Car hire: the devil is in the detail

car hireIt may be tempting to take the keys of your hire car and drive off so that you can finally enjoy your holiday destination with your family. After all, you’ve waited a long time for this break and with all the political turmoil and work commitments bogging you down, you’ve earned your break without any further hassle.

But burning the rubber as you speed to your holiday escape is not advisable. Firstly, you’re not covered for damages to your car’s tyres, and secondly you may be driving off with a car that was damaged by the previous customers who thought that taking the Hyundai Getz you’ve hired on an exhaust annihilating off-road game drive was good for a laugh.

“The days of doing a rental vehicle inspection are very scarce. A lot of the big companies don’t do it anymore and I can’t understand why as it protects everyone’s interest,” says Janet Pillai, founder and CEO of MLT Corporation.

“When you collect the car, walk around it checking for bumps and scratches. Do not drive off before you get the car hire employee in charge to note any damage on your copy of the contract. Take cellphone photos to be on the safe side. It’s also very important to make sure there is a spare tyre, jack and tools,” advises Neville Melville, the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud.

Pillai adds that it’s important to read the terms and conditions of the leasing agreement too, and take note of things like extra mileage charges.

Read the insurance fine print

The insurance cover fine print also deserves more scrutiny. While you may think that most of the bigger car hire companies are insured to the hilt, this is not actually the case. Companies like Avis and Budget self-insure, and they share some of the burden with customers.

“People sometimes ask why we don’t offer all-inclusive packages. But we don’t because so many customers don’t want it. And if you don’t want it then this is the risk you are happy with. We self-insure our fleet. We try to go to insurance companies but we’ve found that when they see the damages of all the vehicles during the year the premiums go up so we rather self-insure,” explains Lance Smith, executive of sales for Avis and Budget.

Clients can choose between standard waivers or more expensive super waivers. The more you pay in insurance waivers the less you pay in the event of an accident. Insurance is a must as the amount you could be liable for, regardless of whether you were at fault, could be well into the tens of thousands of rands, if not more.

You may not always be liable for every dent and scratch but this depends on the car hire company you choose. “We have a fair wear and tear guide which can be available to you. A little dent or scratch is within our tolerance,” points out Smith, but you’d be liable for bigger dents and damage.

Choice of insurance options

Almost every car hire company offers a range of insurance options. Avis, for example has two plans. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is a limited waiver and means that in the event of an accident, the renter is responsible for up to the specified amount as indicated on the rates (see online) table for repair to or replacement of the vehicle or part thereof (or the cost of damage repair, whichever is the lower)

If you choose the Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW) option, a lower, non-waivable liability will apply. Avis stresses: “Declining either of these options means you are liable for the full amount of damages incurred or the specified liability. Authorisation will be gained to secure the liability amount on your credit card for the duration of the rental.”

As an example, Avis’s rates table shows that if you hired a Mercedes Benz C Class or similar, the total liability is R500 000. If you have the standard CDW at R135 per day, you could be responsible for up to R50 000 should you be in an accident. By paying more for Super CDW at R215 per day, you’d only be responsible for R10 000.

“Rather take the full insurance option because if you get into an accident, the car hire company makes no attempt to claim from the other driver’s insurance or to get the cheapest quote ― it merely debits your credit card with what it says it costs to repair the car. Make sure you have proof of your insurance option,” says Melville.

Take note of the exclusions

Unfortunately the insurance doesn’t cover everything and these are the things you will have to take note of from the outset. It might not be disclosed but should be highlighted in the terms and conditions, which may be long-winded and convoluted ― but it’s still your responsibility to read and digest them.

Examples of exclusions include damage from travelling on a gravel road, hitting a pothole and damage to the undercarriage. In some instances if you don’t report the accident timeously you could also be billed for the full amount of the damage.

You’ll also be responsible for parking, e-toll fees, traffic or other offences which will be added to your bill at the end, or much later if the fine takes a while to come through. “Generally car hire companies will also charge an administration fee for processing these fines,” points out Pillai.

Why the high bill?

If you have been landed with a higher than expected bill, Smith points out that there could be several reasons for this. There could be accidental damage, you may have brought the car back with an almost-empty fuel tank so there’d be a fuel charge, you may have gone over your allotted mileage, or you may have not brought the car back timeously. “For returning the car we give a grace period of 29 minutes but if you brought the car back several hours late, we would charge for the extra day,” points out Smith.

Ultimately, if you have a gripe with the car hire company it’s always best to take up the dispute with the firm itself and then work your way up the management chain if you have no joy with the call centre staff.

“We aim to resolve issues in 24 hours. You can phone us, use social media ― there are plenty of places where we pick up customers’ unhappiness. The Southern African Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association is our governing body and they will try and resolve it but if not, then you would take it further to the National Consumer Commission,” adds Smith.