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Like other travellers, Sam Cristol hates being taken for rides by his car rental company. Once, after dropping off his vehicle, he received a notice demanding payment for a damaged bumper. His answer offers a vital lesson in how to avoid getting scammed at the car rental counter.
After Cristol, the president of a specialty food company in Lake Worth, Florida, received the repair bill, he knew what to do. He was waiting for the bill and had taken precautions… and photos.
“I sent them ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the car,” he says. “I never heard from them again.”
Cristol’s case offers insight into the world of car rental scams. Some rental companies offer expensive insurance plans. And if you say “no”, they might send you a repair bill that may not be legitimate. And there are more fees than you might think that some unscrupulous car rental companies depend on to make a profit.
But you don’t have to get ripped off at the car rental counter.
This is how they try to scam you at the rental car counter
A recent Consumer Reports Survey found that 31% of respondents had experienced surprise car rental charges in the past two years. And that problem could be accelerating as car rental companies, some of which are going bankrupt, look for a way to generate revenue.
Surprise fees include:
- Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and Waiver Charges
- Fuel Purchase Options
- Car seats for children
- Forced upgrades when company runs out of vehicles in your class
- Unwanted charges such as “tire disposal” charges and “dealership reclaim” charges
Experts say you need to be prepared for extras.
“These are profit centers for car rental companies, and rental agents are often incentivized to sell these products,” says Dorothy Harpool, senior lecturer in marketing and director of student and community initiatives at W. Frank. Barton School of Business at Wichita State. “Customers need to be ready to make decisions about each one before they walk to the counter to ensure they are making a rational decision rather than an emotional one.”
Here is the biggest car rental scam
Of all these pitfalls, perhaps the biggest is the unexpected fees you have to pay for car rental insurance. Your car is not covered by auto insurance. If you damage the vehicle, you have to pay for it. Car rental employees are trained to offer you a policy that may not be necessary.
Interestingly, car rental companies could encourage insurance sales by calling customers like Cristol after their rental. If he had to pay for a new bumper, he would warn other travelers, who might be more inclined to buy an expensive cover.
The best way to avoid all this? Expect this and, like Cristol, take precautions.
“Before picking up your rental car, it’s important to know that the car rental insurance options available to you at the counter are not your only option,” says Daniel Durazo, spokesperson for Allianz Travel. “Researching your options in advance can provide you with an affordable alternative.”
First, know that your own auto insurance often extends to a rental car, including your collision coverage, if you have it. The only reason to purchase Collision Damage Waiver would be to keep any rental car damage claims out of your personal policy to avoid a rate increase.
Second, check the credit card you’re using to pay for the rental. It can include primary or secondary rental car coverage. The primary coverage would pay first, before your own auto insurance policy. See the best credit cards for car rental insurance.
A third option is to purchase your own rental car insurance. A site like InsureMyRentalCar.com can offer an instant quote on a car rental policy, even when you’re at the counter. You can then show the policy to the agent as proof, in case the person insists on not renting you a vehicle without coverage.
Allianz Travel also offers a product called Rental car damage protection, which costs $9 a day and covers you for certain collisions, loss and damage up to $40,000, trip interruption, and loss or damage to baggage. By comparison, policies at the rental counter cost about twice as much.
When to buy insurance from the car rental company
Sometimes, if you have no other options, you have to say yes to rental car insurance. But Tammilee Tillison, who previously handled rental car damage claims for a major car rental company, says you should never accept insurance from a car rental company without asking questions.
“You have to be prepared to ask what the actual coverage is, will it cover all drivers, will it cover damage to third parties and will your credit card or insurance need to be contacted,” says Tillison. , who now publishes a travel blog called Tammilee Tips.
Buy car rental insurance if:
- Your own insurance does not fully cover the rental car. You don’t want to be taken to court and have a lien placed on your home in order to pay for damages to the rental car.
- If you are traveling to Alaska or other states that use gravel for snow roads. Gravel causes a lot of damage to the windshield.
Another Way to Get Scammed at the Rental Car Counter: Forced Upgrades
Here is a trick that some car rental companies use for their customers. You arrive at the counter and an agent tells you that there are no more cars in your class. You have two choices: wait a few hours or upgrade to a higher class vehicle. Sometimes the agent tells the truth; the location is actually out of cars.
But the second part is less true. Standard industry practice is to upgrade to you at no cost. Offering a choice of a long wait or paying more is yet another way to get to the car rental counter.
You don’t have to fall for it. If an agent asks you to make this choice, you can ask for a supervisor. If that doesn’t work, go to the next car rental company and hand over your business to them.
Don’t be intimidated by fuel purchase options
Another advantage of car rental is the option to buy fuel, which allows you to avoid refueling your car before returning it. Erik Hastings, host of the PBS series Beyond your backyard, calls these fees “harmful”.
“To refuel, three options are generally available,” he explains.
- Buy a full tank initially. You pay in advance for a full tank and then return the car empty. The problem: if you don’t return the car empty, you pay more than you should have.
- Let the car rental company refuel the vehicle. But the company can charge a lot more than the price of gas – you could end up paying $10 a gallon. It is an expensive option.
- Fill up the car before returning it. But you must make sure you fill it out completely and keep a receipt. Otherwise, your car rental company may charge you for gas.
So which one do you choose? It depends, says Hastings.
“Either you buy the full tank of gas at the time of rental and return the car empty, or fill it up before returning your car to the rental location,” he says. “A quick search on Waze will let you know if there are gas stations near the airport. If so, filling up the tank before returning the car will be your best bet economically.
Child car seats? They are awesome too
Here’s one last way to get ripped off at the car rental counter: child car seat charges. Avi Wilensky, founder of ride-hailing site Up Hail, calls the charges “blatant and detestable.” They generally vary between $10 and $15 per day.
Considering you can rent a car for $30 a day, that’s a lot of money. It also targets parents with young children, who often try to save money when traveling. Over a week, you pay more in rental fees than the seat is worth.
“Paying more to rent an item than the item itself is worth makes us feel like we’re being taken advantage of,” Wilensky says. “Many parents don’t anticipate the fees at the counter – they are not included in the price quoted during the booking process – and are usually forced to pay.”
The workaround? Bring your own car seat. Airlines will let you check it in with your baggage and won’t charge you anything.
Sometimes you can’t avoid all unwanted charges
Car rental companies also charge you other fees. And you can’t always avoid them. Take charges like tire disposal fees or license retrieval fees added to your car rental bill. The tire disposal fee, as the name suggests, is a fee that covers the company’s costs for the disposal of old tires. And the license recovery fee covers the cost of registering his cars.
At airports, you may also find airport concession fees, which basically cover the rental charges from your car rental company.
And, of course, there are special car rental taxes, often used to fund stadiums and convention centers.
You can be fooled by them on your next car rental, but unfortunately there’s not much you can do about it. These are frustrating, but unchanging, items on your car rental bill. Separating them from the base rate may make your car rental cheaper at first, but that’s about it.
You don’t have to get ripped off at the car rental counter the next time you travel. If you take “before” and “after” photos of your rental vehicle and research your insurance and fuel purchase options, you can avoid the worst costs.