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It's OK to reject your rental car. Here are five cases where you should ask for another

Rental cars with over 30,000 miles on them are more likely to have dings, dents, scuffs and scratches. [Getty Images]
Rental cars with over 30,000 miles on them are more likely to have dings, dents, scuffs and scratches. [Getty Images]

When Catherine Gregory picked up a rental car in Vancouver, British Columbia, she turned it down. 

"The moment I sat down, the smell of smoke overwhelmed me," she says. "It was clear someone had smoked in the car, or a heavy smoker had most recently driven it." 

Gregory, who works for a beekeeper supply business in Portland, Oregon, had already accepted a smoky car once before in Detroit and remembers having to drive around in the Michigan winter with the windows rolled down.

"Also, I was traveling with my sister, who was pregnant," says Gregory, who also writes a family travel blog called To & Fro Fam. "Secondhand smoke just wasn't an option."

She asked the car rental company to replace the car, and it did.

No one knows how many renters turn down their cars since rental companies don't release those statistics. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's not enough. Aging fleets mean car rental companies are keeping more high-mileage vehicles on their lots. The older vehicles are more likely to break down or leave you with a frivolous damage claim. The only weapons against such a claim are a firm "no" and a reliable travel insurance policy.

Beware of slightly dented, smoking cars

The problem with Gregory's rejected car wasn't just the smell. Unless you tell the company that someone smoked in the car, it may add a cleaning fee to your final bill – even if you hadn't smoked. For example, Avis doesn't allow you to light up in its cars and will charge a $250 fee if an employee smells smoke when you return the vehicle. That's no idle threat. I've dealt with lots of motorists who said their car rental company falsely accused them of smoking in a car.

But that's not the only danger of accepting a well-worn car. High-mileage vehicles tend to have preexisting damage like dings, dents and scratches. And, like the smoky car, you could be held responsible for this damage – whether it's your fault or not.

And that is definitely not an idle threat. Some less-scrupulous car rental companies have turned preexisting damages into a cottage industry. They hand their customers the keys to an old car that they know is damaged. Then they collect thousands of dollars from those customers and their insurance companies after they return the vehicle. It's a racket.

When should you turn down your rental car?

Before you drive away in your rental, inspect the car closely. That's what Jon Stenstrom, a frequent car renter, advises.

"I always do a full walk-around the car to check for dings, scratches or other damage," says Stenstrom, who publishes a fishing blog. "If I see anything, then I take pictures or video with my phone to document it. 

Look for the following:

Registration issues. Make sure the car's paperwork is up to date. Otherwise, you could get pulled over.

Surface irregularities, such as scratches and dents. An employee may reassure you that they're "fine," but believe me, you don't want to take that chance. Other surfaces matter, too. Are the tires bald? Do the lights turn on? Check before you go.

Any interior problems. If the car isn't properly cleaned or if it smells like smoke, turn it down. Who wants to spend their vacation driving a dirty car, anyway? Also, send it back if any warning lights flicker on.

Mechanical issues. Did they give you a vehicle with a standard transmission even though you requested an automatic? (They sometimes do outside the U.S.) Are you having trouble figuring out how to turn on the lights or put the vehicle into reverse? Ask for a different car.

"Turning down a car should be the default if anything is not as advertised or anything bothers you," says Ludwig Schönack, the co-founder of Kyte, a San Francisco technology company in the car-rental industry. His company has been tracking a rise in complaints about high-mileage rental vehicles.

Too much mileage. Schönack raises an interesting question: How do you tell if your rental is too old?  He recommends requesting a newer car if the odometer is past 30,000 miles. Most major car rental companies sell their cars before they reach that point, but some smaller operators may have one or two oldies on the lot.

Why is this happening?

Of course, car rental companies shouldn't be sending old, dented vehicles out on the road. But they do because it's more profitable and people are accepting them. Worse, some car rental companies have figured out a way to profit off the dings and dents by charging their customers even for damage that existed before the rental. In times like these, a good travel insurance policy and a firm "no" can save you from a world of trouble.  

Tips for turning down your rental car

The sooner, the better. Don't wait until you get to your hotel or vacation rental to inspect your rental car. If the car won't work, it's best to determine that before you leave the lot. Once you're on the road, it'll be much harder to swap out your car.

Be polite but firm. I spoke with many car renters who said a polite request for a new car is usually all it takes to get into a new vehicle. 

Remember, you can always swap it out later. What if you don't spot the problem until you've driven away? Phil Partridge, a marketing manager for the British car rental site Rhinocarhire.com, says you should document the damage with your phone and then ask the company to change at your earliest opportunity. "It's usually really straightforward to arrange a swap at a time convenient for you," he says. 

Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY

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