A new Avis Europe rental car contract underscores my contention that reading the fine print is more important in renting a car than perhaps any other travel purchase. I’ll get to the new Avis contract in a minute, but first some background.

The European rental process starts with finding a price you like. Then the fun begins: what is included in that price and what is not? There can be extra driver charges, road taxes, international drop charges, mandatory winterization fees, and several others. The big one, of course, is collision and theft insurance. Most North American auto rental customers wisely rely on a credit card for such coverage. The insurance sold by the rental companies is expensive, ranging from about $10 to $35 per day, depending on a variety of factors. It also carries a deductible that can range from about $300 to $3,000. In other words, if you opt for the extra insurance and return the car with a simple fender scratch, you’ll not only pay for the insurance but also the cost to repair the scratch, say, $500—maybe even more if the deductible is higher. Not a good deal. Your credit card, assuming it offers collision and theft insurance, simply will reimburse you for the damage. You pay nothing.

Sounds simple, but there’s a small hook. For your credit card to cover the damage—and for you not to be charged for the optional insurance—you must decline the rental company’s offer of insurance. And insurance isn't an extra that’s not charged unless you ask for it, such as a child’s seat or an additional driver; you must indicate on the rental contract that you don’t want it, or determine that the contract you're signing doesn't call for it.

Here’s where the wicket gets a bit sticky. Rental car employees the world over are compensated, at least in part, on their sales of optional insurance. Jet-lagged, bleary-eyed travelers arrive at car rental counters throughout Europe every day with the full intention of declining the offered insurance. And yet every day a small percentage of them initial in the Ja or Oui box instead of the Nein or "No" box and end up being charged what sometimes comes to hundreds of dollars for insurance they don’t need or want.

The story we hear all too often goes something like this: "The rental agent clearly understood we didn't want the insurance, and we simply initialed where he/she told us to." Tired from a long flight, however, too many renters blindly sign and initial where they are told. Much later, when the bad news comes in the form of a credit card bill, the charge is disputed, and the rental contract gets its first close examination, there for all the world to see, are the renter’s initials in the Ja box, indicating "yes, I want the insurance."

Such charges are usually contested through the renter’s credit card company, but since only the paperwork remains, the credit card folks almost always decide in favor of the rental car company. There are too many of these to be mere "misunderstandings," based on a difference in languages. By no means am I suggesting that European rental companies are out to cheat North American travelers. What I do believe, however, is that with the incentive of a fat insurance commission at stake, the rare, less-than-honest agent will take advantage of a tired, perhaps not so sophisticated, traveler. Frequently, for example, renters are told that they must purchase the extra insurance. Except in Italy and Ireland, that simply isn't true.

All this gets us back to the new contract you’ll be signing in Europe if you rent from Avis. Initialing Ja or Nein boxes is now a thing of the past. Now you will simply affix your signature at the end of the contract. It will be up to each renter to determine if it includes unwanted charges, such as expensive, un-needed insurance. More than ever, the onus is on the renter.

Perhaps the new contract will be a plus for renters, as Avis says it is abandoning industry jargon and using full words, such as insurance instead of CDW, SCDW, TP, and PAI. In addition, though you'll sign the contract in the local language you can ask for a copy in several other languages, including English. In the sample I saw, the insurance charges were enumerated and spelled out in straightforward English.

Of course, you’ll also be agreeing to the following clause: If the charges under this rental contract are paid by credit card, the cardholder's signature shall be regarded as authorization to debit the total amount to his/her account with the credit card company. This authorization shall also be valid for subsequent debits due to rental rate corrections, damage events including any corresponding towing fees, and traffic offenses.

Four Cautions

  • By all means rely on your credit card for CDW (collision) and theft insurance.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you have to buy CDW and theft insurance (except in Italy and Ireland).
  • Ask a contract copy in a language you speak and read.
  • Read the contract yourself, don’t take the agent’s word for what’s in it. Don't sign the contract or leave the rental counter until you are satisfied with the contract. If you are a customers, and have any doubts, use the toll-free number on your car rental voucher.

Book your rental car in Europe with Gemütlichkeit's travel department and get the best rates, personalized, knowledgeable service and our unique at-the-rental-counter safety net that ensures our customers get what they are promised. We book with all the major companies in more than 35 countries. If you have questions about rentals in Europe, or simply prefer to deal in-person, phone us at 800-521-6722.