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Do you get charged if you return a rental car dirty?

We've all been there- handing back your rental car can be a nerve-wracking experience. After enjoying your vacation, the last thing you want is to get a bill for additional charges you hoped you could have avoided.

Rental companies expect their cars to be a little dirty after they have been hired. It is in their user and service policy and can be seen by the renter before renting. A cleaning fee, also known as valeting, is what car hiring companies charge when a rental vehicle is brought back dirtier than expected. 

If a driver returns an especially dirty car, it goes without saying that the rental company will have to spend longer cleaning it. Find out why the cleaning fee is charged, how much it can be, and how to avoid paying it.

Returning Your Rental Car Dirty Inside And Outside

While this can often be a subjective scenario, it is always advised to take photos of the car inside and outside for future references if you are charged a cleaning fee and wish to dispute it. Taking photos can also be useful if you cause any damage to a rental car, and keep it as a record of what was damaged. 

Let’s take a look at eligible and ineligible cleaning issues that you could be charged for or wrongly charged for:

Eligible Cleaning Issues

  • Bodily fluids am biowaste
  • Spills or waste that need cleaning inside of the vents or between door panels and windows.
  • Residue or major stains that cover a large area of the vehicle interior and would require steam cleaning.
  • Extreme amounts of dirt, mud, sand, or insects that require a professional level of exterior cleaning.
  • Significant amounts of pet hair.
  • If there is clear evidence that a renter has smoked in the rented vehicle.

Ineligible Cleaning Issues

  • Small interior messes of items that can be thrown away vacuumed, or wiped up. This includes crumbs, sand, dirt, beverage bottles or food wrappers, or containers.
  • Small amounts of exterior dirt, sand, or mud that can easily be removed by a car wash.
  • Water stains, minor beverage, and food spills, as well as sticky substances on the vehicle’s interior or exterior.
  • Strong or unpleasant odors.

How Much Is The Charge For Returning A Dirty Rental Car?

Car rental companies don’t expect you to fully disinfect or clean the car upon returning it to your hose. However, if you return the car in such a condition that could only have been caused by abusive or reckless and irresponsible behavior, your host will have to report the issue to the car rental company. 

When they do report the issue, the safety and customer support team will review the evidence. If it clearly shows an eligible cleaning issue, they will charge you will a cleaning fee. In some cases, you may even be banned from using the car rental company ever again.

A cleaning fee can range anywhere between $30 and $400, depending on how dirty the car is. The interior things like the dashboard, seats, carpets, steering wheel, cupholders, and inside windows determine how dirty the car is. 

Exterior things include mud or dirt on tires and the car itself, outside windows, and underneath the vehicle. Some car rental companies have a fixed charge, whereas others have a minimum and a maximum cleaning fee. 

How To Avoid Getting Charged For Returning A Dirty Rental Car

You can do several things before picking up your rental vehicle to helo you cut some costs, such as securing independent car rental insurance and paying upfront online. However, it will benefit you to be aware of things you can do when returning the car to prevent extra costs, such as the cleaning fee. 

 In simple terms, yes, you can avoid getting charged for returning a dirty rental car by taking your car back clean. However, it can be tricky to know when a rental company might decide whether or not a car is too dirty. It would help to ask yourself, “would I be happy with how clean it is?” if your answer is no, you may be charged with a cleaning fee.

Most rental car companies have a policy against smoking in their cars. If the car you are returning smells of smoke, the rental company will immediately charge you a cleaning fee, even if the car is otherwise spotless.

Some things are more likely to leave your rental car dirtier than it is supposed to be. These are things like traveling with pets, drinking and eating inside the car, getting beach sand in the car, traveling with small children or babies who may leave food or shoe-prints behind, driving on dirt roads, or leaving rubbish behind in the car.

In order to avoid getting charged with a cleaning fee, you can empty the rented car one day before you intend to return it, so you will be able to notice any visible marks, dirt, or scratches. It is also advised to dust off any dirt or sand from the carpets

It would also help to wipe off any obvious dirt or bird feces from the windows or bodywork. Do not park under trees if possible, and have your traveling companions clean up after themselves when they are done driving along with you. Try to refrain from drinking or eating anything while renting the vehicle, and consider having the rented car washed before returning it.

Your rental car will inevitably get dirty. If it does, it will be worth it to clean it yourself or even take it to the local carwash to avoid additional charges. More often than not, what you pay at a car wash will be loads cheaper than what the car rental company will charge you.

Another option is to ensure that you clean the interior of the rental vehicle fully and then put the vehicle through an automated car wash. However, any damage caused will be your responsibility to report and pay. 

If you absolutely need to wash the rented vehicle before returning it, a simple hand car wash along with a quick vacuum should be more than enough to do the trick. This is, again, the best option if the car is especially dirty, as doing this would be significantly cheaper than the hiring company cleaning fee.

What To Do If You Hired A Dirty Rental Car?

If you are meeting your car rental host to check in, you may request for them to stay until you have inspected the condition of the vehicle you are about to rent. If you are checking in without the host being present, you may still inspect the vehicle thoroughly to assess the level of cleanliness. 

Do not accept the car if you have any concerns or doubts that the car has not been cleaned correctly or has not been disinfected. Do not check-in for the trip, and take photos that clearly indicate the car’s condition. 

You should then call customer support, and they will most likely cancel the trip, provide you with a refund, and help you find a new car, should you still decide to make use of their services.

What To Do When You Were Wrongly Charged For A Cleaning Fee?

When you return your rental car, you need to examine your receipt very carefully in order to ensure that you were not charged any fees by mistake. If you were incorrectly charged or overcharged, and the car rental company refuses to remove the fee from your bill, you will need to contact them directly. 

Remember to save copies of all letters, emails, and receipts, and if you discuss the situation on a telephone call, write down the date and time of the call. It would also benefit you to remember the person or people you were speaking to and the discussed topics. 


While your rental car will be 100% clean when you collect it for renting, you do not need to return it exactly as clean as it was at the pickup. With this being said, you are, however, expected to return the car in an acceptable condition while being considerate of the weather and circumstances during the rental.

While it could turn into a subjective scenario, it is always recommended to take photos of the car before you rented it and after you rented it. Photos will provide you and the car rental company with sufficient evidence in case there are any complications.