You don’t have to be an expert on photographic evidence to take snapshots of your rental car before you drive off the lot, but it helps.
Just ask Steve Wolf, who happens to be an expert on photographic evidence. When he recently rented a car in Denver, he instinctively started videotaping his rental from every angle, pausing at each scratch and dent. “The pictures saved my bacon,” he says.
Shortly after he returned the vehicle, the company accused him of damaging it and promised to send him an invoice. Instead, Wolf e-mailed the agency the video of an already-damaged car. The agency backed off.
It might not surprise you to learn that car rental companies are more vigilant than ever about collecting damages from their customers. But here’s a little fact that you might not know: Other companies, notably hotels, are getting in on the act, too, billing customers for everything from broken fixtures to torn furniture, whether they’re responsible or not.
Although stopping these claims is almost impossible — after all, they’ve turned into a huge moneymaker for some travel businesses — you don’t have to become a victim. The solution: Get in touch with your inner shutterbug when you’re on the road. Take pictures of everything that could turn into a damage claim, particularly your rental car and your hotel room. And store the photos in the cloud for at least a year, because that’s how long damage claims can sometimes take.
How to take the pictures? According to a dozen top photographers whom I interviewed, the camera on your phone will do just fine. But technique matters. Miss a detail, get the lighting wrong or capture a blurry image, and you could pay a price.
When it comes to car rental photos, for example, timing is important. Take a photo or video both when you pick up the car and when you return it, say the pros. If a car rental company finds damage to a car, it will assume that the last renter is responsible. If you find any preexisting damage, you’re better off asking for a different car.
Also, “I would advise against using flash, since there’s a risk that a compact camera flash will wash out bright areas and make it impossible to see any scratches or dents already there,” says Victoria Johansson, a wedding photographer from Orange County, Calif.
Tom Clarke, a food and architecture photographer in Philadelphia, suggests a lower vantage point for taking snapshots of a rental — somewhere around door level. If you notice a scratch, stop to take a closer photo. “Be aware of glare from the sun,” he adds. “If it’s distracting or not visible, adjust the height or stand in a way that blocks the sun.”
Not having enough light can be a problem, too. Too many complaints from car rental customers hit with unfair damage claims start in a dimly lit garage. If there isn’t enough light, drive the car to a place where you can photograph it clearly.
Often, car rental agents will conduct a walkaround inspection with you, and they’ll offer a form where you can note previous damage. Filling it out can be helpful as a backup, but it’s no substitute for photographic evidence.
If you’re taking pictures of a hotel room, says Michael Molinski, a wedding photographer based in Hudson, N.Y., turn on every light and open every drape. Then stand in a corner and shoot toward the next corner, making sure that you capture every detail. “Move to all four corners and shoot overlapping images,” he says. “The idea is to cover all the walls with overlapping photos.”
Focus on problem areas, advises Steve Thornton, an Atlanta fashion photographer. “Don’t forget to photograph the carpet, the bathroom, the closet, the doors, the inside of the mini bar, the fridge and the lamp fixtures,” he says.
If you see any preexisting damage, contact the front desk immediately and ask for a different room.
Don’t get too much extra in the shot, advises Michael Pliskin, who specializes in aviation and hotel photography and is based in Redondo Beach, Calif. Make any damages prominent so that the torn furniture or dented vehicle is clear to anyone. “Before taking the photo, compose it in the viewfinder so that you’re not showing too much,” he says. “Get closer to the details you want to photograph. If you encounter a broken lamp or chair when you first enter the room, photograph that lamp or chair as close as you can. You don’t need the walls, ceiling or bed in the shot if you’re only photographing a lamp or chair.”
If all this sounds silly to you, don’t worry. You’ll feel a little awkward taking snapshots of your car or hotel room, but not as awkward as the employee who’s trying to wrongfully collect damages from you.
Joe Fitzpatrick, a wildlife photographer in Fort Myers, Fla., remembers a car rental agent in St. Maarten who accused him of denting a car. “It had numerous small scrapes on the lower front and rear body panels,” he says. “When I returned the car, the person inspecting the car claimed that many of the scratches were new. He told me they would need to repaint the panels and started talking about what it was going to cost me.”
Fitzpatrick let him continue for a while. “Then I pulled out my camera, brought up the pictures and showed them to him,” he says. “The expression on his face was priceless.”
The agent immediately dropped the claim and handed Fitzpatrick a receipt.
Having a good insurance policy can help, but it’s not always enough to stop a damage claim. Hotels, for example, are notorious for simply charging a customer’s credit card for damage, often without even giving a reason.
Normal wear and tear should be built into the cost of doing business. It shouldn’t be a profit center. Until that changes, remember: When it comes to your next vacation, a picture can be worth a thousand dollars.
E-mail Christopher Elliott at email@example.com.