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When you take delivery of a rental car, you expect it to meet certain standards. It should be mechanically sound, free of dents and scratches, and all controls and lights should be in good working order. When you climb into your rental, you also expect it to be clean and smell fresh, preferably without bits of taco in the gear shifter or a soiled diaper under the seat, for example.

While cleaning your rental car before returning it isn't mandatory, clearing out obvious untidiness is a polite gesture that could save you potential penalty fees incurred for deep cleaning the vehicle. Additionally, you may find something of yours that is important during your clean-up.

You may think that since you are paying for a rental vehicle, the rental agency should clean up after you. To maintain a positive image, a car rental company will keep its fleet clean and in good standing, as they want to keep and grow their client base. However, the primary goal of a car rental agency is to offer you a domestic transport solution, not to be a domestic cleaning service.

5 Reasons To Clean Out Your Rental Car Before Returning It

Consider this scenario: you have booked a rental vehicle during a busy season; there's nothing else available. The previous renter just returned the car you hired. You're in a hurry and want to take the car's delivery immediately because you need to get to an appointment in time. You get the car after they've done a quick clean, and off you go. But what is that funky smell?

Most car rental companies will not require you to do a major clean on your rental car, as they clean and give a polish on the inside and outside between rentals. A bit of dust, a few crumbs, the odd candy wrapper, or a takeaway cup are to be expected in a rental car and are often not penalized. However, here are five good reasons to give your rental car a little clean before returning it.

A Rental Car Must Be Returned In The Same Condition

The terms and conditions of your rental agreement will probably state the expected condition of the rental car for when you return it. This does not only refer to the outside parts of the car, meaning no dents or scratches. The interior of the car is equally important. Car rental agencies differ in their expectations of the cleanliness of a returned rental, so read the fine print .

If anything needs to be replaced or deep-cleaned, it will likely be charged to your credit card at an inflated price. Chewing gum stuck into the mats or seats, stained armrests, or spilled coffee on fabric seats are examples of upholstery needing extra cleaning or replacing. If the car has a foul odor or smells of smoke, it will need additional airing and cleaning before it can be rented out again.

A good idea is to take photos of the rental car with your cellphone before driving away. Take photos of the interior and exterior as your proof of the vehicle's condition. If anything is broken, dirty, scratched, or dented, take a picture and note it to the agent helping you. Your photographic evidence can assist you if there are unexpected valet charges for your account.

You Probably Want To Avoid Unwanted Valet Fees Or Fines

A rental car that is returned in a heavily soiled or smelly condition will need a deep clean or valet. Here are some examples of how you can incur additional valet fees, get a fine, get an extra charge on your credit card, or not get back your deposit:

  • You have smoked in the vehicle, and it smells of cigarette smoke,
  • You have used the inside of the vehicle as a garbage bin and returned it like that,
  • Someone spilled fluids on the fabric upholstery, causing stain marks,
  • You transported an animal in the vehicle which left dander,
  • Excessive amounts of sea sand or mud are on the floor mats and seats,
  • There is excessive bird poop on the car, or
  • You rode the car through excessive mud or dirt.

You Might Find Some Hidden Treasure

You may find some important things you would be sad to miss by quickly cleaning your rental car before returning it. Examples include brochures you collected, a serviette with an important number, the missing piece of your kid's favorite toy, or the earring that fell out and you never thought you'd see again.

You Can Avoid Being Banned As A Future Customer

It is assumed that car rental companies would want to work at a profit. If they have clients who regularly damage their vehicles and cost them extra time and money to make the rental car presentable again, they might choose to rather ban that customer from renting from them again. Your details might also be shared with affiliate companies, limiting your future car rental options.

The Car Might Need To Be Rented Out Straight Away

Sometimes the turnaround time of receiving a returned rental car and then releasing it to the new lessee is very quick, and the rental car is not cleaned or checked as thoroughly as it should be. As a courtesy to the person leasing the vehicle after you and the rental agency, it's just a nice and honorable thing to do.

How To Clean Out Your Rental Car Before Returning It

As mentioned, most car rental companies do not expect you to have the car washed inside and out before returning it, as they clean and vacuum the car between customers. If it's something in the Terms and Conditions of the rental contract, or if you want to play it safe, you can have it washed beforehand.

Suppose the car is particularly filthy on the outside. In that case, it is a good idea to wash it before returning it so that you can check for new dents or scratches when returning the vehicle and take “after” photos, if necessary. This action is especially helpful to avoid getting a surprise charge from the rental agency that might argue that you returned the vehicle damaged.

When cleaning the inside of the car, remove cups, wrappers, packets, and any crumbs, dirt, and sand before returning the vehicle. Shake out the car mats and check the car thoroughly to ensure you haven't missed something.

How To Keep Your Rental Car As Clean As Possible

To save yourself the effort of doing a big clean before returning your rental car, plus potential unwanted penalty fees, you can try the following ideas:

  • Don't smoke in your rental vehicle.
  • Keep a plastic or paper bag in the car for your trash, and throw it away often.
  • Shake out of vacuum up sand and dirt before it spreads to the rest of the car, and try to minimize the amount of sand that enters the car in the first place.
  • Ensure containers carrying liquids are tightly closed and in an upright position.
  • Do not transport animals in rental vehicles unless an agreement has been made between you and the rental agency.
  • Stick to paved roads; taking the car off-road is more likely to make it dirty or cause damage.
  • Avoid prolonged parking under trees. Excessive bird poop or tree sap can be difficult to clean and can cause damage to the car's paintwork.

Keeping your rental car moderately clean while you are using it will save you a big clean and rush before your return it to the rental agency.


You should return your rental car in a clean state to avoid penalties incurred for deep cleaning, as the car rental company may have to outsource to have the car valeted. If you return the car clean, you can also assess its state and take photos of its condition that can be kept as evidence should there be a dispute, plus you can avoid losing personal effects.