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Ask Gadling: Car rental scams, overcharges and paying for damages you didn't cause
When it comes to rental cars, you can't really live with them, and you can't live without them. Despite weird pricing methods, overpriced gas charges and shady insurance tactics, sooner or later you'll show up somewhere in need of a vehicle.
Thankfully, most rentals will make it from start to finish without any problems, but eventually, you are going to find yourself face to face with a rental company that claims you damaged their car, kept it longer than agreed upon or forgot to fill up the tank.
So, here are tips on how to deal with rental car company deals and scams - and what you can do to prevent and resolve issues.
Always pay attention to the contract
Logical tip, right? Rental car companies are extremely punctual. When you enter your rental information online, you'll be asked for the exact times you need the vehicle. This is where they'll get you - show up early, and they'll add a few hours to the rental, show up late, and they may even charge you an extra day. The funny thing is that if you add extra hours when you place the rental order, the cost almost never goes up.
So - make sure to add a few hours to the front and end of your rental to allow for flight delays or early arrivals. Always print your online rental agreement and bring it with you. If you used a discount code when making the reservation, be sure to bring the coupon or page showing you are entitled to the discount.
When you arrive at the rental desk, take a close look at the contract, and compare it with what you printed at home. Do not let the rental company change the contract without discussing it with you. If you are offered an upgrade, make sure that any overages are charged at the original rate - you wouldn't be the first to get a free upgrade, but be charged the upgraded rate for returning it an hour late.
If you are using an elite desk to pick up your vehicle, you'll usually bypass the desk and drive straight to the gate - but even here, you'll be given a rental agreement before driving off, so take a minute to go over the fine print here, and be sure to mention to the agent any damage you noticed on the vehicle (more on that in a moment.)
When asked whether you need insurance, you'll usually be offered several different policies - most of which are already included in your own auto insurance policy or credit card. Be sure to check this before you arrive at the airport. Don't pay for any insurance already covered by your own policy or card.
When renting a car, your credit card is your best friend
If you have a major credit card, chances are it'll come with a variety of insurance protections built in. If not, consider upgrading to a card that does. When I was faced with a $2900 bill for a quarter inch scratch on a Mercedes I rented in Europe, American Express took care of the whole thing, and all I had to do was sign one piece of paper. Without the card, I would have been on the hook for the entire bill.
Always do a walk-around inspection before accepting your vehicle
What takes 30 seconds, and can save you $3000 on your insurance? (Hint: it does not involve calling Geico.) It is the rental car walk-around. Before driving off the lot, always do a close inspection of the entire care. Renting at night? Pull out your flashlight. Make sure you report every single ding, dent, scratch, scrape or missing body panel to a car rental agent. Then, get them to note it on your rental agreement and make a note of the name of the agent that witnessed the damage.
Never, ever accept their word that it is "ok" - when you return the car with damage that was not your fault, claiming someone said it would be "ok" won't be enough to get charges waived.
I know how much of a waste of time this is, and I'm sure you just want to get the hell away from the airport and check into your hotel, but damage to rental cars is big business -and if you can't prove you did not damage the car, you will be charged to get it fixed.
The gas pricing scam
Isn't it convenient that gas stations around the airport charge up to 20% more than the same brand away from the airport?
I know of one major international airport where the gas station is owned by the largest rental operator - making for a perfectly legal racket. When you rent your vehicle, you'll be asked how you plan to fill its tank - you'll either fill it up yourself, have the rental firm fill it up for you upon return (pre-arranged) or just ignore the whole issue and pay $7/gallon when they realize the tank is half empty. Pre-paid gas is a scam because no matter how much you use, you'll pay for a full tank of gas. The only way to make this work is if you know in advance that you'll arrive at the airport running on fumes.
Whatever you do - don't just return the car with an empty tank. Of course, if you are running really late for the last flight of the day, you don't have a choice, but if you let the rental company take care of filling up the car, they'll fill it with special Unicorn juice that costs three times the current gas price at the local station.
One word of advise: always keep your gas receipts, and make sure you use a local station no more than 2-4 miles away. I've experienced a firm that claimed the gas station I used was too far away to let the car qualify as "full" - so they charged me $15 for what they claimed was two gallons.
Upon returning the car, the rental firm claims you damaged it
Funny how the rental company lets you drive off the lot without checking their car, but insists on checking every corner of it when you bring it back. Even if they don't do an immediate inspection upon return, rest assured that they will check it out, and charge you for any damage that was not reported on the rental agreement. And don't think that they'll ignore a single thing - even the smallest scratch is enough for them to charge you.
If you return a car and the inspection uncovers damage, always check against the rental agreement to see whether the damage was already reported. If the damage is new, and you had not seen it when you inspected it yourself, you are out of luck - and will have to pay for it. If possible, make photos of the damage from all angles and write a clear description of the damage the rental company claims you caused. This will prevent them from adding other damage to the repair bill that was not caused by you.
In some cases, they may not even contact you, they'll just charge your card for the entire amount they feel is fair. Talk about a nasty surprise when you get your statement.
And get this - they'll also charge you the full non-discounted rental price for every day the vehicle is out of commission while someone repairs said scratch. This means that the kind of damage you can get fixed at the local body shop for $200, could cost the rental firm $2000 to fix. Rental car damage is big business - and you could end up being the one that funds it.
Now, there are of course incidents where the damage is not only your fault, but also quite evident. In those cases, you'll want to contact the rental firm before returning the car and contact your own insurance firm or credit card company. If the vehicle is no longer drivable, ask them to bring a replacement.
When returning your car, always ask for a receipt
This is where it pays to give yourself some extra time at the airport. When you return the vehicle, wait for an agent to do their inspection, hand them your gas receipt (unless you want them to fill it up) and ask for a final rental receipt. Yes - in many cases you can just drop it off, leave the keys in the ignition and walk away, but if they overcharge you, you'll have a hard time fighting this. Like with rental car damage, they'll simply charge your card without contact you about overages.
[Photos: Hertz rental: Flickr/Alex-S, Car crash: Flickr/Daveeynin, Gas station: Flickr/Fortyseven]