Renting a car doesn't always go smoothly. But what do you do if you have issues in a foreign country? And how do you avoid getting hosed for problems you couldn't prevent?
Question: This past April, my fiancé and I took a week-long holiday in South Africa, where we rented a car from Avis at the Cape Town Airport location. We picked up the car on a cool morning. After about 150 miles of driving, as the sun got higher, we decided to turn on the air conditioner. No luck. It produced nothing but hot air.
I called Avis and left a message, which wasn't returned. Rather than drive all the way back to Cape Town, we decided to roll down our windows and make the best of it. When I returned the car, I informed the lot attendant that the A/C wasn't working. He made a note of it, and away we went.
A couple weeks later, I noticed an $800 charge from Avis on my corporate credit card. I called and asked what it was for. It was a bill for a new air condenser unit on the car. As you might imagine, I complained, vigorously, but to no avail. It seems the Cape Town Avis office has dug in their heels, convinced that I somehow ruined their car's air conditioner. Me? I contend that I had to tolerate driving around Africa for a week with no A/C. Does this look like a problem you would be interested in taking on? —Jack J., Mooresville, IN
Answer: Mechanical problems with rental cars can be vexing. You might assume that if something doesn’t work or the vehicle breaks down, rental companies will pay for the repairs. The truth is, often they don’t. I’ve received letters from readers who were charged to repair leaking radiators, blown transmissions, burned-out clutches (including one clutch that failed less than a mile into the rental), broken seat belts, and many tires. In fact, when you rent from Avis in Cape Town, one of the options is to purchase a “Windscreen Tyre Damage Waiver.” The fact that it’s an option means if something happens to the windshield or a tire, without the waiver, you’re responsible for it.
Regardless, you shouldn’t have to pay for a mechanical issue that happened before you ever laid eyes on the car. As it happens in this case, before I contacted Avis, Jack followed up again and got a reply from its executive resolution coordinator, who agreed to refund the cost of the repair. But that was not necessarily a likely outcome, because Jack had no proof that the damage did not happen while he was driving it, other than the phone message he left with the Avis office. And, as we’ve discussed before, verbal proof may not help you, particularly when it is unacknowledged.
Still, it's a stretch to suggest Jack damaged the condenser unit in a car not involved in an accident. In addition, he made the call to Avis and he informed the lot attendant about the problem upon return. At the very least, someone could have warned him of the possibility that he might be charged, which would have allowed him to tell his side of the story.
If there is any one thing that drives me nuts about rental companies, it’s when they charge you for something weeks after you return the car, particularly when you return it to an agent who does not note any problems before handing you the “final” tally. Here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself in similar circumstances:
1. Inspect first. To make sure you don’t get charged for exterior or interior damage you didn’t cause, fully inspect the car and note any damage, including small scratches and dings, on the rental agreement.
2. Take pictures. Snap photos of the car when you pick it up, and when you return it, preferably time and date stamped, although a picture of the dash that shows the mileage should also do the trick.
3. Check the tires and verify they have sufficient tread.
4. Turn on the lights to make sure none are burned out.
5. Check all systems. When you get in the vehicle, verify that the main systems work properly, including heat, air conditioning, lights, navigation, wipers, sound system. Also verify that no warning lights are on.
6. How does it drive? Once you drive away, if you notice anything unusual about the way the car handles, return to the rental location and ask for another car.
7. Know your emergency protocol. If you discover something further down the road or the car breaks down, contact the rental company or its roadside-assistance service immediately. Ask what you should do and how it handles repairs. If something on the car must be fixed, find out what the proper protocol is to be reimbursed—depending on the repair, you may have to pay no matter what, but if you don’t follow procedure, it’s far more likely.
Learn more tips on how to avoid rental car woes.
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