Rather, two other issues could broadside the industry. The first is how car rental employees are trained. One former Budget employee told Canadian broadcast network CBC that he’d been told to inspect vehicles from top to bottom and report any damage to managers no matter how minuscule, starting with the windshield. I spoke with a former car rental franchise owner in the U.S. recently, who told me that she paid her employees to find damage on vehicles after they’d been returned.
Current and former car rental employees are only too aware that their business model is fragile. Take away the expensive insurance, fuel purchase options, navigation systems and aggressive pursuit of all damage to the vehicles, and your location could start hemorrhaging money. So it isn’t necessarily what the American car rental companies say about damages that could be damning — it’s what it says to its employees about them.
The second problem: People never forget. If you’ve been dinged for damage that didn’t exist when you returned your vehicle, you could spend years, and even decades, pursuing justice. Did I say “decades”? Yes.
Walter Bird contacted me recently because he’d received what he claimed was a bogus bill after he’d rented a Lincoln Towncar from Budget in Toronto — in 1995. No one had offered to do a pre-rental walkaround, and no one had been available to inspect the car, he says. They’d just handed him the keys. Several weeks after returning the vehicle, he says, he received a notification from Budget that it had charged $154 to his credit card for a damaged tire. No explanation, just a bill. He’s still furious.
“There have to be billions that have been made from fraudulent repairs,” he says. “Now, someone is doing something about it.”
It’s people like Bird who make me think that this time, someone, somewhere, is going to say “enough.” If the Federal Trade Commission can stop hotels from hiding “resort” fees and the Transportation Department can force airlines to come clean about delays, then it’s just a matter of time before this issue is taken up by an agency with meaningful regulatory oversight.
OK, I’ll be honest. I’m not holding my breath. So, in the meantime, do this: Take multiple pictures of your car before and after your rental. If there’s damage, make sure you note it. If you’re uncomfortable with the pre-existing damage, ask for another car. If you don’t think your insurance will cover you, buy the extra collision-damage waiver.
Document everything. Your car rental company will.
Christopher Elliott is the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals” and writes the Travel Troubleshooter column. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chriselliott.org.