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Video: Rental car headaches

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 3/4/2008 6:35:09 PM ET 2008-03-04T23:35:09

Even if you’ve rented a car many times in the past, it’s still possible to experience that deer-in-the-headlights feeling as you stand at the counter and talk to the rental agent.

After all, there are so many little details to remember, questions to answer and decisions to make. Should you just say no to everything? Or yes to a few things?

The following tips can help you navigate the often-confusing world of car rentals.

1. Shop around online first. Check multiple travel Web sites — such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Priceline.com and Hotwire.com — and get a sense of what’s available. Then check the rental car companies’ Web sites directly to see whether you can snag an even cheaper rate there.

2. Do the math. A rate that sounds unbelievably low might not be so low when everything is said and done. Clarify which taxes, surcharges and other fees you’ll be expected to pay and be on the lookout for charges for “extras” you really need, such as permission for additional drivers to use the car.

3. Hunt for deals. Always check for weekend discounts or special weekly rates. When shopping online, be alert for little areas where you can enter a “promotional code” or “discount code.” That’s a sign to open a Web browser in another window and do a quick Internet search for the car company’s name along with the same catch phrase you spotted. You could find a coupon code in seconds and save on your rental. Remember that you also may have access to discount codes through organization memberships and other affiliations.

4. Opt for a smaller car. Do you really need a larger car? If not, go compact. Here’s a little secret: Rental car companies often run out of economy models because they’re the most popular, so you’ll often be steered toward an upgrade in the hopes that you’ll cave in and pay for it. Just say no. You stand to get the upgrade anyway for the economy price.

5. Check for restrictions on where you can take the car. Planning to drive across state lines? Make sure that’s going to be OK before you lock in your rental deal. Some rental car companies’ “unlimited mileage” rates don’t include certain states, and you could get walloped with an unexpectedly high bill unless you’re aware of the restrictions ahead of time.

6. You rarely need that extra insurance. Rental agencies often urge renters to spend additional money per day on collision damage waivers and other insurance coverage. Review your auto insurance policy and credit-card agreements; you’re almost certainly covered already. The one exception you might want to consider is “loss of use” coverage, which covers the time the rental agency may need to spend having the car repaired if you get into an accident. Your auto insurance plan may not include that coverage, so check first.

7. Gas up. Don’t prepay for gasoline – (it’s rarely the best deal for you) – and then don’t forget to fill the tank back up before you return the car. If you fail to do so, expect to pay much more than the market price for the gasoline you owe.

8. Be on time. If you return your car late, the rental agency may charge you as much as a full day’s rental, sometimes at a rate higher than before. If you are going to be late, call the agency and explain your situation. It may help. Also, clarify what charges you might have to pay if you must drop the car off early.

9. Avoid airport fees. If you rent a car from the airport, you’re likely to pay extra fees such as airport surcharges, drop-off fees or taxes levied by local governments. Consider renting from a suburban location if at all possible to avoid at least some of those costs.

10. Supply your own car seat. If you’ll be traveling with children, you can save up to $10 a day by providing your own child safety seat rather than renting one from the car company. You may not need to worry about this if you’re renting a minivan that has built-in safety seats.

Sources

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