How to Avoid Getting Taken By a Rental Car Company Over Damage

Christopher Elliott thinks that car rental companies are too quick to blame consumers for damage, and consumers too unwilling to own up to damaging cars.

Both claims are probably true.

  • As the last renter of a vehicle, a rental car company may assume you caused damage. But a car could have had pre-existing, undocumented damage or may have suffered an incident after the rental was returned.
  • If you ding a rental car, and the company doesn’t say anything about it, are you generally the first to bring it to their attention?

Although telling businesses they should stop doing what they’re doing, and consumers that they should behave differently too, is certainly tilting at windmills.

I know that I do not look for dings and dents. If they aren’t major, I won’t notice them picking up a car. And I don’t inspect the car before returning it, either.

I also generally rent from major brand full service rental companies — Avis and National are where I’ve had most of my rentals, but Hertz falls into the same camp. And generally speaking these major companies, renting and returning at the airport, don’t nickel and dime you for road wear. Small dings and scrapes happen, and are accepted more or less.

That doesn’t mean they have to be but these companies usually treat them that way.

The off brand ‘discounters’ and players like Enterprise are a different story entirely. It’s no surprise to me that the examples in Elliott’s column are rentals with Alamo and Enterprise.

I’ve rented from Enterprise before, but I never want to — first, because the paperwork has always taken interminably long, and second because there’s the collision damage waiver hard sell. The walk around the car of shame. “You’d better note any damage because you’ll be responsible for anything not noted.” I’ve been told that state law requires me to put down the full amount of my insurance deductible when I return the vehicle if there are any scrapes and I don’t take their insurance.

It’s simply not worth any savings to me to go through the hassle.

I always pay for car rentals with a credit card that comes with primary collision damage coverage. There are several now, including Chase Sapphire Preferred, United Explorer, and Diners Club.

If I didn’t have one of these, I’d probably rent with an American Express card and spring for their premium rental car protection, a much better deal than paying for a rental company to let you off the hook for anything your own insurance doesn’t cover.

If you ding up a rental car, there may always be some hassle. I worry less knowing that most of it is someone else’s problem in the end, my credit card company’s coverage and my own insurance coverage. And I rent from companies that seem to worry less about the minor stuff.

In the end there still may be disagreements. If there is a claim of damage, I may wind up in the middle of an argument or on the hook for ‘loss of use’ charges, a claim by the rental company that they need to b e paid not just for fixing the car but for the rental revenue they could have earned while the car was out of service. Any insurer should want proof that the rental location was sold out of cars on the days they want to be paid for (fleet usage logs), or else the company didn’t actually forego an opportunity to earn revenue off the car while it was in the shop. And disputes over that can linger on, so I could still wind up paying some rental days in the end.

And I’m cool with that, for the number of times I’ve probably had rocks hit my windshield or other road hazards scrape the car that I didn’t even realize, and neither did the rental company.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I recently rented from Avis in South Africa, and decided to pay an extra $50-$60 for complete insurance coverage with zero deductible. One of my credit cards probably could have covered all or part of any accident, but I thought having a care-free drive was worth the added costs. I just didn’t want to deal with any paperwork from across the oceans to save a few bucks. In the end, I returned the car after some tough driving on dirt and gravel roads in the same condition.

  2. Interesting, my experience has been the complete opposite. I rent about 50x per year, and I dread going Avis as they charge like a wounded bull (and if I have a choice refuse to rent Avis). My experience has been the ‘full service’ companies are much more ready to claim damage than the discounts. The one time an Enterprise rental did have a ding (caused by someone opening a door into my door), when I returned the simply said it wasn’t worth claiming.

    That being said though, before every rental I take time- and location-stamped photos on my phone before and after the rental. When companies do try to claim, I’ve found simply mentioning the photos has caused them to back down 75% of the time, and the rest of the time they usually back down after I’ve sent them.

  3. Some employees of rental car companies have shared horror stories with me over the years, including working for places where the company charged a future passenger for damage that occurred previously. Others have told me that as long as I return the car with the bumpers still on, I have nothing to worry about. To be safe, I use a credit card that covers CDW [primary with some, but not most, cards] and inspect every rental car quickly. I usually just turn on the video on my iPod and walk around the car. It takes about 30 seconds and documents the condition of the car at the time of rental. If anything shady were even attempted, the date/time stamp on the video could effectively discourage a false claim.

  4. [continued] I do the same 30 second video to document the condition of the car at the time of return. The staff seem to take notice, and I have never had a problem since doing this, including at lesser-known, cheaper places. Some might say it is overkill, but it makes me more comfortable and takes very little time.

  5. I rented from Hertz SFO today and they have cameras and lights at exit booth that are sign-posted as taking photos of the car to document the condition it leaves in. Presumably this is synced to res when rep scans your barcode and prints contract. Brilliant and shows dedication to being honest about it and cuts out the lies and arguments on both sides.

  6. We had a horrible experience in Salzburg this summer at Hertz that claimed we dented the car. It was torrentially raining when we picked up the car and we couldn’t accurately photograph the whole car prior to leaving, so we could have been responsible for the dent. But given where we travelled and that we only had the car for a total of 6 hours, it is doubtful we were responsible. The dent was so small, we couldn’t photograph it for our documentation! We are now hesitant to rent anywhere unless absolutely necessary. Beware of the Salzburg Hertz!!

  7. I once was given a car with a slow leak it took a few hours for the tire to get really low. I called but I would have had to pay to get it replaced and I would be liable for the tire. So I just drove it, filling up with air 5X a day and returned it. The next person probably had the same issue.

  8. I have fought and won against erroneous damage claims from Enterprise and Budget. Enterprise at LAX demanded $2k for damage to the roof of a 12 passenger van. I did not note it on the walk around because at 5’2″ there was no way for me to see it. They pushed hard for me to pay, but I was adamant that I had not taken the van into any covered parking structures. After a few months of back and forth they found a notation about the damage from several months before I rented the van.

    The Budget location at Memphis tried to bill me for roof damage to another 12 passenger van two years ago. Happily for me they sent pictures and a description from the body shop: “rusted hole.” A single phone call was all it took to convince them that I probably could not have created a rusty hole in a rental of only 5 days.

  9. I once rented a car from Hertz, *accepted* all their insurance, dinged the car, and they *still* charged me $2K for the damage. Blah.

  10. If I rent a car and the tank is only half full and I return it full, am I within my rights to charge the rental company $6.95/gallon for the extra gas plus fuel service I provided?

  11. @viewfromthewing
    in some countries (mexico, others) the insurance is mandatory, right?
    -does the primary coverage through the chase sapph pref or UA explorer extend that same type of coverage? basically, can i decline the mandatory insurance and still be protected through the credit card?

  12. In some countries, specially Germany, ensure the car is washed and vacuum cleaned before returning. If it is minor they will let you go, but if it is dirty, then they will charge you for that. Some locations have no exit attendant. If the car is damaged, return to the counter unless specified.

    A minor ding can be photographed

    Dont assume anything overseas. Better yet, take the train!

  13. My wife returned a rental car we rented and was told it passed in French and did not take a video [which I always do] and then we received a 95 Euro damage bill [it was through National, but it was Alamo Belgium. the claim is a paint chip on the door I believe, impossible to photograph. I have disputed the credit card charge in part and will have my primary credit card [United Explorer] deal with it if I lose my credit card challenge. Another thing is they tried to up my rate and not honor the price quoted by National. It in fact happened twice, as the day after I rented a second car for my parents off airport…Ultimately they charged me the correct price and gave an additional 95 Euro damage gift to deal with…

  14. This summer I rented a car in Detroit for a day. I just needed something quick to get me to my NEXUS interview and back. I will not name the company but I can say – it was NOT National and it was NOT Hertz.

    Anyway – did a walk around the car and then left the lot. Upon pulling into a store later that day, I noticed that there was in fact damage to the bumper but it was near the very bottom. I did NOT notice it when I looked at the car prior to taking it (I selected my own vehicle and the damage was not obvious). It almost seemed to blend in with the paint job.


    After a few minutes of careful thought, I figured I should call it in. At least I would let them know about the damage and that was the most honest thing I could come up with. I’d have to call and let them know and then let the chips fall where they may. So I called. My first sentence was, “I just picked up my vehicle a few hours ago and I noticed some damage – would you like my RA number?”….

    Immediately the person on the other end says, “DAMEEEGE? WHAT DO YOU MEAN DAMEEEGE?” WHY YOU NOT NOTICE WHEN YOU PEEK IT UP.????”

    I knew that I was sunk from that point on, so I did a HUDNCA (Hang up do not call again). I returned it the next day, and thank GOD they did not notice. From that companie’s standpoint (I would hope) the agent screwed up by not getting my RA number when I first offered it. But the second I felt threatened by the agent not understanding my predicament, I fled (hung up).

    Oh well. I tried. Just tried to be honest about it, and the damage was not mine.

  15. I’ll do a walkaround video. Pointing out any major dings/dents. I haven’t had an issue yet.

  16. God forbid you should ask an Avis employee to walk around the car with you and list all the dings at 1AM at JFK in 20 degree weather. They won’t do it. Although one guy once wrote “dents all over car” on the rental agreement and then signed his name.

  17. +1 to what WAE said — do a quick video walk-around of the car. BUT! Make sure you do it in a single take, and make sure you get the context — show the car in its parking spot. I’ve had my bacon saved twice by these videos. I returned a minivan in Hawaii. The intake person noted some damage. I pulled up my phone and showed that the damage happened before I rented. She grunted and I thought that was the end of it. Six weeks later I get a bill from Budget asking me to pay for the damages. Good thing I kept the video. I highlighted a couple of relevant bits from it, showing the van in its pickup spot with the damaged bumper. To Budget’s credit, as soon as I sent the pics they immediately withdrew their request.

    The thing is, car companies could take 30 seconds and walk around the cars getting video. Why don’t they?

  18. Enterprise is an off brand discounter? Really? I always had the impression their business was primarily in corporate contracts.

  19. @gene – At aiports that is correct. Enterprise is actually the largest car rental company in the world. Hardly an off-brand discounter. And since they own National and Alamo now, many of their airport locations are cross-fleeted. At some locations, the Enterprise, National and Alamo desks are run and managed by the same staff.

  20. I had Hertz try and come after me for a totaled car that caused me a great deal of hassle since I had not totaled or even scratched the car. It turned out to have actually happened a month after I rented the vehicle and it had been rented several times in between. I wasted a lot of time and effort to explain / prove that it was not me and to have them stop contacting me about it.

    I have not rented from Hertz for 5 yrs because they irked me so greatly. I do agree that Enterprise is the most picky on walk around and hard sell of LDW.

  21. Unlike everyone else with their horror stories I was actually driving a car when a “watch for falling rock” warning sign was accurate. Baseball sized rocks cascaded onto the road and I hit one despite my best Stirling Moss driving. Blew the tire. Put the spare on, drove back to Hertz and got a new car. Got a bill for the $400 for tire, labor, loss of use and sent a scan of the bill and rental info to the Mileage Plus Club card insurance people. Got a letter a week later saying they have taken care of it and that I didn’t need to do anything else.

    Sometimes it all just works. I *always* rent using that card.

  22. I learned something really interesting last year in NYC. I rented from Avis from JFK and then got into a fender-bender. I had declined Avis’s insurance and only had my own, and no extra credit card protection. I was expecting a huge hit to my insurance. To my surprise, however, it turns out that NY state law requires auto insurance to be compulsory, which meant that Avis was on the hook for the first $10,000 of damage, whether I had their insurance or not. In the end, no charge to my insurance, and no change in my driving record. I was very lucky.

  23. I believe that National, Alamo, and Enterprise are related companies. So why is National ok but the other two not?

  24. I’ve been a National guy since we rent locally & the National folks usually treat me well. I’m Executive thru MilePoint. Last rental was a free upgrade to a VW Tourig. I didn’t notice the left fog light was busted – it’s below the bummer – until it was dark & a notice flashed on the dashboard. Upon returning, I pointed it out and was reported. However I explained to the damage folks & they dismissed any further action. I also had slow service at DSM last month, so I requested & received a status match to 5* w/ Hertz. I’ll be renting from them next time in DSM. Got to be able to switch to whoever is treating you well at the time

  25. I will be going to Kona next month…we plan on renting a car for 6 days, to rent the car is around $130 but the loss damage waiver is $161 this is thru National, we will be going on some ruff roads so my husband thinks we should get the LDW, we do have the Chase Sapphire and United Explorer we also have personal coverage on our cars…not sure what to do. I also saw that priceline only charges $11 a day for LDW and the rentals are pretty cheap. Any advice would be appreciated!!

  26. I will never rent from Alamo in Solana Beach CA. I believe they blame someone else’s damage on you to cover their negligence of not checking in cars properly. Be careful at this location and if you rent from them take video and photos of the car you rent–and take of the roof too! That was the scam they pulled with us. Just saying…

  27. Rented from Avis in MidTown/Colony Square Mall, A5M
    1197 Peachtree St NE Ste 506. Atlanta, GA 30361 US back in 2016. The van was filthy when we picked it up. It had not been cleaned or checked out by the lazy sod working their counter. We cleaned the vehicle, did a quick visual for damage, and hit the road. Next day a piece of trim blows off on the highway. Apparently, the last renter busted it and taped or glued it in place. I filed a report when I dropped it off in Ft Lauderdale and then got hit with a $1000 bill. Avis won’t even discuss the situation, just dumped in on their collection dogs at Viking who have proceeded to hassle me at every turn. I didn’t pay the bill, won’t pay the bill, and have moved all our company rentals to National.

  28. Do not rent from Hertz in Konstanz, Germany.
    Company charges you for damages which should be wear and tear. Or in one example charged a gentleman for scratches under the car.
    Please read reviews before you book. We had a terrible time with them. First they did not have our car, were going to down size us. After 1 hour we finally got our car.
    On return they charged us almost AU$700 for a scratch .
    Pay a few dollars more and book with Sixt or any other company

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