Is the car rental industry’s damage claims process fair to travelers?

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By Christopher Elliott

Always, always, always take pictures of your rental car.

Oh, I know, I sound like a broken record by now, but consider what happened to David Balovich when he rented a car through Alamo at the San Antonio airport recently.

Should you pay for the damage?

Balovich, who was in town on business, would normally take a cab into town, but he’d found a mid-size rental for just $10 a day through Priceline’s Name Your Own Price site – a real bargain.

“I declined the insurance several times as I read through the rental agreement,” he says. “The pressure to purchase the insurance by the counter clerk was unbelievable. I think he must have sold timeshares at one time.”

The rental was uneventful and accident-free. Balovich returned the vehicle two days later.

“I asked the Alamo employee to inspect the car while I took pictures with my Blackberry,” he said. “After he finished his inspection and said there was no damage I had him write on the receipt ‘no damage’ and had him initial the receipt.”

Almost two weeks later, Balovich received vaguely worded letter from Alamo, saying he should file a claim with his insurance company or pay the damages with his credit card. But the letter did not describe the damage or the cost of the repair. This is not the first time we’ve received a complaint like this.

I’m going to hand the mike over to Balovich for a minute to let him annotate the letter with his comments.

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands includes CheapOair and OneTravel. We are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Dear Sir/Madam:

They addressed the letter to me and they can’t figure out if “David” is a sir or a madam?

Thank you for recent your recent rental. Our Damage Recovery Unit has received notification of damages or loss to the vehicle you rented.

Notification from who? I have a dated, signed receipt that says “no damage.”

If you have not already done so, please contact your insurance company and/or credit card company to report this claim. Failure to report in a timely manner may void any coverage you may have. Once reported, please contact us to provide your claim information.

Report what? How does one file a claim when there is no information as to what the damage is and they do not provide a dollar amount? Not even an estimate.

If you do not have insurance or wish to pay this claim yourself, we will send you a bill along with supporting documents. If you have any questions regarding your responsibility, please contact our office.

What is this? Lets Make A Deal?

Door number 1, file a claim for an unknown amount and damages that we are not going to inform you of, OR Door number, 2 agree to pay the unknown amount yourself and WE WILL THEN send you a bill with supporting documents.

Are they for real?

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

Alamo Rent A Car

Yes, they are for real. I’ve seen this form letter before. It scares the living daylights out of customers.

So Balovich phoned Alamo to straighten everything out.

I first spoke with Shawn and after providing her with the claim number she told me she did not have the details or the estimate of the damage and transferred me to Derrick.

Derrick said the windshield on the driver’s side of the vehicle was cracked and the estimate to fix it, not replace it, was $600. He told me I could file a claim with my insurance company or pay the $600 right then with a credit card.

At this point, most people would pay up. But not Balovich.

When I told him I had pictures of the vehicle, when it was returned, and a receipt from the intake attendant stating there was no damage to the vehicle he put me on hold for about ten minutes.

I then found myself talking to Crystal who told me that I had opted not to take the insurance and I was responsible for any damages while the car was in my care. She offered to send me a copy of the damage report along with the estimate for the repairs.

Again, I repeated that I not only had pictures of the vehicle when it was returned but I also had a receipt initialed by an Alamo employee stating there were no damages to the vehicle when I returned it.

This statement was met with silence for almost a minute and then Crystal said, “Well it’s only a chip and we’re going to close the file is that OK with you?”

Snapshot success

So that’s how it ended. Alamo dropped the claim after he offered to show it pictures and a signed receipt. I recently wrote an article on how to win the car rental claim game. I really like the “just a chip” line, and have no trouble believing a claims person said it. (Here’s our ultimate guide to renting a car in 2023.)

Balovich can’t believe what happened. He says he’s troubled by two things.

“First, when they discovered I had pictures and an initialed ‘no damage’ receipt, the cracked windshield became a chip,” he says. “Second, before now I never even considered taking pictures of the windshield. After this incident, I’m not only going to photograph the body of the car and front and rear license plates but also the windshield and all the windows.”

Kudos to Balovich for taking the pictures, getting a signed receipt and resolving this on his own.

My advocacy team and I receive a lot of similar complaints. For anyone else renting a car this summer, you could learn a lot from his story. Take pictures of everything. Get everything in writing.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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