Why does renting a car always feel like a gamble?

My husband has this need to take a cool photo of our rental car on every trip. I don’t know why he wants to remember our cars so badly, because in my opinion, renting a car has the highest potential for disaster on any given trip.

There are lots of travel situations when I’d recommend a local company over a multinational corporation. For instance, boutique hotels are more personal than name brand hotels. Local restaurants are better than chains. Local guides are more private and customizable than cruise-ship expedition trips.

But when it comes to car rentals, go with the big guys: Hertz, Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, or National.

Yes, even with these big, multinational brands, renting a car can feel like a gamble. If you’ve ever read the Tribune’s Sunday Travel section, you’ll see a pattern. Every other week or so, the columnist goes to bat for a disgruntled traveler who got screwed by a car rental company.

Most commonly people are charged for damages that existed before they ever got in the rental car. So you have to know how to protect yourself. Always take photos of any dents or scratches before you pull out of the lot. It’s best when the company provides you with a diagram so you can mark damages and hand over a copy before you drive away.

These big companies are also perfecting some pretty sly sales pitches, making consumers believe that buying their insurance or prepaying for gas is not only a good idea, but that it’s what most drivers do. It’s not.  I recommend getting a credit card that provides free car rental insurance coverage rather than paying the steep charge they agency will offer you at the desk. And never prepay for gas; what if you don’t use it? And it’s going to be cheaper to fill up on your way back to the airport.

Even with all the pitfalls of the major agencies, it’s still a safer bet than the alternative. And even though I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler, I almost made that rookie mistake.

In a trusted Costa Rica guidebook the writer noted that she has always had a good experience with U-Save, a rental agency that serves Costa Rica. Because I liked the guidebook overall, I trusted the recommendation and booked the rental. U-Save was about half the cost of the multinational big boys. I felt great about it. Sure, the name was weird, and sure, I’d never heard of them before, but they had a solid recommendation. So why not give it a try?

As the weeks wore on and the trip got closer, I started getting a nagging feeling. I noticed a few reviews of the guidebook online that called into question its accuracy. What if they were wrong about U-Save? I checked Kayak, but rentals from the familiar companies were running $150 more. I could think of a lot of better ways to spend that $150. I held out.

But the feeling wouldn’t dissipate. I googled “U-Save Costa Rica.” A lengthy Tripadvisor thread confirmed what I already knew: extra charges, billing issues, unresponsive customer service, getting less of a car than you paid for, charging you for more than you reserved, a “big headache,” “crooks,” “fraudulent,” a “scam,” “avoid by all means,” “avoid this company like the plague,” and on and on.

I rebooked with Alamo about 4 seconds later. It wasn’t cheap. But while I could have potentially saved $150 with U-Save, I also could have potentially ended up spending hundreds on a lost deposit, getting charged for bogus cleaning fees, or having my whole trip tarnished with an unnecessary and stressful hassle.

Of course, there may be some great, smaller rental agencies out there that provide renters with great customer service and fair prices. But do your due diligence. Look into them online. Give them a call directly and feel them out. Only book if you’ve done your homework.

Peace of mind has a price tag. And while Alamo may still try to ding me for a scratch, at least I have recourse with a big, American corporation that has a reputation to uphold among consumers.

Rental car on Kauai.

Other tips for booking a car rental:

  • Most good companies don’t require a credit card to book. Those companies also don’t require a cancellation window, so you can change/cancel your reservation any time.
  • If you give your credit card to make a reservation, read the fine print very carefully. Look for cancellation fees. If the fine print is vague, don’t book.
  • If you prepay on Priceline or Hotwire, the agency may hold on to a deposit of a couple hundred dollars until you return the car. I’ve done this and it’s always been okay.
  • If you don’t prepay and they ask for a large deposit, don’t book. U-Save wanted between $900 and $1500.
  • Book your car, and then keep checking. Rates fluctuate daily.
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2 thoughts on “Why does renting a car always feel like a gamble?

  1. is that top picture from the road up to Haleakala? i have a VERY similar picture (minus a man and a jeep!) from 2 weeks ago!

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