The Gross and Bizarre Stuff People Do in Rental Cars

Car rental job
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Less stressful than airport security -- and the whole shitshow process of flying in general -- but waaay less enjoyable than arriving at your destination, the rental car counter is vacation limbo. You watch the kid in the polyester vest’s mouth move, sign on a few lines, and try to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. The clock's a-ticking on your Paid Time Off.

Perhaps this explains why people think it’s totally chill to treat rental cars with only slightly more reverence than a public toilet. Used condoms and half-eaten meatballs are among the tamer things that have been found in returned cars. We talked to a pair of former rental car agents, Allison and Chris, and after a combined nine years of experience, they’ve seen every form of fast-food bag, firearm, and sexual detritus that travelers are capable of discarding in a moderately priced sedan. Submitted here are their most egregious examples of vehicular abuse. Get ready to learn why the rental business calls it the “ass tray.”

Drugs in rental cars
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

People do a lot of drugs in rental cars

Chris: I think if you’re coming to town and you know you’re going to do a lot of coke on your visit, maybe you want a rental car so if a cop busts you you can blame it on whoever had the car before you, and blame it on us for not cleaning the car? I’ve heard stories like that. You could also just take a cab. But some people are really worried about about appearances, I guess.

But yeah, empty coke vials rolled under the seat and the mats every weekend. Only once was there ever a needle, which scared me more than anything, because that you could stick yourself so easily if you’re cleaning the car and don’t know it’s there.

Allison: Weed is easily the most popular drug to leave behind. Along with some anonymous baggies and unlabeled prescription bottles filled with pills. Mysterious white powder in 35mm film canisters? You bet your ass. I was young when I worked there, and at such a tender age the thing that always confused me was just how casually the illegal drugs were stored and how easily everyone left them behind. We just throw them away. It isn’t worth contacting police about some things. Sadly, no one ever called (as far as I know) wanting to get their illegal drugs back.

They tend to forget their firearms

Chris: A pair of shotguns, in the trunk. We’ve had handguns sure. One or two pistols in the glove box. But the shotguns are the ones that stick out in my mind because, if I’m right about the customer, he didn’t look to me like a guy who was visiting on any hunting trip. Then I was wondering if some sort of Pulp Fiction roaming hitman scenario was playing out.

Allison: I found a loaded gun. Just tucked under the driver’s seat. I didn’t quite realize what it was immediately. It was a .38, safety off. Of course. I carefully put it in my cleaning bucket and took it back to the terminal to get a second opinion. Not that I didn’t know what it was, I just wanted to share this discovery. We ended up calling the police, who came to take the gun away and get the customer’s name. As for the customer, he came back the next day saying he’d "left something" in the car and needed it back. I recognized him, and told him that his abandoned property had been passed along to the police. Which was what my bosses told me to do. He got very upset and demanded to know why I would do such a thing. I just stared him with my best "are you kidding me?" expression. Eventually he got the hint, or he realized just where he was and what he’d been asking for. He left without taking the police officer’s card.

Also, full cans of gasoline

Allison: Always filled. These were usually left in the back seat. In the worst instance, the customer left two full cans in the back on a Saturday. We were closed on Sunday. So the car’s interior marinated until Monday. Because the manager was loath to pay for any cleaning, he insisted we fill pans with ammonia and leave them in the car overnight, the theory being that the gas odor would be absorbed, or cancelled out, or something? The next day, the manager rented that car out to a poor unsuspecting customer who, alarmed that the car now reeked of both gasoline and ammonia, immediately returned the vehicle. That manager tried renting that car out four more times before he finally broke down to get it detailed, but it still never smelled right. I always kept it in the back of the lot as the car of absolutely last resort.

rental car horror stories
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Of course, there are condoms

Chris: Condoms condoms condoms. Once, wrapped on a purple vibrator. We do get vibrators. The condoms could also be an issue during prom season if dad gave the kid a rental car for the night instead of risking the family sedan. Lot of condoms in the back seat, and sometimes they’re tucked right underneath the seat, sitting next to an old corsage. Romantic for them, fucking gross for us.

Allison: The condoms were always used. Always. And always in the ashtray. Did they think that was somehow better? Like that was a tidy, thoughtful place to put it for us to clean up? I had a coworker who used to call the ashtray the “ass tray,” because what else can you do but make terrible jokes.

Speaking of bodily fluids...

Allison: There are few nightmares like trying to get the smell of a dirty diaper out of car when it’s been baking in there overnight. People leave them tucked under the seats, under floor mats, in the trunk, in the glove compartment, you name it. And that’s not the end of the body fluids. Except for one time there was a lot of hair because, like, yes, let’s have a haircut in the rental car, why not?

And... animal fluids?

Allison: So much animal feces. Since I worked at the car rental counter of a regional airport, it didn’t end with just dogs and cats. It was all kinds of animals. These repeat offenders would get a car to drive to a poultry processing plant north of us and always, always, returned their Chevy Malibu coated in chicken shit and feathers, both inside and out. They never disputed their bill and all the cleaning charges, which was actually kind of annoying. It was an acknowledgement that they knew they left the cars in bad shape, but didn't care.

And if you don’t know, let me tell you, once you grind something into a car’s upholstery there is no getting it out. At a certain point working there, you stop caring how exotic the animal that did the shitting was. The question becomes less "what was it?" and more "how much is it?"

Chris: I got a whole lot of deer blood, one time. It was smeared across the paint job, all over the interior. The guy who rented the car went on a hunting trip with his hunting buddies. And to me that was extra creepy, because it was like he had to have gone out of his way to soak that much of the interior. Like, this was some psychotic, Hannibal Lecter shit.

Customers are also just straight-up dicks

Allison: Sometimes the worst part about the job isn’t the stuff people leave in the car, but how people act. People would get upset with the make, model, and size of the car they received. Larger locations had nicer cars -- sometimes we got nicer cars dropped off as one-ways from Chicago or Minneapolis, but those had to go straight back. One time, a customer returned a car early because he claimed that the interior carpet color and pattern made his wife nauseous. During presidential election season, we regularly had to rent to people I assumed were Secret Service agents. They were often unhappy to have to show us their IDs -- I have no idea why they would care -- and mad that we didn't have enough dark-colored cars. 

I once rented a car to a customer from Australia who called to complain that the car kept dinging at him. I asked a few questions about lights and what he was doing when it happened. I finally figured out that he wasn't wearing his seatbelt. He couldn't believe the car would keep "harassing" him about it.

Chris: Treat me as shitty as you want, but it’s still not going to turn your Ford into a Cadillac. Because we don’t carry any fucking Cadillacs. Spoiler.

Bottom line: If you’re the type of frequent renter who thinks you can play dumb when you roll back to the lot with a CONSTRUCTION: ROAD CLOSED sign wedged in the grill, dragging a yard of sparking barbed wire across the asphalt behind you, think again. Too many customers return cars with clear, obvious damage where none was marked on the checkout slip. "Some would deny what they did after they saw a $200 charge on their bill, or they’d claim we were overcharging,” Allison says. “But we always kept copies of the cleaning bills we could fax.”

And look, rental car agents are not sentient robot kiosks. Consider that the mess you leave behind is something that must be dealt with by real, flesh-and-blood human beings, armed with nothing more than a plastic bucket, a rubber brush, and the cheapest brand of glass cleaner found in a 50-mile radius.

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Peter Rugg is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, and Popular Mechanics, among others. Follow his intermittent tweets @petermrugg.