Can You Return a Rental Car Early?

Can You Return a Rental Car Early?

Rental cars make out-of-town trips so much easier, but sometimes we overestimate how long we need to rent a vehicle.

You may need to cut your trip short for many different reasons. Maybe the conference ended early, the weather ruined your plans, or you need to get back home due to an emergency. Whatever causes you to cut your trip short, you need to return your rental car early.  

When Should You Return Your Rental Car? 

Under normal circumstances, you would return your rental car at the end of the agreed-upon duration of the rental. When you rent a vehicle, you enter into a legal contract with the rental car company. 

The rental car company has agreed to supply you with a safe and reliable vehicle of a particular class for a fee, and you have agreed to pay that fee in exchange for the use of the vehicle. Just as the company has agreed to provide you with a safe vehicle, you’ve promised to use the vehicle legally, safely, and responsibly. 

When you need to have exceptions made for you on your car rental, if the company can accommodate you, they generally will for a fee. For example, if you’re a young driver, they may allow you to rent a vehicle before the minimum age of 25 if you are willing to pay a young driver’s fee. 

If you need to extend your rental, after you alert your rental car company, they may allow you to keep the vehicle for a fee or a different daily rate. If you need a carseat, they may provide you with one for a fee. 

Yes, your rental car company may make money off of some of these fees, but it’s a natural process in a legal contract for each party to make concessions when the other is in need. Your concession is the fee, and your rental car company’s concession is to meet your needs outside of the typical contractual agreement.

Turning your rental vehicle in early or late is an alteration to the rental agreement. In many instances, your rental car company may want to be compensated for those adjustments. So, to answer the question: You should return your rental car when your contract says you should. 

How Might a Return Affect Your Rental?

Sometimes, the circumstances of your rental can have some bearing on whether or not returning your rental early can affect the final amount due to the rental company. Here are some circumstances under which you can be charged extra:

Weekend Specials

If you got special pricing on your vehicle for keeping it through the weekend, returning it early would negate your agreement and alter the discount you received.

Discounted Rentals

If you were offered a special discounted rate for the rental because the rental period is three or more days, then the daily rates may be higher if you return the car before then, and you may lose your discount entirely.

Weekly Rentals

If you book a car rental for an entire week, your rental may have a single rate for the whole week. When you plan to use your rental for an extended period, a weekly rate can save you a lot of money. 

If you have secured a weekly rate but return it a little early or a little late, then your rate is unlikely to change, but you’ll want to be sure that you communicate your plans with your rental car company, especially if you intend to keep your rental a little longer. 

If you are using a weekly rate and return your vehicle very early, you may lose your weekly rate and pay a daily rate, making your overall costs much higher than you anticipated. 

After Hours

Many rental car companies have hours of operations like any other business. The company may not be available to accept your rental just before your red-eye flight. In that instance, you may need to return your rental car after hours. There may not be a fee for this, but some companies will consider the after-hours return a modification to the contract, and your rates may change accordingly.

Early or Late Returns

Suppose you return your rental outside of the agreed-upon window for your rental’s return. In that case, there is a possibility that you will pay an early return fee or a late return fee, depending on the circumstances. In this instance, it’s best to ask upfront about the rental car company’s early or late returns policies. 

While it may not be your intention to return your rental early, you never know what life can hold for you, and if you must return your rental car early, it’s best to avoid the surprise of paying more for your rental than you expected on top of it.

If your trip runs later than you anticipated, you may face a fee for that as well. As with an early return, it’s better to know your rental car company’s policy upfront.

Tips To Remember About Returning Your Car Early

Whether you’re early or not, the most important part of your rental car return is to return your rental car correctly. Here are a few things to remember about returning your rental car:

  • Give yourself enough time to drive to the location you’re supposed to drop off your rental car. 
  • Remember to fuel back up. Follow your agreement, and always return your vehicle with the amount of fuel it states. Most companies ask that you match the amount that was in the tank when you got your rental. 
  • Follow directions. There are usually signs posted at drop-off locations that tell you where to park, what to do with the keys, etc. 
  • Take photos before you leave. You don’t need photos for your rental car scrapbook, but you do need visual documentation of the state of the vehicle as you left it. Remember to include multiple angles and capture the interior and the exterior. 
  • Clean out the vehicle. Once you return your rental car, you will lose access to it. So, be sure that all of your belongings are out of the vehicle, and do your best to leave it in the same clean condition you received it in. 
  • If you return your vehicle to a representative of the company, be sure to get their name and go over the return of your vehicle with them to be sure you didn’t miss anything. 
  • If you return your rental when there is no representative available, like when it’s after hours, be sure to use the drop box and park the vehicle in a well-lit portion of the designated parking area.

You may not be able to avoid an early return, but no matter what your circumstances are, you can return your rental the right way. 


Early rental car returns can happen for as many reasons as a trip can be cut short. It happens. You should know what to expect in the event of an early rental car return, and you should know your rental car company’s policy on early returns before you sign your rental car agreement. An unexpected ending to your trip shouldn’t lead to an unexpected bill for your rental car. 

Know your company, know your agreement, and be prepared for your rental by choosing a rental car company that suits your needs, especially if you need flexibility. 

Contract | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute
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