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RENTAL CAR CHECKLIST
The quality of rental cars varies greatly from place to place and from company to company. At a major U.S. airport, the Hertz van might drop you off at a brand-new Ford Taurus, for $200 per week or less unlimited. Yet in some third-world countries, you will have to pay more than $1,000 per week to hire a vehicle that would have value in the U.S. only as scrap. Since an unreliable or unsuitable car can have a devastating impact on a birding trip, you should take great care when renting cars. (See this car rental horror story - outrageous fraud and theft by Thrifty - Zimbabwe, but Thrifty's world headquarters in the U.S. refused to support the customer while continuing to use their website to solicit business for their crooked affiliate in Zimbabwe.)
Make reservations prior to your trip and request a written confirmation showing the terms. I always request a no-smoking car and usually a specific car model. Bring along a copy of the confirmation. Car rental companies sometimes have no cars available despite reservations made months in advance. Duplicative bookings can help, although I've arrived at foreign airports with reservations from three companies, none of which could provide a car. It's prudent to make a reservation with the largest car rental company in each place, even if you hope not to use them, since the largest usually is the most likely to come up with a vehicle.
The international car rental company websites frequently are incomplete, out-of-date, misleading and discriminatory. You can sometimes find the best deal by requesting brochures and rates by e-mail directly from the local branches of the major companies. It may be worth checking websites that compile information from a variety of firms, such as Yahoo! Travel. In a few countries (e.g., South Africa, Poland), the best terms may be available if you prepay for the rental. Prepayment in the U.S. might also help support an argument that the American courts should entertain a dispute by a U.S. citizen against a foreign car rental agency, notwithstanding a foreign jurisdictional clause in the rental agreement.
When booking online, choose Brazil as your country of residence to get the best rates. Avis.com returns a lowest daily rate for a car at the Avis facility a mile from my house of $58.99 when the US is selected as country of residence but only $45 when Brazil is selected. A survey by the FT published on 3 February 2004 found that for an identical sample rental booked on Avis.com, when the country of residence was Australia or India, the rate quoted was $198, but when the country of residence was Brazil, the rate quoted for the same rental was only $120. The US and UK fell in the middle, at $153 and $162 respectively.
Tools to bring: At a minimum, bring a tire gauge, a Swiss army knife with flat and Philips screwdrivers, radiator hose tape and strapping tape. A multi-purpose tool is also useful, though heavy. [Caution: carrying a multi-tool can get you arrested in England! "New Labour's Police State" by Nicky Samegno-Turner. The Spectator, 28 November 2004.] In Australia, the car rental companies will provide city road atlases on loan if requested in advance.
For safety ratings of cars marketed in Europe, see the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) website.
At the Airport Counter
Ask about available cars and make sure that you are getting the best for your purposes. I try to avoid hatchbacks, automatics, and the most unreliable makes of cars. (See 2005 car quality survey results below.) Overpriced collision damage waiver (CDW) is used by the car rental industry to inflate prices. ("Some [Enterprise Rent-a-Car] branches offer incentives based on the number of collision-damage waivers [employees] sell." "Hard Sell", Forbes, 26 November 2001.) Since US-issued credit cards cover collision damage waiver on rentals of up to 30 days in most countries, CDW usually is unnecessary for Americans. [Certain vehicles, including the largest 4x4s, may be excluded from coverage.] I always buy any optional liability insurance, however, because all or nearly all American liability and umbrella insurance policies provide coverage only in the U.S. and Canada.
The local agent often will write in a higher price than you were quoted back home. Unless you have initiated an upgrade to a more expensive class of car, that shouldn't matter. Simply contest the overcharge with your credit card company after the charge appears on your statement. Your written confirmation with rate quote will come in handy.
When the agent asks for your local address, the best response is to name the most expensive, luxury resort in the area. That is where any company would prefer its newest cars to be garaged. It is definitely not advisable to admit that you will be driving great distances on bad roads and sleeping in the car.
In the Lot
Start the car and let it idle with the AC on while you are checking it over.
Current registration -- Will it remain valid throughout rental?
License plates -- must have 2 in most countries.
Burglar alarm, crook lock, or other anti-theft device -- how does it work? What is the code? [If you can tolerate an extra 10 pounds or so in your luggage, bring a Pedal Jack, which works on nearly all cars except Audi.]
Tires -- Check the pressures and tread on all tires including the spare. A patch at the edge of the tread is dangerous and unlikely to last.
Jack -- make sure it works.
Lug nut wrench & key for lug nut locks
Headlights, taillights and turn signals
Brake lights and backup lights
Air conditioning -- Does it cool adequately?
Heater (cold climates)
Power steering -- If it makes a noise at full lock, check the fluid level.
Brake pedal travel
Brake fluid level
Exhaust & muffler -- Noisy? Is the rear hanger missing?
Locking front wheel hubs (4X4) -- Engage for 4WD, disengage for 2WD.
Speedometer & odometer -- Do they work?
Doors and locks -- Can all doors be locked?
Windows -- Do they work?
Trunk lock - Disconnect remote trunk release.
Glove compartment lock
Add water to windshield washer reservoir.
Side-view mirrors -- Are they present? Do they have original glass that can be adjusted?
Coolant level -- any obvious leaks?
Temperature gauge -- Where is the needle after the car warms up?
Idle -- rough, surging?
Check Engine light -- should not come on.
ABS light -- should not come on.
Was the car wrecked? Totaled cars from the US are shipped to Latin America, where they are rebuilt (sort of) and put back on the road in unsafe condition. Check for panel alignment, cheap replacement glass and panels, mismatched paint, overspray, and bondo. Missing airbags might be difficult to detect.
Dents, scratches, chips, and missing trim -- make sure they are noted on the delivery survey form.
Missing anti-roll bars or other suspension parts -- should be noted on survey form.
Cracks and chips in windshield and windows -- should be noted on survey form.
Lighter socket (for 12-volt spot light)
Radio. If it has a removable face plate, remove the face plate and place in glove compartment.
Seat adjustment -- Do the seats recline? (Essential for sleeping in the car.)
Transmission or differential leaks?
Engine oil leaks? You may see smoke after the car warms up if oil is dripping onto the exhaust manifold.
Gas gauge -- does it work?
Gas tank cap -- does it fit?
Ask if a duplicate set of keys is available.
Check clearance and location of the lowest spots.
Sniff interior for durian odor (SE Asia).
Brazil only: Don't accept an alcohol-fueled car. It may be impossible to start on a cool morning and may stall frequently.
Before Returning the Car
You may be assessed an additional fee if the car is excessively dirty upon its return, particularly if the rental agreement forbids driving off paved roads, as is the norm in Australia. Thus, it generally is desirable to wash the vehicle just before turning it in. Superficial scratches caused by roadside vegetation can easily be removed with standard cleaner/wax. If the vehicle has acquired scratches too deep to be eliminated with a wax job, it may be preferable to turn in a dirty car and risk assessment of a cleaning charge.
Google results for "U-Haul Sucks". U-Haul, which rents trucks and trailers, seems to have the worst reputation of any large company in the vehicle rental business.
Results of the J.D. Power & Associates 2005 Vehicle Dependability StudySM: