This Car Rental Mistake Almost Cost Me $250

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I took a crash course in why taking front shots of a rental car is so important.

Key points

  • I did not find any stains on the interior of my rental car when I picked it up.
  • The rental car company thought I stained it and was going to charge me a $250 cleaning fee.
  • Documenting the condition of a rental car is essential to avoid problems like this.

I am admittedly a rookie when it comes to car rentals. When I travel, I usually stick to other modes of transportation, like carpooling.

A few months ago my wife and I were visiting my godparents who live in a bit of a remote area so we had to take a short flight and fly from there. Since I don’t do this often, I wasn’t too familiar with the best practices when renting a car. I ended up making a common mistake, and it could have cost me quite a bit of money.

Pre-existing conditions

It all started well. I made a reservation with Budget Rent a Car using one of my travel credit cards which earned me lots of bonus points. On the day of travel the flight was fine and when I went to rental car pick up I got a free upgrade.

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Car rental companies often have an employee check the car with you before leaving, but that was not the case this time around. I collected the keys at the counter and the employee told me where the car was parked.

Before getting in, I checked the car for damage and found nothing. However, my wife noticed a dried stain on the passenger seat. Exhausted, she put a magazine on it, and we left.

Why didn’t I take a quick photo? To be honest, I have no idea. It was one of those errors in judgment that seem totally obvious in hindsight. I think I was focused on checking for damage, and because I didn’t spot anything, it gave me a false sense of security that the car was fine. When I saw the stain I thought it was just an old stain, it had probably been there a long time so no big deal.

Surprise! You owe us $250

I dropped off the rental car on June 18th and it took a long time for Budget Rent a Car to decide that this nefarious stain was my fault. He sent me a letter much later on August 3 to let me know he had found a stain on the vehicle I registered. Under the terms of the rental agreement, I was responsible and the company was going to charge my credit card. $250.

At first, I didn’t even remember the stain. I was mostly angry that Budget Rent a Car was trying to charge me something more than a month after returning the car. It was my wife who then reminded me that the stain was there when we picked up the car. It was probably more etched in her memory since she had to sit next to it.

I quickly emailed customer service explaining that I had taken care of the car and hadn’t stained it. I also added that I would dispute all charges on my credit card and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

I felt I would have a good chance of winning a credit card dispute. Although I didn’t, the card I paid with offered rental car insurance, so I might have been able to get my money back through that. But neither was guaranteed, and I was still angry with myself for not having any evidence to back up my claim about the condition of the car.

It doesn’t matter, no you don’t

Fortunately, when I thought I was going to be in a fight, it didn’t happen. Customer service responded a few days later and let me know that the location had not provided documentation of the condition of the vehicle. For this reason, Budget Rent a Car would not charge me for cleaning services. I also received an e-mail letter officially stating this.

I’m happy with how it turned out, but I also realize that I didn’t do a good job of protecting myself. And I imagine there are many other people who have been in a similar situation. If you rarely rent a car, getting evidence of seemingly minor issues can elude you, especially if you’re eager to hit the road.

Whenever you rent a car, be sure to document its condition. Take photos or, if your phone can record in HD, get a video reviewing the car where you verbally note any issues. It takes a few minutes at most and could save you a big headache later.

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