The Insider: Thanks for the keys to the rental car — now what?

Editor’s Note: This is part four of our new “Insider” series on car rentals. Here’s the first installment, the second one and the third one. By the way, if you see something I’ve missed in this post, please tell me in the comments or email me.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

You’re standing in front of your rental car. Now what?

If you said, “Load your luggage and drive away,” then you need to keep reading.

Many car-rental problems can be avoided by taking a few precautionary steps.

Do you know how to operate the car?
Car rental companies are now offering everything from electric vehicles to hybrids to Smart Cars (microcars), and they don’t operate the same way the standard gas-operated cars do. (Don’t believe me? Try starting a Toyota Prius without first reading the manual. Go on. I’ll wait.) This is the time to ask. Car rental employees are trained to help you get acquainted with your car. Note: This is especially important if you’re switching from a right-hand to left-hand drive vehicle, where many of the switches are reversed. At the very least, check your glove compartment to make sure the manual is there. You’ll be glad you did.

Are you ready for your close-up?
Every rental car must be photographed or videotaped by you before you leave. I’m not joking. Most car rental companies do not adequately document the condition of your vehicle, and only a small fraction take photos of your car before you rent it. Whip out your digital camera or cameraphone, and let’s get to work.

At a bare minimum, you need shots of the front, back and sides of the car. I would recommend two close-up shots of each side, the front and rear windshield, the front and rear of the car and the roof. Don’t forget the interior: The dashboard, front seats, back seats and trunk. If you want to be extra careful, take snapshots of the wheels and under the two bumpers. Believe it or not, motorists have been billed for damage that’s unseen by the naked eye at the time of the rental. You can’t be too careful.

Note: If you’re in a garage with low light, drive the car somewhere in the parking area that’s well-lighted to conduct your visual inspection. Do not leave without taking these pictures. Repeat: Do not leave.

It is impossible to over-photograph or videotape the car. By the way, if you are videotaping, hold the camera steady and make sure it’s set to the highest resolution. And if you’re shooting still images, and you have the option to time-stamp the photos, make sure that’s activated on your camera.

Download these images to your PC and then upload them into the cloud for safe keeping. How long should you keep these photos? At least six months after your rental. That’s the longest I’ve seen a car rental company wait to file a damage claim. After that, feel free to delete these files.

Your car rental company should furnish you with a form where you can will be able to note the condition of the vehicle. The form allows you to identify any problems on a diagram of a car. Record any pre-existing damage on this form and make sure a car rental employee signs it. Don’t under any circumstances leave without a copy of the signed form.

What if you see a ding, dent or crack?
If you spot a scratch or dent while you’re photographing the vehicle, tell an attendant. You will either need to document the damage in writing or ask for a different vehicle. Don’t let anyone tell you that a dent or scratch “the size of a golfball or smaller” doesn’t count. Everything counts. My personal advice is that if the car isn’t clean and free of large dents, you need to ask for another one. Not because you’re being picky, but because you could be held accountable for those dents later on. Also, scratches and other imperfections are difficult to see when the car isn’t clean. If you need to take a flawed vehicle, be extra vigilant about noting the damage on your form. And again, make sure an employee signs off on it.

Other reasons to reject your rental:

• It’s not the car you reserved.
• It appears unsafe to drive (balding tires, lights don’t work).
• Registration is expired, or will expire during your rental (don’t forget to check).
• High mileage (over 50,000 miles).
• Chipped windshield. You should have zero tolerance for anything irregular on the front or back windshield.
• Wrong color. (I’m kidding.)

How about the sign-off?
Before you leave the airport car rental lot, you’ll pass through a checkpoint where your rental agreement and driver’s license will be checked by an employee. So don’t put those away just yet (I usually leave them on the seat next to me, for easy access.) This last check is yet another opportunity to make sure your car is what it should be. Don’t be shy about getting out of the car, walking around it and mentioning something to the employee if something looks wrong. Remember, this is your last chance.

(These procedures will vary if you’re renting from a non-airport location. For example, there won’t be a gate and pick-ups and returns — which I’ll cover later — may be handled differently. But the same principles apply: make sure you photograph your vehicle, document any damage, and know how to operate it.)

Tomorrow we’ll talk about damage claims.

(Photo: Mark Sardella/Flickr)

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