Frequently asked questions about car rentals
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about car rentals. You can find more FAQs here.
Before you rent
• Where should I book my car?
• Should I book my car at the last minute?
• What about car classes?
• How do I find the best rental car?
• What do these car rental fees mean? Do I have to pay them?
• Is it OK to make a duplicate reservation?
• Do I need car rental insurance?
• What do all this car rental insurance options mean?
• When should I make a decision about insurance?
• I want to do a one-way rental, but it’s too expensive. How do I save money?
During your rental
• What options do I really need?
• What’s “upgrade” roulette?
• Do I need to do anything before signing my car rental contract?
• What should I do before I drive away?
• Should I take a picture of my rental car?
• What if I see a ding, dent or crack?
• How about the sign-off?
• You’ve put a dent in your rental vehicle. Now what?
• What about other types damage, like the kind caused by weather or wear and tear?
• What are the steps of a claim?
After your rental
• What should I do when I return my vehicle?
• What if I get a damage claim?
• How do I dispute a claim?
• I think my claim is a scam. Now what?
• Can I ask for an independent review of your repair bill?
• What about moving violations?
• How do I contact someone higher up at a car rental company?
BEFORE YOU RENT
Here are your options:
Ask your travel agent. A full-service agent can offer recommendations and negotiated rates that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re uncomfortable booking online, or don’t rent cars often, this is your best choice. Bear in mind that agents get paid a commission on rentals, so they may steer you toward a company that pays a higher commission or bonus. (That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad deal for you.)
Book directly. If you are partial to one brand, you’ll probably want to go straight to the car rental company’s website or call its 800-number. Car rental companies will offer bonuses and other incentives to deal directly with them. You can also negotiate a discount using many membership organizations, such as AAA or AARP. The downside? You won’t be able to make an easy price comparison, and unless you’re careful, you might book a nonrefundable rate through the site.
Use an online travel agency. Companies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity offer virtually every major car rental brand, as well as price guarantees that make them an attractive option when shopping for or booking a rental car. Note that as with full-service agencies, online agents sometimes display the cars that pay them the highest commissions (or exclude the companies that pay a lower commissions). Don’t assume you’re getting every option with an online agency, so shop around.
Opaque sites. Sites like Priceline and Hotwire sell you prepaid, deeply-discounted rentals, but you don’t find out the name of the car rental company until you book the car. The benefit? You can save between 20 and 40 percent, and the voucher you receive includes all mandatory taxes and fees. But there’s a catch: the car is totally non-refundable. Book with any of the other methods and you can usually cancel the reservation without a penalty, but not always. Specialty vehicles and cars rented during special events may not be cancelable, either.
Go local. Smaller, independent car rental companies generally don’t show up on online travel sites such as Expedia, yet can offer a competitive rate. You’ll have to do an internet search for car rental companies in the area to which you’ll be traveling, and if you’re flying into an airport, transportation to the car rental company can be a hassle. Also, you may be assigned an older rental unit — so be sure to ask questions over the phone to establish the local rental company’s modus operandi.
No matter how you book your car, you’ll want to double-check the dates of your rental and the location for pickup and drop off before pulling the trigger. If you’ve made an error, you can always fix it if you’ve booked through one of the three conventional methods. If you’re using an opaque site, it may be difficult, if not impossible to modify your reservation. (As a general rule, the quicker you let the company know of the error, the better your chances are of getting it corrected.)
Above all, read the confirmation you get by email. Then read it again. The last thing you want is to discover a problem on the day of your trip.
Not if you can avoid it. Many car rental companies jack their rental rates up for last-minute, or “walk-up” customers. Why? Supply and demand, it’s as simple as that. They have the car, you want the car. Don’t get caught at the last minute without a car. Plan ahead. If you do, consider booking through an “opaque” site like Hotwire or Priceline, which can offer you a reasonable (though nonrefundable) rate at the last minute.
Car rental companies offer vehicle classes ranging from subcompact to luxury. These designations are about as meaningful as the star ratings used to grade hotels, which is to say they can be a useful guide, but you shouldn’t give them too much weight. Your car rental agreement usually doesn’t guarantee an exact car type. One car may be considered a “compact” by one company and “midsize” by another. Why? Because the car rental companies say so, that’s why!
Savvy car renter use two strategies:
Reserve the car class you think you’ll need. Most drivers do this — they take an inventory of number of passengers, luggage, and consider their itinerary and then book the vehicle that’s best-suited to them. It’s a safe strategy.
Book the smallest car and hope they run out. It’s an open secret that car rental companies often run out of subcompacts because they’re so popular (or maybe because this strategy is so popular). The accepted industry practice is to give you a car in the next available class, which can mean a free upgrade for you. This is a risky move if you have more than two passengers and lots of luggage, because the car rental company could have the vehicle you reserved. Worst case scenario, they’ll see you need a bigger car and offer you an upgrade, or you can inquire about one yourself. You’ll be paying for the car class you should have booked anyway.
Since you can make as many reservations as you want and then cancel them without a penalty, you could play one car rental company off another. I know of some frequent business travelers who will always make a “backup” reservation just in case they can’t get the car they want, or in case the company runs out of vehicles. I take a dim view of this, and so does the industry. Not only does it mess up the car rental company’s inventory management, but it is selfish to take more than you’ll use .
A note about specialty vehicles: If you need something that’s not on the “menu” on the car rental company’s website, don’t assume that it’s not available. Some locations may carry other kinds of vehicles, but you don’t see them because the reservation system they belong to uses generic photos of vehicles as suggestions of what may be available. Solution? Get the name of the location manager, and call at least a week before your rental date. Ask what types of minivans, SUVs or trucks they have in their fleet.
Fees are a never-ending source of frustration to travelers. But they don’t have to be.
Here’s a sample price of a one-day rental at Orlando International Airport with one of the major car rental sites:
Base Rate: 1 day(s) 38.99 USD
Taxes & Surcharges: 13.06 USD
Surcharge: 9.88 USD
– $0.60 per day, max 10 days (Energy Recovery Fee)
– $2.00 per day (Florida Surcharge)
– $0.02 per day (Waste Tire/Battery Fee)
– $0.78 per day (Vehicle License Fee)
– $2.50 per day, max 5 days (Customer Facility Fee)
– 10% (Concession Fee)
Tax ( 6.500% ) 3.18 USD
Base Rate and Charges: 52.05 USD
Rental Options: 16.94 USD
Maximum 8 Day(s)
Estimated Total: 68.99 USD
Pretty complicated, huh? At first glance, maybe.
But let’s break it down. The base rate is a theoretical price, minus taxes, fees, and rental options. No one ever pays the base rate, but the car rental company wants you to see it because 1) it makes their rental look less expensive; and 2) you know how much money the car rental company is actually making, which really isn’t that much, most of the time. (In fact, car rental profit-margins are generally razor thin.)
Mandatory taxes and surcharges are then added to the bill. I won’t list and annotate every one of these, except to say that you can’t negotiate your way out of them. For example, if there’s an airport surcharge — which covers the car rental company’s cost of operating at the airport — getting dropped off at the airport rather than flying in will not let you dodge the fee.
Some of these fees are imposed by local municipalities, the airport, or the state, and yes, they often fund stadiums and convention centers, and all other manner of pet projects. For you, the driver, the only thing you really need to know is that you must pay them. (Although you can avoid many of them by renting at an off-airport location.) Either way, you’re best off ignoring the base rate.
The number you’ll want to pay attention to is the estimated total. That’s usually the amount of money you’ll pay, plus or minus a few percent. If you’re making a budget for your trip, that’s the figure to use.
Note that fuel-purchase options are not part of this quote. They’re optional, and you’ll have to settle on them when you pick up the vehicle. More on that in a moment.
You can also add any number of optional services to your bill. Let’s do that right now. These are daily charges.
Rental Options: 22.93 USD
GPS Navigation: 11.95 USD
Roadside SafetyNet (RSN): 5.99 USD
SiriusXM Radio: 4.99 USD
Protections – Coverages: 48.37 USD
Loss Damage Waiver (LDW): 26.99 USD
Personal Accident Insurance (PAI): 4.00 USD
Personal Effects Protection (PEP): 2.95 USD
Additional Liability Insurance (ALI): 14.43
Note that saying “yes” to all of these choices will more than double the daily rate of your car — and again, we haven’t even added the fuel-purchase option or a charge for an additional driver, which some car rental companies will add.
The first category (Rental Options) is more or less self-explanatory. If you need a navigation system or a SiriusXM radio, here’s a chance to rent it. You can also get the equivalent of “OnStar” for roadside service, although the car rental company also has a 24-hour, toll-free number you can call if you need assistance. These are somewhat profitable add-ons for the company, and I would definitely think carefully before giving them the nod. For $5 a day, you could buy a lot of new music for your iPod and simply play it through the car’s stereo. Also, many phones now have navigational system apps, and don’t forget the old-fashioned paper maps, which your car rental company should offer at no extra charge.
The second category (Protections) is not as obvious. Car rental companies offer several insurance options. You absolutely have to think about insurance before you arrive at the counter. If you don’t, you may buy too much insurance, or worse, not enough.
Don’t drive a car without insurance. Ever. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but here’s the sad reality: If you have no insurance, and anything happens to a rental vehicle while it’s in your possession, you’re responsible. And yes, car rental companies won’t hesitate to ask you to pay for a new car if you total one of theirs.
Let’s take a closer look at each type of insurance.
Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) –- This is your basic insurance, and it normally covers the loss of the vehicle, or damage to it, and any loss of use to the rental company. (A related kind of insurance, Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is more limited, covering the car, but not injuries or damage to other property.)
Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) — Covers you and the passengers in your car if you’re injured in an accident.
Personal Effects Protection (PEP) — Insures the property in the car, up to a certain amount.
Additional Liability Insurance (ALI) — Extra protection that covers everything from bodily injury to death to property damage.
Note that the names of these insurance policies may vary based on which company you rent from.
The sooner, the better. Review your car insurance policy, credit card insurance and travel insurance before you leave, to see if your rental car is covered. Also, if you’re renting outside the United States, be sure that you are meeting that country’s insurance requirements — otherwise, you may be forced to buy insurance. Bottom line: know before you go.
You need to understand a few things about car rental insurance before you buy. Some of these policies make perfect sense for you, and are a good deal. Others are overpriced and unnecessary. Which is which? It depends on where you’re renting and who you are.
Normally, you’ll have enough coverage between your credit card insurance and personal car insurance policy, but watch out — if you’re renting a specialty vehicle like an exotic vehicle, van or SUV, or if you’re renting outside the country, your policy may not work. (Israel, Ireland and Jamaica rentals are not covered by most major credit cards, and you’ll need to purchase a separate policy when you rent a car in those countries.) Read your policy and cardmember agreement before you rent. Remember, your credit card or car rental insurance may or may not cover all of the damage to a rental car. Make sure you know.
Point is, you want to avoid having to make up your mind at the counter. Car rental agents are trained to sell you insurance and other extras. They are not travel agents; they’re often evaluated based on how much insurance and other add-ons they can sell you when you pick up the car. You won’t be able to avoid the pitch, but you can manage it.
You have two options. First, you may want to call several agencies to find out if they’re willing to discount their rentals. Car rental companies need to move their fleets from one part of the country to another, so if your timing is right, there’s a good chance that at least one of the major chains will offer a discount. And second, you could find out if there are any “driveaway” opportunities — car owners who want to move their vehicles from one part of the country to another and might actually pay you to drive their vehicle.
DURING YOUR RENTAL
The fuel purchase option. This comes in several flavors, from prepaying for a tank of gas, to paying for the fuel you consume after you return, to topping off the tank before you bring back the car. If you choose the latter option, keep your gas station receipt — you may have to show it as proof you refueled within a certain mileage radius of the rental location. The first and second options may work for you if you’re in a hurry, or on an expense account; otherwise, go for door #3. Note: Car rental companies will probably make money off any fuel purchase option unless you return the tank bone-dry.
The insurance. Look, if you haven’t done your homework before you get to the counter, and have to endure the sales pitch, complete with the images of damaged cars (yes, I’ve been there), then you owe it to yourself to buy at least a basic CDW policy. Why? Because you don’t know if you’re covered, and that means if you’re in an accident, you may have to buy a $30,000 car.
Nav systems, toll tags, and SiriusXM radio. Totally your call. You know where you’re going and what you need. If you require any of these items, then go for it. Be certain that you haven’t inadvertently opted in for a toll tag. If you do, you might pay twice for tolls. Also, some toll tagging systems bill you by the day once you start using them, whether you use a toll road or not. That’s not exactly a bargain if your car is parked in a hotel lot most of the time.
If you’re on vacation and want a nicer set of wheels, you can play something I call upgrade “roulette”. As part of their training, agents will try to talk you into an upgrade. What you might not know is that there could be one of two reasons: Either they want to make more money, or they don’t have any cars in the class you reserved. Either way, you’re better off saying “no.” Most car rental firms have a policy that you’ll get an upgrade for free if they run out of the class of car you have reserved. [By the way, there are times when you’ll want to turn down that upgrade. If your insurance won’t cover a more expensive specialty vehicle, or if you’re concerned with gas mileage, you may be better off downgrading and having the price adjusted.]
Make sure the options you asked for are on the final contract you sign. Some car rental employees have been known to “accidentally” check the option for insurance, and if you sign the contract accepting it, you will be charged the full amount, and there’s usually no way to get the money back. Electronic signature pads, which may or may not display your contract adequately before you sign, have made this even trickier. Only the most ethically-challenged rental agents try this cheat, but in the end you are responsible for what you’ve signed. If you don’t understand the contract (or if it’s in another language), ask an employee to explain. If you’re uncomfortable with anything at all, don’t sign. Take your business elsewhere.
Many car rental problems can be avoided by taking a few precautionary steps. Do you know how to operate the car? Car rental companies are now offering everything from electric vehicles to hybrids to Smart Cars (microcars), and they don’t operate the same way the standard gas-operated cars do. (Don’t believe me? Try starting a Toyota Prius without first reading the manual. Go on. I’ll wait.) This is the time to ask. Car rental employees are trained to help you get acquainted with your car. Note: This is especially important if you’re switching from a right-hand to left-hand drive vehicle, where many of the switches are reversed. At the very least, check your glove compartment to make sure the manual is there. You’ll be glad you did.
Yes. Every rental car must be photographed or better yet, videotaped by you before you leave the rental lot. I’m not joking. Most car rental companies do not adequately document the condition of your vehicle, and only a small fraction take photos of your car before you rent it. Whip out your digital camera or smartphone, and let’s get to work. At a bare minimum, you need shots of the front, back and sides of the car. I would recommend two close-up shots of each side, the front and rear windshield, the front and rear of the car, and the roof. Don’t forget the interior: the dashboard, front seats, back seats, and trunk. If you want to be extra careful, take snapshots of the wheels and under the two bumpers. Believe it or not, motorists have been billed for damage that’s unseen by the naked eye at the time of the rental. You can’t be too careful.
Note: If you’re in a garage with low light, drive the car somewhere in the parking area that’s well-lighted to conduct your visual inspection. Do not leave the rental lot without taking these pictures. Repeat: Do not leave.
It is impossible to over-photograph or videotape the car. By the way, if you are videotaping, hold the camera steady, and make sure it’s set to the highest resolution. If you’re shooting still images, and you have the option to timestamp the photos, make sure that function is activated on your camera.
Download your photos, and then upload them into the cloud for safekeeping. How long should you keep these photos? At least six months after your rental. That’s the longest I’ve seen a car rental company wait to file a damage claim. After that, feel free to delete these files.
Your car rental company should furnish you with a form where you can note the condition of the vehicle. The form allows you to identify any problems on a diagram of a car. Record any pre-existing damage on this form and make sure a car rental employee signs it. Don’t, under any circumstances, leave without a copy of the signed form.
If you spot a scratch or dent while you’re photographing the vehicle, tell an attendant. You will either need to document the damage in writing or ask for a different vehicle. Don’t let anyone tell you that a dent or scratch “the size of a golf ball or smaller” doesn’t count. Everything counts. My personal advice is that if the car is dirty and/or has large dents, you need to ask for another one. Not because you’re being picky, but because you could be held accountable for those dents later on. Also, scratches and other imperfections are difficult to see when the car isn’t clean. If you need to take a flawed vehicle, be extra vigilant about noting the damage on your form. Again, make sure an employee signs off on it.
Other reasons to reject your rental:
• It’s not the car you reserved that is stated on the contract.
• It appears unsafe to drive (balding tires, lights don’t work).
• Registration is expired, or will expire during your rental (don’t forget to check).
• High mileage (over 50,000 miles).
• Chipped windshield. You should have zero tolerance for anything irregular on the front or back windshield.
• Wrong color. (I’m kidding.)
• Upon driving off the lot, don’t be afraid to return if you feel the car is not driving properly.
Before you leave the airport car rental lot, you’ll pass through a checkpoint where your rental agreement and driver’s license will be checked by an employee. So, don’t put those away just yet (I usually leave them on the seat next to me,for easy access.) This last check is yet another opportunity to make sure your car is what it should be. Don’t be shy about getting out of the car, walking around it, and mentioning to the employee if something looks wrong. Remember, this is your last chance.
(These procedures will vary if you’re renting from a non-airport location. For example, there won’t be a gate, and pick-ups and returns may be handled differently, but the same principles apply: make sure you photograph your vehicle, document any damage, and know how to operate it.)
This is a hugely controversial issue. Car rental companies are faced with hundreds of millions of dollars in damage expenses every year, and the companies say they are just pursuing the customers who damage their vehicles. Many travelers believe car rental companies are profiting from damage claims, insisting that scratches or dents for which they were charged were either pre-existing or completely fictional.
Increasingly, car rental companies are taking a hard line on other damage. For example, if you’re renting a car in Denver during the summer, there’s a chance you’ll run into a hail storm and receive a bill for hail damage to your vehicle. If you’re your rental has a flat tire, you’ll be asked to pay for the entire tire plus the replacement cost. Insurance won’t always cover this damage, and often, the rental company will charge your card directly for the damage and let you work it out with your insurance company — if you can.
Ideally, the car rental claims process will start when you return a damaged vehicle. An employee will ask you to fill out a claim form in which you acknowledge the damage, and explicitly agree to pay for it.
Recently, some rental companies have begun charging a renter’s credit card a deductible even when there’s been no formal damage estimate. I’m skeptical of that practice. While it may be legal, I think you’re better off waiting for a bill before paying up or asking your insurance to settle the claim.
If you purchased the optional insurance, you’re all done. You shouldn’t have to worry about anything else, but if you’re using your own insurance, or, God forbid, you’re not insured, you’re not out of the woods yet. You’re going to have to deal with your car insurance agency or credit card company quickly (there’s a time limit on filing a claim), and then negotiate with the car rental company or an outside company that specializes in damage claims (often referred to as a subrogation management company).
AFTER YOUR RENTAL
A vast majority of disputed car rental damage claims happen because of little dings and dents that no one noticed before you drove off the lot. Maybe you were parked at the mall, and the SUV next to you put a little bump in your side panel when the driver opened his door. The trick is to identify any minor damage when you return your set of wheels to the rental location. You’ll want to give yourself 10 extra minutes to walk through these steps. Believe me, they’re worth it.
1) Find a bright space, preferably out in the open. Whip out your camera, and photograph the inside and outside of the vehicle. Take as many images as possible. Note any dings, dents or scratches. Pay close attention to the windshield; that area is the number one source of damage claims.
2) Ask the car rental employee handling your return to walk around the car with you. They will often be busy (tell them you can wait), or totally unavailable (see step 3). Walk around the car with the form you filled out when you rented the car, and then ask the employee to sign the form, or give you something else in writing verifying that the car was returned in the same shape as you drove it away. If the employee says a printed receipt is sufficient, then at least note the name of the worker who assured you the receipt was sufficient. You may need it later, if it comes to a dispute.
3) If no one is available, go inside, ask for the name and email address of the branch manager, and send the manager a brief email with your name, rental number, and a few snapshots of the car as you returned it. Is that overkill? No, and especially not if you are using your own insurance, as opposed to the optional Collision Damage Waiver offered by the rental company. It signals to the rental location that filing a frivolous claim against you will be difficult.
4) Keep your photos, video, receipts and signed documents for at least six months. That’s how long it could take a potential claims process to play out.
In some cases, a car rental company will discover damage to a vehicle after you’ve returned your car. If you’ve gone through the process of photographing your car, and getting a sign-off from a real person, then this is a non-issue. Simply send your extensive documentation back to the claims department, and your case will be closed.
What if you forgot to take pictures, and simply dashed off to the airport terminal? (Hey, it happens.) Well, there’s a way out of that, too.
Note: If you think there’s a chance the car was damaged while you had it, and a car rental company can show you credible documentation to that effect, then I would urge you to accept responsibility for the bill. Car rental customers sometimes say they shouldn’t be held responsible if they were not at fault in an accident or fender-bender. That’s incorrect. If the car was damaged while you had it, you have to pay for the repair.
First, the bad news. You’ll get an email or letter from either the car rental company or a claims management company, alerting you to the damage. This can be unsettling because it often doesn’t contain many details – it only informs you of the problem and asks for your credit card information and/or your insurance information.
Next, the proof. The message will be followed by an email or letter that contains photos of the damaged car and an estimate of the repair. It could also contain two fees unrelated to the repair: loss of use, and diminishment of value. These fees are exactly what they say: 1) an estimate of how many days the car was out of commission and the average daily rate it might have earned; and 2) an estimate of how much less the car is worth, now that it’s been banged up. Read everything carefully. Make sure the license plate matches the plate on your rental and that it’s the same car. (Sometimes, it’s not.)
Lastly — pay up… or else. If you don’t respond to the first or second letter, the car rental company will threaten to refer your case to a collections agency. This is probably the last time you’ll hear from the agency, and it is your last opportunity to come to an agreement. By the way, if you fail to respond, you won’t just have a collections agency harassing you, you’ll also be blacklisted from ever renting from the agency again.
Again, assuming you are absolutely certain that you returned your car undamaged, here are the steps.
• Politely tell them you didn’t do it. This should be done in writing, not by phone. Resist the urge to get an immediate resolution. The process takes time. Be as detailed as you can in your explanation, but keep your initial letter tight. Most of these rebuttals are rejected, but all the same, they are a necessary part of the claims process, and you’ll need to get your denial on the record.
• If you do receive a denial, send a more strongly-worded email to the car rental company, restating your position. Copy your insurance company. By now, you should have received a repair estimate. Feel free to challenge some of the items, including loss of use, and diminishment charges, which can be as inflated as your repair bill. With a little prodding, I’ve seen these charges lowered or even removed.
• If that doesn’t work, I would recommend appealing to a manager, a customer-service vice president, or the CEO of the car rental company. This is a good time to loop in your attorney and the insurance commissioner in the state in which the car was rented. I’ve spoken with damage claim companies who say that if it gets to this point, and the damage is less than $500, they will drop the claim as a matter of policy. If none of those strategies work, call me.
Your scam radar should be on full alert if you see any of the following.
• A claim that’s a few dollars short of $500, which is the standard car insurance deductible. This may be a sign that the car rental company is trying to ding you for a trumped-up damage claim. It doesn’t want to go over $500, and invite the scrutiny of an insurance company.
• A damage claim for normal wear and tear. If an essential part of the car stopped working on your watch, and it was due to a maintenance problem, then it’s not your fault. A car rental company is responsible for changing the oil in its cars, and keeping the fluid levels where they ought to be.
• Damage to a part of the car that’s unseen to a normal person. That would include the roof and the undercarriage. Almost no one checks the roof before they rent a car, and no one crawls under the car. It’s really their word against yours that something happened.
• A cleaning fee for smoking or pets — especially if you don’t smoke or didn’t bring your dog or cat on your trip.
Generally, the answer is “no.” Car rental companies can’t be bothered with getting a second opinion when they’re processing thousands of claims, but that shouldn’t stop you from questioning the bill, or doing your own research in to determine if you’re being billed the right amount.
If you’ve run through a tollbooth or a red light, there’s nothing you can do at this point. Your car rental company will forward the paperwork to you. In many cases, the company will furnish you with photos that establish your guilt. At the very least, it should document the time and place of the alleged violation. Review this information carefully. I’ve dealt with many tickets where the driver was out of state, and couldn’t have possibly run the red light, or where the wrong car was billed for a moving violation.
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