rental car, and get the insurance.


Photo Credit: Mickey Johnson


6.) The road trip from Hell

Suggested By: TrampaOnline


What happened: Reader TrampaOnline's connecting flight from Miami to Tampa was 8-10 hours away, and it was only a six hour drive. He ended up driving his entire family home, barely staying awake, constantly backseat-driven, and he never got a thank you.

Plane broke down before leaving Dominican Republic to return me home with a connection from Miami airport. Due to the delayed departure and the thunderstorm over Miami, the connection to Tampa was delayed for something like 8 or 10 hours. My family was going to wait it out, but we only live ~6 hours drive from Miami, so I said screw that and decided to rent a microcompact.

The rental place offered me a free upgrade to a larger Buick Rendezvous that was allegedly more comfortable and I'd already been up for about 18 hours, so I agreed. My family then decided to go with me, resulting in a long drive with a lot of yelling because of backseat drivers (I'd driven to and from Miami twice already in the past, so I was a little familiar with the route, despite what my mother thought). Not only that, but the steering had a huge dead zone in the middle of it that made the Rendezvous very scary to drive compared to what I was used to. Eventually, everyone but me was asleep and I was just being kept awake by a massive can of Monster energy drink and fear of dying in a deathtrap Buick. We got pulled over around 3:30am, doing 82 in a 70, and luckily my step father was able to talk the officer out of the ticket, since he was a flight controller and did a lot of work with the local PD. I probably should have pulled over after that and just slept, but I wanted to get home, so I pressed on, barely able to stay awake.

We got into town around 6am and I never did get a thank you from any of them except my GF (now wife).


Photo Credit: Buick


5.) Cockroach car

Suggested By: UpIrons


What happened: It turns out if you eat in your car in Hawaii, it will become filled with cockroaches. Reader UpIrons learned this factoid when his rental car spewed forth a hoard of the bugs into their not-so-fresh rental.

The Mrs. and I rented a car in Hawaii. We were provided with a Dodge Stratus that was about a year old. We stay in condos with full kitchens to save a little money so right after picking up the car we went to the grocery store. Everything seemed fine.

Came out with cart full of groceries, loaded up the trunk and opened up the driver side door when lo and behold the car was literally infested with cockroaches crawling all over the dashboard, center console and front seats. My wife pretty much screamed and everyone in the parking lot looked at us. I think they quickly understood what was happening when I immediately opened up the trunk and put all the groceries back in the cart.
Called the rental car company and told them that they needed to come and get their car and bring me a new one because I was not going to drive it again.

3 people came to get us. They brought us a Chrysler 300 M (brand new at the time) to replace the Stratus and give us an upgrade for the "inconvenience". I felt so bad for those people who had to drive our car back to the airport rental car facility. They did say this happens all the time in Hawaii. I have been back many times and I agree that if the person before you does any eating in their car, you will likely have this happen to you as well. After 12 trips to Hawaii, my wife and I are now to the point where we don't care, but this was in 1999 and the first time we'd ever even seen cockroaches before.


Photo Credit: Dodge


4.) We never got the rental

Suggested By: RandomArt


What happened: Rental car companies are always extremely shady when it comes to telling you how much everything will cost. $20 a day for a week quickly becomes $200. In reader RandomArt's case, the rental car company slowly but surely bumped up the price of his rental. With little money in the bank, he and his wife never got the car they needed.

My horror story involves never actually ending up with the rental. My wife and I were going through a bit of financial hardship due to lack of work a while back. When the clutch went out in our car, we had to get a rental so my wife can get back and forth to work as she works out of public transit range. The combination of ordering the clutch and having to pay rent and some bills right away had gutted both of our accounts so my father in law had offered to pay for the rental.

Of course, it's never easy to get a straight answer from the rental agency as to how much you need to have in the account to pay for the deposit since neither of us have credit cards. The guy on the phone I talked to from Budget said that we only had to have enough to cover the cost of the car for however long we were going to rent it for, in our case about $160. So, with the money secured and a cheap car reserved, we set out into the summer heat (around 93 degrees plus stifling humidity) for our 3 mile trek to the closest Budget rental location. Keep in mind that my wife has a pretty low tolerance for heat, and we ended up having to stop rather often to rest because of it.

When we finally got to our destination, the guy (a different guy than who I talked to on the phone) tried to run our card without telling us how much it was being run for, only to have it decline. After it was declined he then told us that the deposit was $250. So, my wife and I left to go transfer some cash into her account so it would clear, which involved walking another half mile to the closest bank. We ended up pooling all of our money into her account to make it over $250 before heading back to Budget.

When we got back into the counter at budget, the same guy ran our card again and still declined it. When we asked him why, he said that we needed $255 and refused to run the card again. This set off an argument with me asserting that he had told us that we needed $250 earlier.

I ended up storming out a few minutes later with my wife in tears. The temperature had risen a bit for the long trudge home. The whole ordeal ended up making me 2 hours late for my shift at work, because it generally took me about an hour and a half to get to work on public transit.

It was my first and last experience with Budget.

Photo Credit:


3.) Actually working for Enterprise

Suggested By: Ari Kagura


What happened: Reader Ari Kagura actually worked at an Enterprise, only confirming your worst suspicions that if there's anything wrong with a car that doesn't need immediate repair, it goes unfixed.

My worse experience? Well ... would it hurt to say that I have worked for Enterprise Rent-a-Car for about 2 1/2 years before I eventually called it quits?

I don't know about the ERAC branches outside of North Carolina, but I do know that most of the cars I have driven for them have been pretty clunky, plain, and sometimes sloppy. And whenever we get some "cool" car come in, that car is often transferred to a branch much closer to the regional headquarters (in my case, Wilmington, NC). Also, 99.9% of the cars I've driven for ERAC has been an automatic. The only manual I have driven was a Chrysler Crossfire.

Whenever I feel an oddity or notice a service light on, I let my supervisor know of it. 80% of the time, nothing is done about it unless it's a Check Engine light (in which we take it to the dealership) or it's a Tire light (which we put air in the tire in hopes it goes away). All other lights ... well, my manager makes like it never happens. Of course he also complains why his ESQI (a quality control rating number) is subpar for that month ... gee, I wonder why?

Today, I stopped by the branch I used to work at today ... I don't even recognize anyone in that building, except for the 60+ year old driver in the back room whom I remember as "Mr. Benny". He's the only cool guy left. I guess my old manager either transferred to another branch or quit. The rest of the staff? Who knows ...


Photo Credit: M.V. Jantzen


2.) Down the mountains of Peru with no brakes

Suggested By: bud777


What happened: Much as our readers have suffered through some awful experiences with modern cars, nothing holds a candle to braving 15,000 feet of the Peruvian Andes in a clapped-out Ford in 1974. Everything that can go wrong with the car does, including a shattered driveshaft and no brakes whatsoever. Reader bud777 actually drove the whole way down to the lowlands with no brakes, which is something between a horror story, and a feat of automotive heroism.

I rented a car from Budget in Lima Peru in 1974. I told them I was going to drive it to Huaras in the Cordillera Blanca. The road was a one lane dirt road that goes from sea level to 15,000 feet. Two way traffic. No guardrails. My wife and I had another couple with us. Left Lima at 9 Am and spent most of the day trying to find the road up into the mountains. We had an English Ford, an nice enough car, but really too lightly built for this road. I screwed up and left the emergency brake half on. Burning out the rear brakes and breaking a fan belt when I over revved it. (no tach). A local garage had a fan belt that we could make work so we were back on the road.

The drive up the mountain was uneventful except for a flat tire and the accelerator pedal falling off from vibration. The pedal was easy enough to fix and the bald spare seemed to be holding. We got to Huaras about 3 AM and parked on the street. Next morning we came out to find that someone has sideswiped the car damaging all body panels on the passenger side. One door still worked, so we were still OK.

The other couple borrowed the car for a trip down the valley and drove it so hard over ruts that the hangers for the exhaust system broke, causing the muffler to drag on the ground. I finally broke it off in front of the muffler and drove with the straight pipe. By now, the trunk contained the flat tire, the exhaust system and a hubcap that was damaged beyond repair.

We decided we better get the car back to Lima while it was still sort of running. As we got to the top of the pass, Bill, who has been responsible for the broken muffler, was driving and hit a pothole so hard that we hit out heads on the roof in the back seat. I asked him to stop so I could check the car, but mostly so I could get the keys from him.

When I crawled under the car, I noticed a wet spot on the rear differential. That struck me as odd because there should be no fluid there, then I noticed that the drive shaft between the differential and the wheel was completely shattered. The only thing holding the right rear wheel on was the leaf spring. And we were 300 miles from Lima with a 15000 foot descent.

Foolishly, I didn't say anything and just started driving down. Fortunately, the car was a stick and had a great gearbox because at about 7000 feet, the brakes failed. When the differential had shattered, it had cut the brake line and we were out of fluid. I just did the rest of the descent with the gears and made it back to the garage that had fixed the fan belt. They would not fix the brakes because the wheel was so dangerous they didn't want out "blood on their hands". So we drove it back about halfway to Lima without brakes.

Budget was great, I paid the deductible, about $300 and they totaled the car. I always rent from them just to say thank you.


Photo Credit: Cortina Chris/Ford UK


1.) Stuck with a Sebring

Suggested By: msatlas


What happened: Reader msatlas suffered the worst rental car fate of all.

The time I got stuck with a Chrysler Sebring.

Photo Credit: Chrysler

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