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Put the Phone Camera to Use, Avoid Headaches

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When I rented a car last week, I noticed some streaks on the front passenger-side door. They might have been just soap-scum streaks from the car wash, but they might also have been some real damage to the finish. The check-in agent was nowhere to be found, so I snapped a few shots with my phone camera. Sure enough, when I returned the car several days later, the agent in the return area pointed out the streaks and said he would have to fill out a damage form. “Not so fast,” I responded, “Those streaks were there when I got the car.” When the agent said that nothing about the streaks was indicated on the rental form, I told him, “Maybe not, but I took some pictures of it before I left the lot,” which I showed him. The result: No damage claim, at least not from me. That experience reinforced two important lessons:

  • Rental companies will try as hard as they can to stick you with a damage bill, especially if you don’t take their overpriced collision damage waiver.
  • Whenever you encounter a potential claim, a picture is the best way to prove your case.

As far as I can tell, rental car companies profit big time from damage:

  • First, they try to sell you collision damage waiver (CDW), which gets you off the hook for any damage to a car you rent. But at current prices almost $30 a day, the rental companies’ CDW is grossly overpriced. Third-party insurance companies sell collision coverage for $9 to $11 a day, and they aren’t losing any money on those policies; moreover, many credit card companies are willing to provide collision coverage “free.” I figure the actual financial risk for the rental is somewhere around $3 to $5 a day, tops, so the difference between that and the selling price of almost $30 for CDW is pure gravy to the rental companies. No wonder they push so hard to sell it—including, maybe, bending the truth a bit in the process.
  • If you don’t buy the CDW, they profit from the damage claim against you, your insurer, or a third-party policy. Although nobody seems to have released any hard numbers, I’m pretty sure the rental companies puff damage claims. Beyond the actual cost of repair—which I’m sure they inflate—they also charge you a loss-of-use fee at the full, undiscounted daily rate, even if they have plenty of other cars available, and they also assess various administrative fees and a fee for the car’s reduced resale value.

For years, I’ve recommended that you refuse to buy CDW and instead rely on your credit card for collision coverage. More recently, I’ve added the recommendation that you try to use a card with primary collision coverage (the card pays everything, not just what you don’t first claim on your own insurance), which is available on all Diners Club cards, some bank cards, and as an extra-cost option on American Express. And, to avoid false claims, use that phone camera to document even a minor scratch or streak before you leave the lot with a rented car.

The other situation when you really need a camera is when you encounter really deplorable conditions in a hotel room, resort, or vacation rental. My longstanding recommendation in such cases is that you give the hotel/resort/rental agent one day to fix the problem, and if the problem isn’t fixed, then bail out, find different accommodations, and demand a refund for your original payment. As with rental cars, a picture to back up your claim is invaluable—as evidence to use with the accommodations, or if that doesn’t work, as evidence for small claims court.

Years ago, a recommendation to “take a picture” would entail your having a camera, taking photos, and having the film processed—all requiring extra effort and time. But these days, when so many wireless phones have cameras, documenting a potential problem is easy. Yes, that phone can sometimes save you real money: When in doubt, take a picture.

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