This Car Rental Mistake Almost Cost Me $250

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  • I didn't get evidence of a stain on my rental car's interior when I picked it up.
  • The rental car company believed I stained it and was going to charge me $250 in cleaning fees.
  • Documenting a rental car's condition is a must to avoid issues like this.

I got a crash course in why taking before photos of a rental car is so important.

I'm admittedly a rookie when it comes to car rentals. When I travel, I usually stick to other modes of transportation, like rideshares.

A few months ago, my wife and I were visiting my godparents who live in a somewhat remote area, so we needed to catch a short flight and drive from there. Since I don't do it often, I wasn't too familiar with the best practices when renting a car. I ended up making one common mistake, and it could've cost me quite a bit of money.

Pre-existing conditions

Everything started out well. I made a reservation with Budget Rent a Car using one of my travel credit cards, earning lots of bonus points in the process. On the day of the trip, it was a smooth flight, and when I went to the rental car pickup, I got a complimentary upgrade.

Rental car companies often have an employee check out the car with you before you drive off, but that wasn't the case this time. I got the keys at the counter, and the employee told me where the car was parked.

Before I got in, I examined the car to see if there was any damage and didn't find anything. However, my wife noticed a dried stain on the passenger seat. Grossed out, she put a magazine over it, and off we went.

Why didn't I take a quick picture? To be honest, I have no idea. It was one of those lapses in judgment that seem totally obvious in hindsight. I think I was focused on checking for damage, and because I didn't spot anything, it gave me a false sense of security that the car was fine. When I saw the stain, I figured it's just an old stain, it has probably been there a long time, so it's no big deal.

Surprise! You owe us $250

I dropped off the rental car on June 18, and Budget Rent a Car took a long time deciding this nefarious stain was my fault. It sent me a letter much later, on August 3, to let me know that it found a stain on the vehicle I checked in. Per the terms of the rental agreement, I was responsible, and the company was going to charge my credit card $250.

At first, I didn't even remember the stain. I was mostly just mad that Budget Rent a Car was trying to charge me for something over a month after I'd returned the car. My wife was the one who then reminded me that the stain was there when we picked up the car. It probably stuck in her memory more since she had to sit by it.

I quickly fired off an email to customer service explaining that I took care of the car and didn't stain it. I also added that I'd dispute any charges on my credit card and submit a complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

I felt like I'd have a good shot at winning a credit card dispute. Even if I didn't, the card I paid with offered rental car insurance, so I might have been able to get reimbursed through that. But neither was guaranteed, and I was still upset with myself for not having any evidence to back up my claim of the car's condition.

Never mind, no you don't

Fortunately, while I thought I'd be in for a battle, one didn't happen. Customer service responded a few days later and let me know that the location didn't provide documentation of the condition of the vehicle. Because of that, Budget Rent a Car wouldn't be charging me for cleaning services. I received a letter by email officially stating this, as well.

I'm happy with how it turned out, but I also realize that I didn't do a good job of protecting myself. And I imagine there are plenty of other people who have been in a similar situation. If you rarely rent a car, getting evidence of seemingly small issues may slip your mind, especially if you're eager to get on the road.

Whenever you rent a car, make sure to document its condition. Take pictures or, if your phone can record in HD, get a video examining the car where you verbally note any issues. It takes a couple of minutes at most, and it could save you a big headache later.

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