I don’t like rental cars, but I sure love rental car insurance
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There are many frustrating elements in travel — the 6 a.m. flights, the security queues, the jetlag. I can usually handle these fine, as the excitement of travelling — especially in 2021 — usually overshadows these little niggles.
But even after all these years, there’s one part of travelling I still intensely dislike: rental cars.
Beyond perhaps applying for a tricky tourist visa, I can’t think of another relationship in travel that is as unpleasant as the rental car company versus customer dynamic.
My recent experience collecting a car in Scotland was typical of my rental car experiences, but an unexpected surprise on the return could have made the situation even worse and reminded me why proper insurance in these situations is so important.
Here’s what happened.
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Why I dislike the Rental Car experience
As always, I shopped around for a good deal. This wasn’t just the cheapest available price, but I checked details like the company’s reputation, hidden charges, opening hours and making sure the car was not located too far from the airport terminal in Glasgow (GLA), Scotland.
I pre-booked my car and made sure I provided as much of my information to the company prior to travelling as possible in an effort to try and minimise the usually awful collection experience.
When booking a hotel room or plane ticket, providing a large amount of advance information to the travel provider from the comfort of your own home would mean the arrival experience is fairly straightforward. You might need to flash some identification when you arrive, perhaps sign something, but you’re on your way after that.
As with most of my rental car collections, collecting my car in Scotland was nothing like that.
I arrived at the onsite booth to find a queue out the door. The long queues seem to usually result from the fact that each customer is at the counter for an extended period to collect their car. This is usually because of the mountain of paperwork, documentation, disclaimers, payments, warnings and information required.
Then, there is usually at least one unhappy customer complaining about something at the desk, which delays the other customers being served further. Tempers rise in these little booths as customers queueing behind them become increasingly frustrated that they can’t be on their way.
Sure enough, in Scotland when I eventually progressed through the queue and into the booth, the customer next to me had not activated his new credit card and could not do so in time to process the pre-authorisation. He alternated between yelling at his bank on the phone and the staff member trying to process the payment.
Insurance and pre-authorisation
The rental car provider may try to upsell you insurance. In my instance, the rental provider took its time walking me through its five different insurance policies — from costing just a few pounds a day through to the deluxe policy with no excess that was almost as much as the cost of the entire car rental.
The cheapest policy still had a minimum excess of £1,200. Even the second-to-most expensive insurance policy still came with a £500 excess.
I rarely purchase any insurance policies that are sold to me on the spot — whether that’s someone cold calling me on my phone or at a rental counter. This is because I don’t like being rushed into important financial decisions like this. Instead, I usually purchase a standalone policy in advance from the comfort of my own home when I have the time and patience to carefully pick the right policy.
I usually find these to be significantly cheaper because you can shop around rather than being forced to choose the only policies the car provider offers.
Advising the rental provider that I did not need its insurance as I had my own, I then had to pre-authorise £1,500 on a credit card in my name for any damage that I could incur during the rental. If you do not have a credit card with a high limit you may not be able to process this pre-authorisation.
If you are relying on the travel insurance provided by The Platinum Card from American Express, for example, you will still need to pay the full pre-authorisation amount. Also, remember that if you are required to pay for the rental with the credit card that provides the insurance — and some rental car companies don’t accept American Express.
Once I finally received the car keys, I walked out to the car, but the process was far from over. I then had to inspect and photograph every square inch of the car to check if the company’s inspection report matched the actual condition of the car — it didn’t.
I then had to get back to the front of the queue and either have someone sign off how the company’s report was incorrect or send through photos and videos by email in the hope this actually solved the problem. I chose the latter.
Overall, this is not a pleasant experience but fairly standard of my rental car experience.
My rental car experience this time around was a very new car in good condition, and I, unfortunately, returned it with a very small scrape on one of the wheels. This was my fault and I accept full responsibility. I drove the car into the rental provider’s car park 90 minutes before my flight departed.
I saw the familiar queue out the door and no staff outside of the booth to handle returns. It was an immediate indicator this wasn’t likely to be a smooth return.
Once I finally made it into the booth, there was a customer inside screaming at the staff. He became so aggressive the staff called security. At the other counter, the lead driver on his booking didn’t have a credit card to pay the pre-authorisation amount and the desk refused to accept payment from his partner who had a valid credit card but didn’t have a drivers licence.
As with the collection of this car, the atmosphere for the return was very unpleasant.
I eventually managed to be served and they inspected the car and advised me of the scratch. I was sent inside to settle payment for the damage, which came to £160.
Had I purchased any four of the car insurance policies the company tried to sell me when I collected the car, this insurance would not have covered any of the damage because the excess for all policies was far higher than the cost of the damage.
Why the appropriate insurance is a smart investment
So how does this story have a happy ending and a useful message? Because if you shop around, you can easily find affordable car rental insurance with £0 excess. My separate policy for this rental I had found myself was only around £30 total for the 10-day hire, and as it had £0 excess, I’ll get back the full £160 damage fee I paid out for only a £30 policy.
This was a very wise investment considering most of the insurances the rental provider tried to sell me would not have covered any of this damage and I would have spent about as much money on its only £0 excess policy as the cost of the damage.
This was another frustrating rental car experience from start to finish. I’m now at the point where I’m avoiding travel plans that require a rental car, as it’s such an unpleasant relationship between company and customer, and I’m dreading the next queue out the door and hostile booth environment when all I want to door is start my holiday.
If I do have to rent a car again, you can bet I’ll make sure I have my own rental insurance before I set foot in a booth again. The only good thing to come from this rental experience is that the independent insurance was worth its weight in gold.
Featured image by minemero/Getty Images
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