The roads on St. Maarten/St. Martin's are better than on most Caribbean islands, but they don't compare to the smooth highways of North America or Europe. There are pot-holes, way too many speed-bumps on roads where the pot-holes are missing, and there is the human factor: driving skills cover a wide spectrum (from total incompetence to somewhat ok) and driving habits are very often not compatible with the traffic situation.
Parking spaces can be tight, the roads a bit narrow – and suddenly there is a little (or large) scratch or dent on your rental car. Or even worse: you come back from shopping and find your car damaged by an inconsiderate driver, who didn't even leave a note.
The Cost of Small Damages
You wonder how much this will cost you. Relax: if you rented from a reputable company, not too much. The legit rental car providers don't even attempt to make a dime on scratches and dings on their vehicles. They are just expecting to be compensated for the real cost of repair.
Don't Skip the Walk-Around
Disagreements start if you can't come to terms with the rental car agency over which damages have been caused while you had custody of the vehicle and which dents had been on the car when you got it. This can happen if you did not inspect the car with patience at the time the company released it to you. That's why you need to walk around any rental car without haste and truly note any significant imperfection on the form all rental car companies present to you to sign. Any oversight here might cost you later.
What to Check
- Open the trunk and see if there is a spare tire. Is this spare tire in reasonable condition and actually has air pressure? While checking the spare: are there tools to change the tire?
- Go with care over the windshield: any damage needs to be noted, because changing the glass is expensive!
- Use the car keys on all doors to identify a damaged lock: thieves usually try to break in on the passenger site and frequently destroy the lock without causing much visual damage.
The bottom-line: Once you signed off, any damage to the car not noted on the contract is yours to handle. If the car offered to you has too many dings, dents and scratches, it becomes impossible to mark them properly on the form. This is a recipe for trouble later and a reason to not accept this vehicle! (Besides, why should you drive a wreck, if you signed up for a decent car.)
Understanding the Car Rental Company
Let's look at it from the rental car company's perspective: they give you a car at a very low rate (St. Maarten's rental car industry is cut-throat competitive). According to their documentation, the car is in good shape (the big guys own hundreds of cars, and the integrity of their documentation is relying on the diligence of their employees). They make very little profit of you. That's why they need the car to be returned in the same condition they rented it out to you. The rate they gave you has zero margin for trouble. And please memorize this one: They are not out to get you! If you had a little mishap, just tell and it will be settled with very little pain. And yes: they are human – if you don't play games, they treat you right.