Rental cars and the collision-damage waiver

By Ron Carlson
This item appears on page 13 of the January 2019 issue.

Narrow roads with no shoulders require constant vigilance on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way. Photo by Ron Carlson

Having driven rented, leased and owned cars in 75 countries over 56 years, I would like to share a bit about car rentals, insurance and the collision-damage waiver (CDW).

As I mentioned in a previous letter ("Tips on Driving in Europe," Sept. '17, pg. 15), many major US credit cards cover collision damage, with no deductible, but be sure to check the terms, and use the card for making both the reservation and the final payment.

If you do that and your credit card covers collision damage, then there should be no need to buy any insurance from the rental agency, itself, except in a few fringe countries where it may be required. The CDW — which is supplemental insurance coverage that waives the rental company's right to charge you for collision damage except for a deductible amount, usually around $200 or so — is expensive and usually unnecessary, so always resist.

Out of dozens of overseas rentals, I have had many offers of rental agencies' CDW insurance, but a polite "No, thank you" has usually settled that.

Three or four times, however (after arguing my case), I have been stung with having to purchase "mandatory" CDW insurance at points of rental. In 2014, at their rental office in the Bogota, Colombia airport, Avis insisted I buy CDW insurance. Persistence got me nowhere with the only agency that was open, so I acquiesced to the unusually modest fee, $5 per day as I recall, a small fraction of the exorbitant daily rental rate.

At the end of the trip, I wrote to Avis crying foul. They replied that it was the policy of the local franchise and they could do nothing.

So, to generalize, there are countries where there may be laws requiring you to purchase the local CDW insurance or there may be insurance association or local agency policies that require that, although it may not be fully disclosed in a broad-brush insurance-policy statement accompanying a rental-car reservation. In the broad-brush policy, you might find a statement that CDW is "optional," but at whose option may be the local agency's choice.

If the CDW insurance is truly required, there's not much you can do to get around it except to try a different agency on the spot.

I usually search for offers and prices on Kayak.com, then compare my car of choice and rental-agency choice with offers directly from the agency or its US-based parent company. I typically find a similar offer at the same price, or at least close enough, and then book directly with either the major US-based agency or the overseas branch, as opposed to using Expedia.com, Priceline.com or another intermediary booking service.

Bypassing intermediaries can get me closer to the realities, as direct booking often gives access to fine print about the overseas local agency's policies, which may deviate from the rental company's more general policies shown by booking services. It's in that fine print where what was previously shown as "CDW optional" may show up as "CDW may be required" or some such warning that a surprise awaits.

An example of fine print that can spoil a trip was my experience renting at the Munich Airport several years ago. I reserved with National Car Rental but failed to notice in the fine print that they accept only Mastercard. Having only a Visa card, I was refused rental. My threat to walk resulted in a call to headquarters, but the answer was still 'No.'

I did walk… across the aisle to rent for less from Auto Europe (no CDW required). Lo and behold, I had a real fender bender in Switzerland when I backed into a piece of railroad track planted in the roadway to protect an antique street light, also in the roadway, both painted black to avoid detracting from the pretty scene.

That accident verified my rule to, if possible, always rent from a major US-based agency, because settling my reimbursement from Visa was made nearly impossible by Auto Europe's Germanic bureaucracy and policies, in spite of Visa's ready willingness to pay every last Deutschmark (as they eventually did), including appraisal and engineering fees, loss-of-use charges and more.

Again, I have found that an advance look at the more detailed overseas local agency's requirements can usually be had by booking direct with the parent company on its US website, as opposed to using an intermediary like Expedia or Priceline, and I advise doing that when there is any doubt about local policies or requirements that could spoil a trip.

If you're not able to find an overseas local agency with a US-based parent company, my advice is to pick a branch office of the most reliable big-name agency you can find (Sixt, Auto Europe, Europcar, etc.) and hope for the best; the odds are good. 

Oh, the joys of self-drive abroad! Every trip is a learning experience, and the lessons here include the following: be careful who you rent from, read the fine print, don't give up easily and appeal if you lose. (Those apply to many other travel frustrations as well.)

RON CARLSON
Lakeland, MN