How to avoid a car rental surprise

When you rent a car, all you really want are the keys to your car and reliable directions, thanks very much. No surprises.

But a surprise is exactly what Theresa Speake says she got when she rented a car in Cancun, Mexico, recently.

She’d made her reservation through, and had confirmed a two-week rental for a Chevrolet Aveo. She read the confirmation carefully. “There was no statement that I would be required to have additional liability or collision insurance,” remembers Speake, who works for a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Va.

When she landed in Cancun, a representative for the car rental company told her she couldn’t have the wheels without paying another $466 for insurance. She reluctantly bought coverage from Dollar Rent a Car, hoping to fight the charges when she returned home. But despite her protests, the bill stuck.

Surprises happen all the time, and not all of them are bad ones. Sometimes, car rental companies do nice things for their customers. But sometimes they don’t. Avoiding a surprise at the counter requires understanding the real purpose of a car rental counter. And also knowing what to look for.

The insurance upsell is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Insurance is mandatory in Mexico, but it’s also required to be included in the rental rate. So Speake was just on the other end of an enthusiastic sales pitch. I asked Dollar about her charges and it agreed to refund her $466.

Some surprises are welcome, like the one Ross Tavendale got when he rented a car in Barcelona, Spain, through Europcar recently. A representative noted that he was a frequent renter and offered him a one-class upgrade without charging him extra. Tavendale considered it a “random act of kindness.”

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“To this day, I still can’t believe that it happened,” says Tavendale, a web consultant based in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Needless to say, I’ll be using that rental company every time.”

But many surprises aren’t welcome. Among them: Some locations don’t accept debit cards. If you’re not sure, ask. Many popular car rental locations run out of vehicles and will either make you wait hours for a car in your vehicle class to be returned or try to talk you into paying for an “upgrade.” And perhaps the worst surprise of all: Discovering there’s no rental for you and no hope that you’ll get one.

That’s what happened to Joan Fradella when she reserved a Dodge Charger at JFK airport in New York recently.

“We needed the large car for four passengers and lots of luggage,” says Fradella, a family mediator based in Lake Worth, Fla. “We heard the agent offer someone ahead of us a Charger, and joked that he got ours. When it was our turn, we found out he had.”

The only remaining car was a Mini. Fradella found a replacement at another agency.

What’s happening behind the scenes? Car rental companies sometimes see the counter as more of a sales opportunity than an opportunity to service their customer. Experts say they’re trained to “upsell” you on expensive insurance, extras and upgrades in an effort to make their rentals more profitable. Add it all up and the overall experience could very well be a surprise — and not a good one.

The solution? Well, surprises won’t ever be completely eliminated, nor should they. After all, what’s not to love about a surprise upgrade? But the auto rental industry needs to take a closer look at its business model. It’s relying on hard-selling insurance and add-ons to its cars instead of pricing its vehicles reasonably. And as long as it offers ridiculously low “per-day” rates that demand such aggressive sales, the surprises will continue.

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The bad ones, that is.

How to avoid a car rental surprise

Read the fine print.
Many surprises aren’t surprises at all — they’re just “gotchas” concealed in the fine print. How do you avoid them? Easy. Read the fine print. Look for the “terms and conditions” in small type. Don’t ignore them.

Ask before you rent.
Does your car insurance cover the vehicle? How about your credit card? The only way to know for certain is to ask. If you assume, you may be stuck with an unnecessary bill. “Get the agent’s first and last name and title,” adds Becky Blanton, a professional speaker and frequent car renter. “When you get a name, someone is accountable.”

Resolve in real time.
Don’t wait until you get home to fix a bad surprise. Most problems can be resolved at the counter. Remember, unless you prepaid for your car, you can still cancel your reservation and take your business to another car rental company.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • JenniferFinger

    A big problem is when you rent online, because you can’t ask anyone any questions in advance about what car you are getting, who had it before you, or where it’s been driven before, “mandatory” insurance coverage, or anything else.

  • Kerr

    Even if you rent via phone, they don’t know which car you’ll get so they can’t answer about its mileage, previous drivers, etc. At the counter, all they can tell you is the current mileage of each vehicle and except for high numbers, that doesn’t tell you much.

  • JenniferFinger

    Exactly. There’s just no way customers can get much information in advance when making a car rental reservation.

  • Jeff W.

    Not to defend the car rental agencies, but this is on the same path as the airlines. Why? Because people are shopping and basing their rentals solely on price. Go to a travel website and agency x has it for $40 and agency y has it for $39 and people will go to y. So the agencies are racing to the bottom. And adding fees to make up for the lost revenue.

    There is no easy solution. You would have to get every rental company to agree to a standard pricing model, which will never happen. So as long as few use low base prices and extra fees to make up the difference, the rest will follow. They have to, or they will lose business.

    If I would add one extra car rental tip. Join their frequent renter program. They almost always cost nothing and you can save time in dealing with paperwork, as all your preferences are already saved. And in many programs, members just go to the assigned spot/area and take the car assigned, without a clerk in sight trying to upsell. You have to be a very frequent car renter to earn any real rewards — so few people chase car “rewards”, It is the convenience of rental experience that makes it rewarding.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Not to mention that your profile should allow you to decline insurance so it doesn’t get snuck in on you

  • Kerr

    A customer is renting, not buying so a lot of information isn’t necessary. If the car doesn’t look or sound right, a renter can ask for another one while still on the lot. However the insurance question can be addressed ahead of time via phone.

  • JenniferFinger

    I disagree (from experience) that a customer can automatically ask for another car while still on the lot. Rental agencies don’t always have alternative vehicles available that suit the customer’s needs; nor can customers (who have never driven that particular car before) tell by just looking or listening that there’s a problem with the car while they’re still on the lot; problems can be very subtle and not able to be detected until some time after the customer has taken the car off the lot.

    And that often means the insurance issue can only be addressed in person as well, because coverage would change with the car.

  • Kerr

    Sure if you arrive late at night you may be getting the last car in your size class, but usually lots aren’t completely empty.

    If problems are determined after leaving the lot, returning is still an option. If a problem isn’t detected until dozens (or hundreds) of miles later, then a call ASAP is still the best way to go.

    As for insurance requirements, those shouldn’t vary if you are choosing between a compact and midsize. Of course requirements vary greatly for exotic/high end cars, but those cars aren’t what most folks rent.

  • Skeptic

    You ALWAYS need additional insurance in Mexico because of that country’s laws. Drivers involved in accidents are presumed to be at fault and often have to go to great lengths to prove innocence. When I visit Mexico, I inevitably spend more renting a compact car for a week than I do renting an entire house. That’s the way it works there.

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