This Simple Rental Car Hack Will Help You Avoid Getting Scammed

Take a minute to do this one thing when you pick up and drop off your rental car.

<p>Sky Nesher/Getty Images</p>

Sky Nesher/Getty Images

Renting a car is a standard part of many travelers' journeys, but it can end up costing an extraordinary amount of money in fees if you're not careful. Car rental companies will frequently try to sell customers add-ons, many of which are unnecessary. Insurance, for example, is often already covered by credit cards or general travel insurance, so you don't need to pay extra for the expensive policy at the rental counter.

Related: 15 Secret Ways to Get Cheapest Car Rentals

And one of the highest fees you’re charged may be a bogus one. There have been numerous allegations against car rental companies for unfairly charging customers for damage that the customers claim they did not cause — and the total amount can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. That's why any time you rent a car, there is one thing you absolutely must do: Record a video or take photos of the car, inside and out, to prove that you did not damage it.

Some travelers claim that days, weeks, or even months after they returned a rental car, the company billed them for damages that they claim they only discovered upon later inspection. At that point, if the renter did not cause that damage, there's really only one way to prove it.

"One of the best ways to avoid being on the hook for thousands of dollars in rental car repairs for damage that you may not be responsible for is by taking photos or videos of the car when you pick it up and when you return it, especially if you are returning it to a place where a rapid return means there is nobody checking you in," Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Partners USA , told Travel + Leisure. That said, customers have reported being billed for damage even after an agent had signed off that the car was undamaged at the time of return.

Without photo or video evidence, you're almost certainly going to have to foot the bill, even if it's a scam. But if you can prove that you returned the car undamaged, car rental companies are more likely to back down.

The process of documenting your car is fairly straightforward. Start by photographing or taking a video of the car when you first pick it up, as this will prove what damage, if any, already exists. Then you'll do the same thing when you drop it off, proving the state of the car at the time of return.

When documenting your car, you're going to want to cover all angles inside and out. For many travelers, taking videos is a good way to ensure you've covered the whole car. Start by walking in a complete circle around the outside of the car, ensuring that the entire vehicle is within the frame at all times. Then you'll want to cover the top of the car and the undercarriage if possible. Finally, it's time to head inside the car — make sure you image the front seats, back seats, and the trunk. We recommend keeping this documentation, along with receipts from the rental company, for at least six months.

It might sound like a lot of work, but in our personal experience, the whole process can be completed in a minute or so, and if it can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars, it's well worth the time.

Related: The Best Budget Travel Tips — From Saving Money on Air Travel to Spending Less on Hotels

Beyond collecting visual evidence that demonstrates the lack of damage to your rental car, it's also a good idea to have insurance anyway. If your credit card does cover car rental insurance, make sure that you pay for the rental car booking with that card, otherwise the card will not protect you. If someone else has already paid for your rental car — say, your company — then you might want to look into additional coverage, which will likely be cheaper if you purchase it through an insurance company directly rather than through the rental company.

No matter which insurance plan you choose, be sure to read the fine print carefully to make sure it covers all your needs. For instance, some policies only cover drivers that are listed on the rental agreement, so if you're traveling with a partner, friend, or in a group, it's best to add all potential drivers to the agreement (and note that adding additional drivers often costs more.)

Once you've gotten your insurance squared away, don't forget to take photos and videos of your vehicle. "Rental car companies can be challenging to work with on damage incidents," said Durazo, so it's always best to protect yourself.

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