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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Steve, who got charged a rental car cleaning fee for someone else’s smoking. Here’s what he had to say:

We reserved an SUV for a trip to a family wedding, since we had five of us and a wheelchair to transport. The rental counter at the airport was very busy, and when we finally got to the lot to choose a car, there was only one SUV left. We got in and left the airport, but as we got on the highway (within about five minutes), all of us started to notice that the car had the distinct smell of cigarettes, and in general did not seem to have been cleaned.

We opened all the windows and grumbled about how they don’t clean their cars, but we were already concerned about being late to the event, and no one was willing to go back to the airport to return it. Plus, there weren’t any large cars left there anyway.

We complained about the state of the car when we returned a couple days later, and we were told not to worry about it. But a week later I saw a “cleaning fee” of $50 was added to my bill. I called to explain what happened; the agent I spoke with was nice, but she said that there was no record from the airport rental agent of what we had told him. The car was flagged since someone had smoked in it, which was against the rules of what I had signed.

I didn’t know the rules about not smoking in cars, since no one I know smokes and I’ve never paid attention to that sort of thing. If I knew I might have been charged due to the smell, I would have called the day I got the car. I did complain enough to the rental agent so that she ended up giving me $25 in credit to use on another rental, but she would not refund the cleaning fee.

One of the cardinal rules of renting a car is that you should always inspect your vehicle before taking it out on the road. At a bare minimum, you should walk around the outside and look over the interior — that gives you a chance to spot damage caused by a previous renter, and more importantly to identify unsafe conditions (like a flat tire or leaking fluids). I recommend taking your inspection a step further by snapping a few photos from different angles, including shots of any scratches or dings that might be flagged later. If you find anything out of sorts, notify the rental agent before leaving the lot. Once you drive away, all bets are off.

Rental cars get turned around quickly — even faster than hotel rooms, which aren’t always cleaned properly themselves. The pressure to get cars back out on the road is high during peak rental periods and that’s when corners get cut, so your inspection should be especially thorough if the rental agency only has a handful of cars left on hand.

I also recommend using a credit card that offers primary car rental coverage, since those policies help protect you from damages even if you aren’t at fault. However, note that the collision damage waiver on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (and others) only covers physical damage to the vehicle; it doesn’t cover any kind of cleaning fee, so Steve and his family would have still been on the hook for the $50 charge.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Steve for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Feature image by Alex Wichman/Getty Images.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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