I take pictures of everything when I travel. Not just the landmarks, the kids and the tacos we ordered from a San Antonio food truck. I shoot my car, my hotel room, even my vacation rental. When I arrive, I reflexively capture an image with my Pixel smartphone.
Except on a recent trip to Houston. After two exhausting days of driving, I collapsed in the bed of my VRBO vacation rental. I didn’t notice the scratch marks on the kitchen counter and table until a day later.
It looked as if the previous tenant had sliced food on the counter without a cutting board. I saw the same patterns on the kitchen table. Had my teenagers done it? No, they assured me.
Then I realized that, as only the second tenants in what had been advertised as a “brand new” vacation rental, we might have to pay for new counters and a new kitchen table.
My fears are justified. I receive regular complaints from readers who have had to cover damages to rental cars or property. A photo would have exonerated them – if they’d just remembered to take one. But what, exactly, should you photograph, and when should you take the picture?
If you’re renting a car, you need “before” and “after” images. Why? The car rental company holds you responsible for the vehicle, even if someone else puts a scrape, ding or dent in it.
What if you bought the car rental company’s pricey insurance? Yes, even then. I’ve received numerous complaints from drivers who thought they were insured but weren’t.
Kimberly DeCarrera, a tax attorney from Atlanta and a frequent traveler, says she always shoots a video of her rental car. “I walk around the entire vehicle, pointing out on the video any marks, scratches, dings or other damage. I then video the inside of the car,” she says.
A video of a rental vehicle saved her from a damage claim recently.
“There was damage near the bottom of the car, so I didn’t notice it when I rented the car,” she recalls. “But, of course, they noticed it when I returned the car and said that it was my fault. I brought out my cellphone and reviewed the video. It was there. Since it was date- and time-stamped, it saved me from having to pay the additional fees for the damage or the deductible on the insurance.”
Take a post-rental picture, too. Car rental companies often discover damage long after you’ve returned the vehicle. The damage might not be your fault; a careless employee or another renter could have caused it. Having the “after” images would exonerate you.
Katherine Ziegler, a retired nurse from St. Louis, says she holds up the line when she returns her rental cars. She finds a car rental employee and asks for an in-person inspection.
“Then I request that the attendant write ‘no damage’ on the contract before leaving the return site. I have had cars with some damage as well as a smoke smell. I find someone from the company to verify that – and it’s not always easy – before leaving and always get it in writing.”
The same dynamic applies to hotel rooms.
“When in doubt, take a picture,” says Shylar Bredewold, who owns Odyssean Travel, an online travel agency. “There’s no need to slip on a wet floor because the shower has a crack or to face electrocution because an outlet is damaged,” he says. “It shouldn’t take much to get a new unit or to move to another room. If in doubt, take a picture.”
The biggest hotel “gotchas” are cleaning charges, particularly those related to smoking. Taking a quick photo of your room when you check out can save a $250 fee, usually assessed after you’ve left the hotel, for removing the odor from your accommodations.
How so? Well, when you see a cleaning fee on your credit card after checkout and ask for evidence, hotels often send a picture of a cup or ashtray filled with ashes. Your checkout photo can prove that it wasn’t taken in your room, and potentially get you off the hook for the fee.
When it comes to vacation rentals, owners appear to be getting much stricter about charging guests for damage, and vacation rental platforms often side with the owners. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. No one should trash a vacation rental or a hotel room – or a rental car, for that matter. But charging the wrong person for the damage is also wrong.
I’ve heard from many readers who had to eat a security deposit because an owner believed they’d damaged an apartment or house. One of the worst accounts came from Courtney Kerschner, a teacher from Reading, Pennsylvania, who had rented a house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. She cleaned the house after her week there, but the owner pocketed the deposit because of “smelly trash.”
Kerschner says she’d taken the trash to the curb. Unfortunately, she had no way to prove it. After one of my advocates contacted VRBO on her behalf, it refunded her $500 deposit as a courtesy.
So you can probably understand why I was nervous about the kitchen in my Houston vacation rental. I imagined losing the deposit or having to pay extra for something we didn’t do. I sent a note to the owner, thanking her for her hospitality and casually mentioning the damaged countertops. To my relief, she quickly answered, “We’re aware of it.”
Next time, I’ll take a picture.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.