Rental Car Accident

The members of the AutoSlash team are all frequent travelers. When we help renters, we often talk about our personal experiences with rental cars, both the good and the bad. One of the situations we all fear is damage to the rental vehicle, whether we caused the damage (and the weather is considered the "renter's fault") or the damage was the result of another. My primary fears for rental car damage is hail and other drivers; both of my damage reports requiring adjudication were hail-based and I don't rent vehicles when severe weather is expected. 

A damage claim on a rental car is frustrating but is often fairly trivial if a renter knows his or her coverage. Readers of the AutoSlash blog probably have already reviewed our Primer on Rental Car Insurance as well as Insurance when Renting Abroad. We encourage all renters to precisely know the limits of their insurance coverages before departure in order to understand the coverage that exists (or coverage that may need to be acquired). For instance, I recently declined an upgrade to a Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible because the pre-existing damage wasn't accurately recorded and the cost of the vehicle was right on the border of my insurance coverage ($50,000 MSRP). Nothing but bad things could happen in that situation.

Camaro SS

Sixt recorded this dent, which extended from the wheel well to the door, as "Dent < 0.5 inches". This car stayed on the lot.

Some members of the AutoSlash team have never experienced a rental car damage claim. Others (like myself) have encountered more damage claims in rental cars than in our personal vehicles!

The Fee Detective Fights on Principle

I have two experiences dealing with a Damage Recovery Unit to-date. I fought both instances, giving up on one due to the opportunity cost of my time and winning the other claim. The first incident was covered by my credit card's damage waiver while the second incident would have required my credit card's damage waiver and perhaps even a bit of my personal automotive policy's claim line.

While attending an event in Kansas City, Missouri, I was staying at the Hyatt Place Kansas City Airport. Upon return of the car to the adjacent Kansas City International Airport, I was told that there were two tiny hail dings. I asked if it had hailed overnight and the return agent said yes. I asked if the company had documented damage to every car left overnight on the lot due to said hailstorm as there's no garage at the airport. The return agent said no. Effectively, I was being told that a hail storm passing over the airport had damaged my rented car but bypassed all the unrented cars. I wasn't buying that story.

The damage claim form was submitted and I received photos that didn't show the two hail dings. My budget officer eventually said to pay the charge ($250) and she would get Visa to reimburse the expense. The credit card's damage waiver worked precisely as expected given the terms of the issuing bank but I was unhappy with the process; this was a clear money grab at an amount that wouldn't be disputed by the credit card issuer. I did however now have a story about a provider and location to avoid!

The second case was a one-way rental with National, from Louisville International Airport (without an Emerald Club Executive Aisle) to the same Kansas City International Airport! I was scheduled to make an overnight drive. I went to the counter in Louisville, got in the car late one evening, and drove overnight. When I got to Kansas City, I had an unpleasant hour-long exchange that started with: 

Return Agent: "There's a lot of hail damage on this vehicle."

Me: "I just drove the past eight hours without hail."

Return Agent: "What's your name?"

Me: "Michael Fee Detective"

Return Agent: "We're not even showing this car as picked up, and your reservation was cancelled overnight."

Me: "What? Here is my printed rental contract and I have the car, right?"

Return Agent: "Oh ... they (the Louisville location) gave you a damaged car and cancelled your reservation so you wouldn't be able to return."

It's bad when a rental agent says one of his company's sites conspired against you to make it impossible to return a car. My check-in process took over an hour, as it's hard for the rental car companies to reconcile a person having a vehicle more than 500 miles away, with a paper contract yet a reservation cancelled manually in National's booking systems. Although the counter did have to complete the "Condition Change" paperwork, National's Damage Recovery Unit dropped the claim completely once following the sequence of events and documentation. The credit card damage waiver would have covered the car but I view it as important to fight against any false claim; that was my last (ever) rental from National at Louisville International Airport.


I did witness a shocking damage claim while attempting to return my car in the second instance. Suddenly smelling gasoline, I asked the return agent if he also noticed the smell. An individual arriving a few minutes after my attempted return had struck a pillar with a vehicle between the adjacent gas station and the return counter so hard that she tore off the rear bumper cover and broke the fuel filler neck with gas leaking in the vehicle return line. Her "condition change" form was very straightforward and she was gone within minutes ...  

AutoSlash Founder Jonathan Fights for What's Right

Jonathan has only been accused of causing damage to a rental car once, and that was a simple scratch. His credit card's damage waiver would have similarly covered the cost of the repair but he had driven a one-way rental between two airports, only stopping for fuel (and not running into any pillars after refueling). He received paperwork from the rental car company and told the rental car company to check the exit cameras from his pick-up location. His story is the least eventful as the issue was dropped -- either the rental car company viewed the security footage, found a previous damage report, or decided that the scratch wasn't worth pursuing.

Rental car companies occasionally decide that scratches simply aren't worth pursuing. We've frequently heard the check-out agents repeating the phrase that "scratches smaller than a dollar bill and dents smaller than a quarter" are fine on our United States rentals (international rental agents are often much more strict). Of course, the "dents smaller than a quarter" rule doesn't seem to apply to barely perceptible hail dings ...  

Our Former Rental Station Manager Follows the Rules

Our former rental station manager has driven more cars than many automobile dealers. Chris knows his insurance coverage well and also has many years of experience as the person who wrote up these damage claims at a rental counter for many years. Unless being falsely accused or shaken down on damage reports, he advises simply following the insurance claims process on rentals.

He also incorporates some tips and tricks we use along the way to mitigate our risk of loss. On a California damage claim to his rental car's bumper, he happened to be using American Express' Premium Rental Car Protection package. This service is beyond the service provided by the credit card companies by default and comes at a cost (either $19.95 or $24.95 per rental, with residents of California and Florida receiving a discount). We like using that service on longer rentals (between a week and 30 days) because it's primary rental car coverage for a low rate -- no damage claim ever gets reported to a personal automobile insurance company when the Premium Rental Car Protection plan is in effect (the product does not include additional liability). When he received the statement of damages from the rental car company, he simply forwarded the letter to American Express and the claim was handled.

A rental in South Africa also resulted in damage to the car's rear bumper. The resolution for this rental required a few more steps, including the submission (and resubmission) of documents to the issuer of the credit card he had used for that rental. The damage waiver coverage built into the credit card used for that rental settled that claim with no out-of-pocket cost.

Chris has also encountered nails on his travels; he's experienced tire damage on multiple rentals from the same airport location. Almost every credit card in the world excludes tire and wheel damage from the included credit card damage protection program. The rest of the AutoSlash team had never seen a credit card waiver program cover tire or wheel damage. Chris happened to find that his current primary credit card didn't expressly exclude tire or wheel damage (he read the rules), which he then verified with a telephone agent. We're not lawyers but we know that an action not excluded is included! He paid the claim for the tire damage and sent off the receipt to the address listed with his credit card issuer. Even on a claim that's almost never covered under damage waivers, close attention to the terms and conditions might provide some wiggle room! 

Our Take

The world's not perfect and accidents do happen! Effective planning and knowledge of rules can ensure that damage to a rental car doesn't cause large out-of-pocket expenses or increases among insurance premiums. The six cases we provided above are all resolved cases with the rental car companies. One case required me to spend $250 to pay off the rental car company with my organization being reimbursed by the credit card issuer. One of Chris' cases was resolved because he had elected to use American Express' Premium Rental Car Protection package on the rental at a cost of $24.95 (up to 30 days). Six cumulative settled vehicle damage claims where only one had specialized insurance coverage purchased and none ever resulted in any other form of out-of-pocket cash outlay.   

Some of our other tips and tricks:

  • Need to get some sleep? Read your credit card coverage to see if a damage waiver is available and what is included (or excluded).
  • Still can't fall asleep? Read your personal automobile policy to see what coverage is available for rental cars.
  • Are you a member of USAA? Ask us to book you under the USAA rate for the insurance coverage provided for military members and their families.
  • Are you a member of AARP? Ask us to book you under the AARP rate for caps on financial responsibility due to vehicle damage.
  • Do you have a long-term rental and an American Express card? Consider enrolling that card to automatically add Premium Rental Car Protection on rentals.
  • Do you like the law? We do, and the five options listed above do as well. If damage results from a prohibited use listed in the rental car terms, all the coverage listed above is moot.  
  • Have you developed a walk-around routine to check cars for damage before departure? Use a cell phone camera to take images of every scratch, ding, dent, etc. you ask the check-out agent to record. If the garage is dark, sit in the car to get the best view of potential windshield damage. Never leave a lot with vehicle damage that's not recorded to your satisfaction.
  • Are you a member of the loyalty programs or Avis, Hertz, or National? One of the reasons the AutoSlash team tends to rent from these companies is that many major airports give customers the ability to choose their own cars (Avis Preferred Select and Go, Hertz Gold Choice, and National Emerald Aisle) when complying with the terms of the programs. Don't like the dent in the door of that Chevrolet Malibu? Take the Nissan Altima instead!
  • Did you receive a damage claim from the rental car company? Don't ignore it! Any coverage you have, whether it's from a credit card or another source, has strict timelines for filing claims. If a claim remains unresolved, not only can rental car companies place you on their "Do Not Rent" list, the rental car damage claim can even be sent to collections and end up on a credit report!

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