Rental car CDW waivers

In his August ’05 “Discerning Traveler” column, Dr. Philip Wagenaar offered some tips for handling collision damage waivers (CDWs) when renting a car, to which I would like to add some notes. The CDW is a good way to save money, but it has to be watched.

If you decline the CDW when renting a car, you are promising to return the car in the same condition as when you received it. If it is damaged from any cause, whether it is your fault or not, you must pay to fix the damage.

In addition, as Dr. Wagenaar noted, some companies add on a “loss of use” charge which reimburses them for the rental income they presumably would have made if the car had not been in the shop. Loss of use charges are not permitted in all jurisdictions.

Because of the CDW requirement, it’s a good idea when picking up the car to walk around it and make sure it does not have any dings that you might be charged for. If you find any, call them to the attention of the rental agent and have them noted on your contract.

If the worst should happen and the car is damaged, you may be tempted to return it quickly and tiptoe away, hoping that no one will notice. Don’t do this. Believe me, someone will notice. Better to make a clean breast of it and inspect the car along with the rental agent, to see if you can agree on the extent of the damage.

The rental agent may attempt to reassure you by saying, “Don’t worry about the damage; the company will take care of everything.” The agent is not trying to mislead you, but rental agents are trained in customer service and they want the customer to be happy. The actual decision whether to bill you for the damage will be made by a hard-eyed subrogation manager who doesn’t much care whether you are happy.

Dr. Wagenaar mentioned a 30-day limit. Some credit card companies will pick up the tab for the collision damage but only if you report it within 30 days. This is not 30 days from the day the car rental company bills you; it means 30 days from the date of the accident. If the car rental company bills you more than 30 days after the accident, there is an obvious problem.

You solve the problem by “putting ’em on notice,” as the lawyers say. As soon as you return from your trip, write your credit card company with full details, including the date and place of the accident, telling whether or not the police responded to the scene and stating the name and address (if you know them) of the other driver. Include a photocopy of your rental contract and credit card charge slip.

If the credit card company and the car rental company are on the ball, they will sort the problem out themselves without even bothering you anymore about it.

San Francisco, CA