Kim Thornton routinely rents cars but one costly incident a few years ago changed the way she handles her rentals. A few days after she returned the vehicle, the rental company hit her with a $500 charge for dents on the passenger side.
“I didn’t inspect the car carefully when I picked it up, so there was no way I could prove I didn’t do the damage,” she says. And because she hadn’t filed a police report when the dings allegedly occurred, her own auto insurance and her credit card coverage didn’t kick in.
Since then, she says, “I do a careful inspection and take photos of every possible thing so I have a record of what it looked like when I got it.”
Unfortunately, Thornton’s story isn’t all that unusual. The car-rental market notched a new revenue record in 2018, passing the $30 billion mark for the first time, according to research by the trade publication Auto Rental News.
That means there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong — and for people to be charged for things that go wrong. “Today, profit margins have been squeezed, so rental companies are much more diligent about finding damage done by renters to protect their assets,” says Neil Abrams, the founder of the Abrams Consulting Group, a car rental consulting and travel market research organization. “It isn’t unheard of for an individual to get a charge on their credit card weeks or even months later.”
Here are ways to protect yourself from unjust charges.
Check your insurance coverage before you rent
Before buying additional insurance while you’re standing at the rental counter — “collision damage waivers” can add up to $30 a day to the cost — make a quick inventory of your benefits. Many credit cards provide damage coverage; if yours does, you can use that credit card to make your rental. Find out, too, if your regular auto insurance includes rental car damages, although keep in mind that if you do file a claim with your insurance company, that’s considered a chargeable accident and may affect your future insurance rates.
Most credit card companies provide what’s called “secondary insurance,” which means they’ll pick up the amount that's not covered by your auto insurance. A handful, including Chase Business Card and United Airlines mileage, provide primary insurance so you don’t have to file a claim with your insurer.
If you don’t own a car and don’t have private insurance, you may be better off ponying up for the rental company insurance. While your credit card may pay for collision damages, they won’t cover liability. “If you get into an accident where you crash into a Mercedes, you could be liable,” says Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of Autoslash.com, a website that helps users get the best deals on car rentals.
Read the fine print
It's important to look at the details of your deal, especially if you’re getting a super cheap rate. Some rental companies allow you grace time of up to an hour if you return the car late, while others may charge you for another full day if you're an hour late. Check, too, if there are additional charges for a second driver (some states let spouses drive for free while others don’t), or for air-conditioning, car seats or other features. They can add up.
Know what to do after an accident
If you have a minor fender bender and the car is still drivable, alert your credit card company within a day or two that you’ll be making a claim once you return the car, says Weinberg. But for more serious accidents, car rental companies usually have strict guidelines, and failure to follow them could affect your insurance. Typically, after making sure everyone involved is safe and calling the police (and getting a copy of the police report), contact the rental car company immediately. Don’t move or do anything to the car until you’ve talked to the car rental agency.
Fight unfair charges
If you feel you've been unfairly dinged, contact the rental car branch where you picked up the car or escalate your complaint to the customer service number listed on the invoice. Be sure to make your complaints known in an email so you have a documented electronic trail. “Be persistent,” says Autoslash’s Weinberg, “and if the company is not being accommodating, complain directly on their Twitter or Facebook account. Make them accountable in a place where everyone can see.”
Consider buying insurance when renting abroad
Experts say when you’re traveling outside the U.S., it’s wise to opt for the rental company’s insurance, even though it may add a few hundred dollars to the cost of the trip. “You’re buying peace of mind,” says Neil Abrams of Abrams Consulting. “You don’t want to have to worry about local rules and laws. You don’t want to be detained if there’s an accident or charges filed, and you don’t want to try to fight back long distance.”