A vacation rental car can be fun, but make sure you know what you're getting into.
Holiday travel is always hectic, especially when you fly to your destination and rent a car. By the time you wait in line, get to the rental counter and deal with all the up-sells – for a bigger model, GPS, gas plan and added “protection” options – you just want to get in that car and get going.
But first you need to inspect the vehicle. Anyone who’s rented before knows the drill. You walk around the car and fill out the little form to show where you found dings, dents or other damage.
Don't drive too far on tires that look like this.
Here's a tip based on personal experience: Check the tires. I was on vacation in Hawaii last week and the rental car I drove off in had four bad tires. The treads were all chewed up. I could actually grab sections of the tread and pull them away from the rest of the tire.
This car should never have been on the road. I should never have taken off without checking the tires. You just assume they’re OK.
The only reason I looked at them – at the hotel – was because the car made a funny sound that didn’t seem like normal road noise. (I called the company and they brought out another vehicle.)
You should also take the time to check inside the car. Look for damage to the seats or serious carpet stains. If you don't note that on the form before you head off, the rental company could try to ding you for it when you return the car.
In Hawaii, Budget has you sign a form that says you can be charged a cleaning fee (from $75 to $175) if the interior is considered dirty. This includes everything from stains caused by food, beverages or suntan lotion to melted candy and pet hair.
That same cleaning fee can also apply if the car’s interior has “excessive/heavy sand on carpet” which is defined as “any sand not contained to the rubber floor mats.”
To protect myself, I now use the camera on my cell phone to document damage. I still mark the paperwork, but I also take pictures or video of anything that really stands out. Because a digital camera has a time and date stamp, it's easy to prove when the photos were taken.