It is one of the most misunderstood areas of the travel industry and often the most confusing — the business of rental cars. If you don’t know what to ask for, and in some cases, if you don’t know what to refuse, you could be putting yourself in jeopardy or paying too much money... or both. In part three of a "Greenberg's Rules of Travel," a special series on "Today," travel editor Peter Greenberg shares his advice for getting the best rate on a rental car. Here are his rules:
Rule #1: Size matters
One of the biggest areas of confusion is a definition of terms. What constitutes a compact car (think Chevy Cobalt), a mid-size (think Ford Taurus), a full-size (think Chevy Impala), an SUV (think Explorer or even Hummer) and a luxury vehicle (think Volvo) in the U.S., is different if you rent in Europe, where the definitions change. In Europe, a mid-size car may in fact be what we call a compact car, and if you’re traveling with a family of four, not only will your luggage not fit, but none of you will be talking to each other after the trip!
Rule #2: One of the biggest minefields is insurance
When you’re signing up to rent a car, it’s inevitable that you will be asked by a rental car agent if you want insurance. Well, it’s not really insurance, it’s a collision damage waiver and also liability coverage. It often can cost more than the daily car rate!
Do you need it? If you don’t currently have automobile coverage, the answer is a decided "yes." But chances are, if you already drive a car and you’re insured, you're already covered. So his rule here is you need to check with your auto insurance company to see if you're covered. A good rule of thumb is to carry a copy of your auto insurance policy with you, because some rental car agencies have been known to refuse the rental if you can’t prove you’re already insured.
There’s a second rub: A number of credit card companies claim that if you rent the car using their card, then you’re covered. Not necessarily. In almost all cases, these credit card companies offer “secondary insurance,” and what that means is that this type of insurance only kicks in once you’ve exhausted the financial limits of your primary policy. If you don’t have a primary policy, the secondary policy never kicks in. So be careful. Also, some rental car companies might want to entice you to purchase “personal effects insurance.” In most cases, that’s a waste of money, because there are too many qualifiers and exclusions to make it worthwhile.
Rule #3: Bring a digital camera
When you first get on the lot and see your car, a digital camera that can time code photos is your best friend. Before ever accepting a car, take five minutes. Walk around it, note any damage and photograph it. Ask a rental car employee to witness this and get their first, last name and title. It’s amazing how you can get dinged for little dings you didn’t cause. Once you leave the lot, it’s your word against theirs, and you lose.
Rule #4: Know what's up with the gas
Another problem area is gas. Don’t be fuelish. Make sure you understand your company’s refueling policies very carefully — and thoroughly. Some have you pay for a full tank of gas when you rent the car and you bring it back as empty as possible. Others give you a refueling option: You can bring the car back full (you pay for the gas) or, they will refuel it for you. But that’s usually steep, up to $7 a gallon! The best advice: Rent a car you can refuel yourself and bring it back full.
Rule #5: Location, location, location
Renting a car is all about the location. Rent at an airport. Pay more. It's as simple as that. Municipalities love taxing visitors, and rental cars are a great target. Rent at an airport, you’ll be subsidizing not only the airport, but helping to build a sports stadium you’ll only see on TV. In many cases, it’s actually cheaper to take a shuttle into town and rent from the same company locally. Think about this example: At the Las Vegas Airport, car rental companies paid the airport $26.5 million in fees last year, and guess where that money came from? You!
One more thing, you need to look a rental cars as flocks of migrating birds. Rental car companies need to move entire fleets of cars to meet seasonal demands. Not many cars are needed in Florida during the summer, but starting this month? It's the same in Arizona in the winter and California during the summer. If you plan properly, you can take advantage of unadvertised “drive away” deals offered by many car rental firms, where they will just about beg you to drive their cars north, south, east or west, depending on demand. Drive away deals have often included unlimited mileage and as low as $9 a day. But don’t expect the rental car companies to volunteer this, you need to ask.