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There are plenty of travel sites that tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bi-monthly Mistake Monday series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes. (All photos by the writer unless noted.)
Thanks to miles and points, I celebrated New Years 2014 in Jamaica.
The cities and the beaches were great, but I also love driving through small towns when I travel, so I rented a car and hit the Blue Mountains.
The drive was bumpy but beautiful, with great vistas of coffee fields, tropical greenery and shimmering ocean. Near the top, I got lunch from a roadside stand, then headed back downhill.
After a few minutes, I heard: POP! Thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap.
Uh-oh, was that what I think it was?
I pulled over and confirmed my suspicion: The front left tire was flat. Dead flat.
Not remembering the last time I passed a town — let alone a garage — and with no cell service in sight, I set to changing the tire. Fortunately, the car’s trunk held a spare, a jack and a tire iron, which (after some fiddling on my part) all served their purposes admirably. I was back on the road in no time, with the flat tire stowed in the trunk.
When I returned the car, the agent asked in her lilting island patois, “And how was ev’ryting?”
I told her it was great, except for one thing: the flat tire.
She expressed concern, which I appreciated, but followed with something I did not: a charge for the flat tire.
Sure enough, somewhere in the small print of my Rental Agreement was a clause regarding my responsibility for damage to the car, and included in the list was damage to the tire. I didn’t see how I could argue my way out of it, so I reluctantly paid an additional $90 on the $88 rental.
That’s right: The flat tire cost more than the use of the car!
For that money, I decided to keep the broken hubcap. If I was going to pay $90, I at least wanted to get something to show for it.
And that’s when I made my real mistake: I didn’t make a claim.
There was no good reason for not pursuing a claim. It’s just that by the time I got back from vacation, I had all sorts of real-life stuff waiting for me to deal with. The notion of making a claim just kept getting pushed down the priority list. And besides, was it really worth the hassle for $90?
Recently, my good friend Jason had an incident where he also was charged for damage on a rental car in another country. He did pursue a claim. Could his experience provide me with ways to understand and mitigate my mistake? I asked him about his ordeal …
Jason, can you give me an overview of what happened?
I rented a car from Hertz in Barcelona, which I returned in Bilbao 10 days later. At the rental car return, the agent took me outside and showed me a hairline scratch on the side of the rear bumper which I had no recollection of. It was so small, I expressed surprise that it was considered to be damage. She walked me back to the counter and showed me that the charge for the scratch would be €203 ($227), which was about €149 ($167) for repair of the bumper plus an administrative charge of €54.55.
Didn’t you do a walk-around when you picked up the car?
If I had noticed the scratch in a walk-around, I don’t know if I would’ve mentioned it, it was so small.
Did you ask for a break?
Yes, but she said it was non-discretionary, and in fact according to her chart was the minimum damage fee. If I had an issue, she said I could take it up with Hertz headquarters but did not have great optimism that I would succeed. I said, “Can you give me documentation to send to credit card company?” and she gave me an “Accident Report Form.”
So you decided to make a claim with your credit card company. How did you proceed?
I called the number on back of my USAA credit card, and the agent told me to contact the MasterCard Assistance Center. I looked on their website and saw no way to file a claim. I called MasterCard and got their e-mail and sent in my records electronically: my credit card statement with the charge, a copy of my personal auto insurance, the rental record and the accident report. I got back a claim number to track via a website.
A few days later, MasterCard said my documents were OK, but they needed documents from Hertz: an Appraisal or Estimate of Damage and a Fleet Utilization Log. I told them that they had the estimate of damage, but was told they needed a breakdown of parts and labor.
I called Hertz’s USA Customer Service number and was told I needed to contact Customer Service in Spain. To do so, I was given an e-mail address with a weird combination of letters and told it would take a week or two to get a reply.
I sent my request and after three weeks, I hadn’t heard back so I sent a follow-up. This time I got a reply from Hertz, with a letter explaining that the original form I got from the agent in Spain should be sufficient. They also said that the car might not be repaired, so they can’t break down the parts and labor. They also did not send a Fleet Utilization Log. I forwarded the letter to MasterCard.
A few days after that I got an automated response from MasterCard saying they were still waiting on the Fleet Utilization Log. Finally, I called MasterCard and ultimately got to a helpful person who agreed to process the claim [without it].
About a week after that, MasterCard sent an email saying they “are pleased to issue payment,” only that my policy did not cover Hertz’s administrative fee.
Finally, a few days after that, I got a check in the mail for $167.86.
Wow. So how long did it take to go through all this?
It was two and a half months for the results. It took me about five hours of labor to get it all done. On site at the rental car counter was maybe another 15 minutes. But it added a tremendous impact on my emotional state. Part of the reason you go on vacation is to get away from stress…
And you seemed to have to do an awful lot.
I did. There was a point where MasterCard was just waiting to hear back from Hertz. I asked point-blank, “What if Hertz doesn’t get back to you?” and was told that the claim could just go dormant after six months.
So Hertz had no incentive to participate in the process?
Reaching out to Hertz was done on my own. “What if I contacted Hertz myself?” I asked a MasterCard rep. He said, “You might have better luck than we will.”
What could have MasterCard done to make this process better?
The process could be streamlined in multiple ways: making it easier to file or open a claim — you can’t even find a claim form online — and standardization of what is required. Ultimately, the documents MasterCard said they needed from Hertz weren’t necessary, once I found a sympathetic agent on the phone.
[Note: Three weeks after issuing payment, he received an automated notification that the claim couldn’t be processed without the Fleet Log document.]
What about Hertz?
Whether car rental companies are fair or not is a bigger question. I rented from a major US-based company because I figured there would be fewer hassles than with a smaller company. People probably pay more for that privilege.
If you hadn’t had the coverage on your credit card, what would you have done?
Fought it to no avail with Hertz. Or would have seethed in anger. I knew it was not a winning hand to fight with Hertz.
What did you learn from your experience?
There were so many steps where I could have been discouraged. I feel like this is a system which is designed for the consumer to abandon the process. Neither the car rental company nor the credit card company appear to be interested in getting these claims resolved. It’s a classic case where you make it sufficiently complicated that most folks won’t follow through. If the credit card company is truly interested in people successfully filing claims, they will make it much simpler.
So, was it worth it?
It was absolutely worth the trouble. If a case comes up where it’s appropriate to take advantage of a [credit card] benefit, I want to do so. And more so, given what I believe to be the unfairness of the rental car process, where they assess damage [and fees] based on their say-so and with little discretion or opportunity for review (and given it was overseas, it wasn’t easy for me to challenge there), I certainly wanted to do what I could to recover some portion of it.
In the end, the system worked in that I recovered most of my cost and took away most of the bad taste in my mouth [from being charged in the first place] but it was more time, effort and angst than I would have preferred.
OK, so I did make a mistake in not pursuing a claim in my case?
Maybe not for getting your $90 back, but in the bigger picture, if more people were successful in their claims, perhaps the credit card companies would pressure the car rental agencies to be more reasonable. There’s value in pursuing a claim in order to hold both companies accountable — and to regain a measure of cost and satisfaction along the way.
If credit card companies are going to offer a benefit, they ought to stand behind it and make it feasible to take advantage of it.
What’s been your experience with making a claim for rental car damage? Do you think it’s worth the trouble? Let us know in the comments below!
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