The Joys and Perils of Auto Renting in Mexico

My wife (Camilla) and I have visited Manzanillo most every winter for the last five or six years, staying in local hotels and rent by owners. We have fallen in love with the weather, people and the region. In fact, we have gone as far as to buy a lot on the Julupan Peninsula, with dreams of building a retirement home there. We typically rent a car when we travel to Manzanillo.

The first couple of years we flew into Puerto Vallarta (PV) and drove the four-ish hours down the coast. It’s a pretty drive and well worth the effort, but after three or four trips on the winding road it loses its glamour. Additionally, we aren’t fond of PV – too many people and way too touristy for us. The last few times we have flown directly into Manzanillo.

We had also visited Cancun and region a few times as our introduction to Mexico. Beautiful beaches, but again way too touristy for us, and the weather is way more uncertain than it is on the west coast. When you only have a couple of weeks, you need to find the sun! Regardless of our route, we rented a car to drive around with while visiting Manzanillo. I think it’s a North America thing. We feel way too “naked” without wheels when we are there.

We always rent from a large international rental agency, for the convenience of finding English speakers at the end of the line (our Spanish is horrible) when we call. We know that when we get to the rental agency to pick up the car, we will be immersed into ‘Spanglish.’ But I always feel better knowing that the details have been prearranged in a language that I understand. Remember to always ask for an automatic transmission ahead of time if that is your choice, and to ask for air-conditioning. That said, the chances of both actually being on your car when you get there seem to be low, but if you insist politely but firmly that you booked both and need to get them, it always works out – or at least it has for us.

The people at the local agencies have always been wonderful to deal with, and between their English, our Spanish, and lots of hand waving, we eventually get a reasonable car without too much stress. When you pick up the car, be sure to go over it with a fine-tuned comb. Rest assured, the agency will do the same when you return it. It isn’t like ‘N/A’ where they barely look at the car as long as all four fenders are still in roughly the same place! The guy that goes out with you to show you the car may not speak any English, so be prepared to have to go back to the desk person if you have concerns.

When the rental guy is still there, start the car and let the air-conditioning run. I usually do this first thing, so that we can be sure that it runs okay and that the A/C is working before you leave. I have learned something: Take pictures all around the car, particularly of the windshield, and front and rear bumpers. Do this in front of the agency employee so he sees you doing it. It has saved our bacon once, plus I think it shows them that you are paying attention to the details. It doesn’t hurt to be careful!

We generally do not pay for extra insurance when we book the rentals. My MasterCard covers auto rental insurance in Mexico (it’s important to call the card company and ask first if Mexico is covered) so it is an unnecessary cost. You must also call your credit card company and tell them that you will be travelling to Mexico, and tell them that you will be renting a car using the card for insurance. Also ask them to send you a letter stating that the card (the letter must include the card number and be on a letterhead) does indeed cover auto insurance. You need to bring this with you when you get the rental, or they will charge you for insurance regardless. Usually I just show them that I have one. They don’t even read the letter; they just want you to have it.

The way that my credit card insurance works: If I do have an accident, my credit card will be charged whatever the agency charges for the repair, but my credit limit is increased the amount charged to not minimize my credit availability. Once the insurance has been sorted out and the credit card insurance agrees that it is a legitimate claim, the charge disappears from my card, my credit limit returns to normal, and the credit card insurance works things out with the rental agency. Bada bing.

My last rental didn’t go as well; I had a very minor amount of damage after I drove over a topes near Colima that had a small hole behind it that I didn’t see. I was driving very slowly, but because of the hole, there was contact between the underside of the vehicle and the topes. It was a very minor tap and I didn’t think it was anything. I have driven over roads in Mexico with far larger bumps happening and no damage was done. Not so lucky this time.

We drove around for another hour or so, then made our way back to the condo. Total time driving after the topes was roughly three hours. We parked the vehicle and left it for the night. The next morning, I tried to take the car out for a Walmart grocery run. It moved about five feet then wouldn’t go. The engine revved, but no go. I immediately thought transmission, put the car in park and set the brake, and I could see a puddle of transmission fluid under the car. The fluid had drained overnight. I pushed the car back into the parking spot and called the rental agency.

They were good about coming out to get the car and bringing me a replacement. They said one hour – it took three – but this is Mexico time. I was happy that they made it that day. The car was switched out and all was well I thought because I HAD BOUGHT AUTO INSURANCE FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER!!!

I don’t know what made me do it. I just had a feeling and decided to go ahead and buy it. The insurance cost me more than the rental, but I did it anyway. Big mistake I learned.

When I brought the car back at the end of my trip, I didn’t get a receipt – they couldn’t give me one because of the damage. They said that they would email me copies of everything eventually. There wasn’t much I could do so I said, “Great!” and left. Roughly six weeks later, I saw three charges on my M/C bill over a week time period. They billed about $600, then about $1500, then about $550 USD. I called M/C immediately to put in a complaint, because I had seen nothing on the charges. MasterCard insisted that I contact the rental agency and try to get resolution there first.

First lesson: When I told M/C that I had purchased auto insurance, they told me that my M/C insurance was no longer in effect! All that I could do was challenge the charges and work with the insurance company that I used.

I called the international rental agency to discuss the situation. Lesson two: The rental agencies are all independent in Mexico. They share a name and booking number and that was it. I would have to deal with the local agency! I got hold of an employee that spoke little

English when I called the agency. She couldn’t give me any insurance company info. She did give me the business owners email address. My wife emailed (English and Google Spanish, which isn’t really Spanish) and asked for an explanation of the expenses. It took about two weeks, but we did get an email, accompanied by seemingly random repair receipts and some pictures. In the pictures, I could see a hole at least an inch in diameter in the transmission pan. There is no way that I could have driven around for three hours with a hole in the pan like that. It would have drained out completely in a matter of minutes. New lesson learned: Take pictures of the underside of the car as well before you drive off with your rental. I’m sure the agency guy will crawl under and do it for you for a few pesos.

As of this time, the damage is still under review by M/C. The problem is, how do you prove that the pictures they submitted did not match the car that was damaged? From underneath, all cars look alike. I suspect that I will be out the $2,000 on the repairs. By the way, no one mentioned it to me at the time, but the deductible is $2,000. Funny, how that worked out.

I think the point I want to make is that it isn’t Kansas, and you need to be sure you understand what you are getting into when you rent a car. It’s safe, but your coverage is not what you think it is. If a person can’t afford the potential for a $2000 repair cost on top of the rental and insurance cost, and they don’t have a credit card with insurance, they might be best to bus/taxi the trip. It takes NOTHING to spend $2K on car repairs.

Will this stop me from renting another vehicle in Mexico? No it won’t. There is too much to be gained by being able to visit nearby towns and sights that I’m sure that we will continue to rent. I am smarter than I was when I started renting, and hopefully this helps someone else be smarter when they go out to rent. I know that I will take even more pictures the next time, and in the interim I will try to find a rental company that extends its operations seamlessly into Mexico from Canada and the U.S. I hope that this doesn’t make anyone not want to rent or drive in Mexico, but I also hope that it makes you more aware before you do.

By Ed Labine

Manzanillo Sun’s eMagazine written by local authors about living in Manzanillo and Mexico, since 2009

Manzanillo Sun Writer

Manzanillo Sun's eMagazine written by local authors about living in Manzanillo and Mexico, since 2009

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