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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Andrew, who spared himself from a large hassle upon returning a rental car:

Whenever my wife and I rent a car, we decline the rental company insurance because it’s covered on our Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card. The rental car company does a once-around the vehicle with us, circling any dings on a tiny slip of paper before we head out. This means drawing a single, useless circle on each side of the vehicle in the diagram, but the two of us also take videos and photos of the entire outside and inside. Even though the car is insured via our credit card, these photos have saved us from a hassle on more than one occasion.

We’ve noticed that rental agents can be the nicest people on the planet when we go to pick up a car, but when we return the vehicle, those same people can turn into raptors looking for fresh meat. As an example, we rented a car at the airport in Bordeaux (BOD). The agent behind the counter was sweet as could be, almost ready to invite us into her home, going far beyond the call of duty and making us feel welcome. She walked us from the counter in the terminal out to the lot to hand us off personally to the lot attendant, and wished us well. Our vacation was off to a wonderful start.

When we came back 11 days later, the same agent was working the vehicle return lane, and we smiled at her knowing we were practically best friends … but something was different. Using her eagle eyes, she pointed out spot after spot that she said was not there when we rented the car. We mentioned the paper with the circles drawn on it, but she said each circle was meant to indicate one scratch, not multiple.

What she didn’t know was that we had taken 55 pre-rental photos of the entire car. As she ramped up the intensity, I turned on my camera, scrolled back to pictures from the day we arrived, and showed her that the damage she was barking about was pre-existing. She then went to the next scratch, and I showed her a photo of that too. She gave up after the second one, and we concluded our business and went into the terminal, drama averted.

Rental car companies have a long history of billing customers for damage (sometimes fraudulently) even when they’re not at fault. The best way to avoid getting charged erroneously is to document the vehicle’s condition thoroughly before you drive it. However, you shouldn’t rely on the report you file during a pre-rental walkthrough — it’s often done hastily and in low light (especially at airport locations), and is woefully inadequate to document the full extent of pre-existing damage. As Andrew’s story shows, a simple mark on a slip of paper leaves a lot open to interpretation.

Instead, take pictures. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, how short your rental period is or how casually dismissive rental agents may be of a few minor dings, photograph the vehicle from a variety of angles, and be sure to record existing damage even if it seems insignificant. Don’t forget to check the roof and undercarriage, as well as the interior, the trunk and under the hood, and beware of issues that won’t show up in a photograph (such as a car that smells like smoke). Finally, I recommend taking pictures at the end of your rental, especially if you return after hours. Otherwise, you may be held liable for damage caused by subsequent renters, or by staff between rentals.

Many credit cards offer rental insurance in some form or another, but there’s a crucial distinction between cards that offer primary coverage (which supersedes your personal auto insurance policy) and those that offer secondary coverage (which does not). The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card falls into the latter category, so Andrew and his wife would only have been protected by their card against whatever damages their personal policy did not already cover. That means they would still have been on the hook for the deductible and any other associated costs. If your card offers rental coverage, make sure you fully understand the benefits before relying on them.

Related: Five Steps to a Perfect Car Rental

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Andrew a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo by sumroeng chinnapan / Shutterstock.

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