Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

As responsible travel agents, we at WoWCuba do our utmost to ensure our clients are aware of what they can reasonably expect from Cuban accommodation & transportation providers before they dive in headfirst and commit to services. The unfortunate reality is that car rentals in Cuba often fall short of client expectations, and more so at this point in time when demand is at record levels and tourism authorities are struggling to keep up. WoWCuba is a travel intermediary. We are not the rental company, we do not control or maintain the Cuban state’s car rental fleets. We do process reservation requests with our Cuban partners, and only process payments for car rental reservations if a confirmation has been received in writing by the service provider in accordance with the exact parameters of client requests. There are admittedly operators out there who may not even have direct contracts with Cuban tourism operators who will promise the moon, only to disappoint; you should beware of undertaking arrangements through questionably ethical/legitmate websites against which the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has published warnings. The following is meant to provide potential visitors to Cuba considering renting a vehicle the low-down on the rental company’s obligations, and what one can reasonably expect when undertaking a self-drive holiday. We hope you read, absorb and carefully consider the information we offer to best plan your travel in Cuba and reduce stress to a minimum.

At an meeting held by the Cuban Minister of Tourism to conclude the record year of 2016 which saw over 4 million entries to Cuban territory, as accredited Cuban travel professionals we were provided with statistics on the industry’s growth, and problem areas that the various ministries are addressing and attempting to solve with the unprecedented and sudden surge of the tourism sector of late. With just 13, 592 vehicles existing in the fleets of the 4 Cuban state-owned car rental companies, only 5,116 were imported in 2016. That makes your chances of being assigned a late model rental vehicle roughly 1 in 3, not particularly great odds.

With a deficit of vehicles to meet the current demand for rental cars, delays in their delivery are admittedly frequent. We regularly field calls from clients who appear at the agreed-upon rental counter at the confirmed time to collect their rental vehicle, only to be informed by the rental counter functionary that there are no cars. Morever, they are rarely able to provide an informed estimate on how long the client may have to expect to wait before their will can be delivered. They aren’t denying the existence of the prepaid reservation, and we’ve not had a single case in over two years where a WoWCuba client didn’t receive a rental vehicle on the same date scheduled for its pickup. But delays (and sometimes up to 5 or more hours, especially for rentals programmed for early morning or early afternoon pickup) are not out of the question. It can be frustrating for clients and for agents, but is an unfortunate reality with car rental services in Cuba today. The upside is that the rental company has a contractual obligation to our ground handlers to supply a vehicle to clients who have prepaid their services, while others must seek alternative modes of transportation. Their failure to provide a vehicle on the date reserved for pickup could result in the rental company being obliged to assume additional expenses that clients incur, but only once they have analyzed their claim, supporting documents and corroborated evidence. In our experience the claims process can be maddeningly slow, and it often seems to us that Cuban authorities attempt to take advantage of any possible loophole to avoid forking out funds. Some examples we’ve encountered include:
-clients who fail to report their issues to the rental company’s Technical Assistance numbers to document issues.
-clients who fail to present official receipts to corroborate their claim, or (and this one is key) have failed to retain a copy of their completed rental contract to submit as evidence for any adjustments corresponding to documented issues at the end of their rental period.
-clients who ask for compensation for loss of activities that have not been prepaid (and for which verifiable receipts cannot be presented)
-clients who present receipts for inflated and non-approved taxi fares. Ex.: A $20 taxi between 3ra & Paseo and Linea & Malecon is clearly a scam. If your rental car is scheduled at 3ra & Paseo, but they tell you to go to an alternate location to pick up the car, call us first. We will give you instructions on how to proceed and ensure that (if it’s actually necessary for you to change locations rather than have them deliver the vehicle to where it should have been waiting) you retain an official receipt and that we ensure a record of the incident is immediately put on file with our ground handlers.
-Partial compensation is occasionally approved for clients who’ve reserved, for example, an economy category car for 9 am, but not received it until well into the afternoon. While it’s not much, at least it’s something to recognize the serious level of informality demonstrated at times by some Cuban state service providers in terms of compliance with reservation parameters. We’ve handled claims for other clients who’ve lost more than 5 hours of their anticipated rental awaiting the vehicle, but were ultimately provided with an upgraded vehicle at no additional cost (which they’ve not requested). Disappointingly, claims for partial refunds for lost time have been denied in those cases, as the rental company’s logic is that they made up for the lost time by providing an upgraded vehicle. While our stance is that the practice is questionable, thus far we’ve not managed to convince authorities to budge on that particular point, despite persistence and insistence that they reconsider their rulings.

WoWCuba recognizes the need for contractual compliance, and regularly makes note of its importance with our ground handlers. Sometimes, however, we believe those suggestions fall on slightly deaf ears. Just this week I met with the heads of Sales, Quality Control and the International Department Chief at the offices of one of our main ground handlers. My agenda was to hash out some fully documented and corroborated claims that they’ve failed to respond to within a reasonable period, as well as to request that they provide us with the details of some of the specific contractual obligations and terms with the car rental companies. These sometimes seem to be well-guarded state secrets to me. My logic was that when an agency accepts prepayment for a service through their contracts, we should be able to offer more specific information to our clients on exactly what the maximum established compensation might be, when and if things go astray. Despite having spent my entire adult life (over 2 decades), working in the Cuban tourism industry where customer service levels can often be qualified as deficient, and the ratio of quality-price is questionable at times, I still fully believe this is a reasonable and logical demand. But the answer I received demonstrates that there’s a culture of complacency, and even resignation even at the highest levels in the Cuban tourism sector. Perhaps it’s precisely because I’m not a newbie to the Cuban tourism industry, but they didn’t seem to show any shame when responding telling me that there are not enough cars. No hay carros. We have to be real, this is Cuba. That we should be lucky they’re confirming anything at all this year; last year it was almost impossible to get a written confirmation issued by a rental company. That what’s written into the contracts they sign with the rental companies is not always exactly what transpires in reality. That’s the sad truth of this system. When the four rental companies and their ground handler all ultimately belong to the state, I’ve often said that as the agents accepting prepayment for their services it’s a little like playing with a stacked deck, or batting in a ball game where the umpire and the pitcher are on the same team.

Some clients arrive in Cuba with the misconception that as an intermediary agency we have some degree of control over which model of rental vehicle they will be assigned, when in reality Cuban rental companies only confirm car reservations by category. Others believe we are able to ensure that they are assigned a vehicle with low kilometers. If an agent trying to sell you a car rental claims they have absolute control over those issues, you should be skeptical as the ultimate assignment of vehicles normally occurs the evening prior, or on the same day of the service initiation, and it’s impossible to know in advance with any degree of certainty, the exact model or year of the vehicle you’ll ultimately receive. To avoid being slapped with a claim, the rental company’s contractual obligation is to deliver the same category a client has reserved or superior, on the scheduled date of service initiation, with the transmission type requested, functioning air conditioning (for those categories featuring a/c), and passenger capacity as described in the parameters of the client’s reservation. The vehicle must pass documented Cuban technical inspections and be roadworthy. According to the rental companies, cosmetic imperfections (dents, scratches, upholstery which may be stained or have rips/cigarette burns, etc.) do not contractually constitute a valid reason to reject a rental vehicle, but if there are technical or mechanical deficiencies which affect the integrity or safety of the vehicle, those would be considered acceptable reasons for their rejection.

When opening your rental contract, it’s essential that you perform a full inspection and ensure any dents/scratches, or other imperfections are duly registered on your rental contract as it will be inspected upon your return, and you are responsible for any new dents/scratches etc. Take your time, turn on the lights/blinkers, a/c, windshield wipers, carefully inspect the condition of the tires and the spare tire, ensure the jack & tire iron are included in the car inventory, etc. If there are technical issues with the vehicle, you are under no obligation to accept it or sign a contract expressly indicating your conformity with the vehicle. Signing the contract indicating that you received the vehicle in acceptable technical conditions is one of the loopholes the rental company can later use in the rejection of a refund claim. If a technical issue occurs while the rental is underway and the renter fails to duly report the issue, the plate/contract #, exact location of the vehicle, and provide the rental company’s Technical Assistance staff with the tools to contact them at a local number and the opportunity to repair or replace the vehicle, that is another loophole which we often see used as justification in the rental company’s rejection of claims. Contacting WoWCuba or random rental counter functionaries to complain or report a problem does not mean that your issues will be documented as verifiable incidents on file with the rental company. They don’t take the client or the intermediate agency their word, but rather put the onis on the client to ensure they have all issues fully documented in their system and on the rental contract for analysis. From the time an issue is reported to the Technical Assistance office whose telephone contacts are listed on your rental contract, they must respond in a reasonable time frame with a solution. Taking note of the time your report is submitted, and the name of the rental company functionary with whom you spoke is highly advisable.

If the rental company functionary attempts to assign a vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or unfit and does not offer an acceptable alternative, then you should immediately contact a WoWCuba to request intervention. If there is evidence available to corroborate your claim, then we can contact their superiors/operations office on your behalf to report the difficulty and request intervention for replacement of the vehicle. If no alternative acceptable solution is ultimately available through those channels, and you choose to reject the vehicle they’ve assigned to your rental, then upon verification, refunds for prepaid rental fees are available. To avoid being left without a rental car altogether, some of our more flexible clients have accepted older/inferior vehicles which they’ve been able to switch for alternative models at the earliest opportunity. In our experience this strategy can be hit or miss, especially when heading outside of major urban centers where the availability of vehicles may be more limited. Some clients have had to travel through several cities before finally encountering some luck replacing their vehicle, and most report the experience to be inconvenient at best.

If you do elect to reserve a rental car in advance, following are some suggestions worth considering to maximize your time and itinerary goals:
-If picking up a vehicle after your international arrival (not directly at the airport upon arrival in Cuba), consider programming pickup of your rental vehicle the evening before you’ll actually need it. Especially if planning on travelling several hours or more from the planned pickup location, this strategy can often result in the best guarantee for an on-time departure.
-Consider upgrading to REX, the “luxury” rental company. Their rates are certainly higher than those of the other three Cuban rental companies, but in our experience they have the highest rate of client satisfaction. It’s not to say they’re perfect – we have had a couple of cases where even REX ultimately disappointed clients by delivering an inferior category than that which was initially confirmed, but always with reimbursement for the difference in contracted rates.
-Arrive slightly earlier than the programmed pickup time to collect your vehicle. Lineups at the rental counters, especially in Havana, are common, and the earlier you mark your spot, the faster you will hopefully complete the process and be on your way.
-Ensure you have all documentation on your person (printed voucher if one has been issued in advance by WoWCuba, a copy of your invoice with contact information, your driver’s license issued at least 2 years prior to the date of initiation of the rental, and passport corresponding to the primary driver on record, demonstrating that he/she is at least 21 years of age (or 30 for sport car models). If registering additional drivers they must be present with their identification at the time you open the rental contract.
-If your rental vehicle is scheduled for routine maintenance while under your care (typically this is every 5000 kms; the rental company will advise when the vehicle’s next maintenance must be performed), ensure you take care of that detail. There are penalties if you fail to have the maintenance completed when due. It’s not always convenient for the client, but the manufacturer’s warranties require the maintenance to be performed. If the designated rental company garage does not have the corresponding filters/cannot perform the maintenance for any reason, simply ensure you have them issue an official document (duly signed & stamped) attesting to the fact that you attempted to have maintenance performed but that X reason(s) prevented that task from being completed. You should submit that document to the rental counter functionary upon conclusion of the rental for compliance/justification.

Traveling independently in Cuba can be a wonderful adventure, but things aren’t always rosy. WoWCuba continues to offer car rentals as many of our long-time clients would be disappointed if we discontinued the service. Being prepared for the realities of what to expect/the limitations of local systems & infrastructure, and planning accordingly can make the experience much more fulfilling and relaxing.

Previous car rental posts you may want to reference for additional information:
Cuba Car Rental Advice
Cuba Summer Car Rental Adventures

Advertisements