Before you click the "book" button on your next car rental, consider what happened to Elizabeth Thorp on a recent trip from her home in Washington to Denver.
When Thorp's airline canceled her flight, delaying her arrival by a day, Avis charged her a $150 cancellation fee for her rental car.
"A representative said, 'Sorry, you had a prepaid rate,' " says Thorp, who edits a humor website. "I'm not sure how they can do this nonrefundable stuff in good conscience. The prepaid rate is only $15 less."
Thorp's mistake was booking a nonrefundable rate when, for a few dollars more, she could have secured a fully refundable rate. Hidden terms and conditions are only one of three broad categories of frequent auto-rental errors. Insurance challenges and procedural "gotchas" also litter the road ahead.
Let me help you maneuver around them.
For Thorp, getting dinged by her car-rental company was disturbing. She took to Twitter, berating Avis as "shady" for charging her a cancellation fee. "You get to keep my money, no matter what?" she asked. She copied my colleague, CBS News travel correspondent Peter Greenberg, and me, on the exchange.
Avis promptly refunded the fee.
Technically, Avis is correct. Its prepaid rates, like those of other car-rental companies, are either partially or completely nonrefundable. Avis discloses those limits on the fourth screen of Thorp's reservation. Then again, her flight delay wasn't her fault, either.
"Rental cars can be tricky," warns Jared Staver, an attorney based in Chicago. "There is always fine print that can admittedly go unread if the renter is not willing to dig into the rental office's codes on the spot. Rental-car businesses offer packages and policies that are all different depending on each situation."
In other words, the fine print on a rental contract in Colorado may differ from one in Illinois, where Staver specializes in representing accident victims. The agreement covers your responsibilities as a renter, but the reservation may set additional terms, such as the car's refundability, and other rental conditions.
The fine print can include some critical details. Norma Hopcraft, who lived in Paris for a year, remembers renting a van from Hertz there in 2015. She pulled into a gas station and filled the tank.
"Back on the highway, it began to ping, buck and lurch," recalls Hopcraft, an author based in New York. It turns out she'd filled it with regular gas. Alas, the van ran on diesel fuel.
"How could we ignore the word 'diesel' printed in black letters across the hinge inside the gas cap door? Three adults stood around the gas cap and missed it. We just weren't expecting a diesel car," she says. "How the Hertz people in Paris could have failed to mention diesel to American renters still baffles me."
That brings us to insurance, also a known road hazard. Failing to plan for insurance is one of the biggest car-rental errors you can make on your vacation. Some credit cards and car insurance policies cover car rentals. For example, Farmers Insurance Group's policies cover you for third-party liability, as long as the loss was one covered under your own policy and the rental period was less than 30 days. Some travel insurance can cover your rental, and you can buy stand-alone car insurance through a site such as Insuremyrentalcar.com.
If you don't think about insurance beforehand, you could end up stuck having to buy pricey coverage from the car-rental company. That's because, in some countries, such as Ireland and Mexico, car-rental insurance is either required or strongly encouraged. If you can't show adequate proof of insurance from your auto policy, credit card or travel-insurance policy, you'll pay a premium for your coverage.
There's one more mistake to avoid, and that's a procedural one. If you don't buy the gold-plated insurance package - you know, the one that can double your rate - there may be a little surprise for you after you return the vehicle. That's what happened to Kristin Budinich, a veterinarian from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, who rented a car from Enterprise in Philadelphia last fall. Although she conducted a brief inspection before driving the car, she missed a small area near the underside of the vehicle.
"Somebody had attempted to cover up damage to the car with patching and matching paint before my rental period," she says. Enterprise charged her $809 for the damage, even though she says she didn't do it.
"Take pictures of the exterior of the car before leaving the lot," advises Justin Tysdal, CEO of Seven Corners, a travel insurance company. Having a "before" picture ensures that if there's a claim, you'll be able to prove how the car looked when you picked it up. Take a snapshot of the dashboard, including the gas gauge and odometer. Include the VIN placard and the license plate in your album. Then conduct a slow walkaround, capturing images of each body panel, all windows, the roof, the bumpers and the wheels. And don't forget the "after" photo montage. Car-rental companies sometimes wait weeks, even months, before sending a claim. In the meantime, anyone could have driven your rental.
Budinich's claim is still tied up with her insurance company. But in at least one respect, Enterprise is correct. If a company discovers any damage after your rental, you're presumed to be responsible - and those are terms that you accept when you sign a rental agreement. Budinich may not have damaged the car, but she was still responsible.
Renting a car seems so straightforward, but the road can present unexpected hazards. Always plan ahead.
- - -
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.