Car rentals: Don't get taken for a ride

May 19, 2008 First, call and check prices by phone. Then, go online and compare. You'll be amazed at the difference. I typically find it's cheaper to book online, because the travel industry is trying to encourage customers to spend money without ever speaking to a human.

Finally, when you get to your destination, walk into the rental office and ask about rates without saying you already have a reservation. Often, customers get a better deal on the spot. If not, or if all the cars are taken, then reveal that you already have a reservation.

And if you do end up getting a better deal in person, don't worry. Most rental car companies don't charge for no shows. (An exception is if you booked through a special service like Priceline where you paid in advance. The key is to know the terms of your deal.)

The other way to save money is to learn the lingo and know how it applies to you.

A collision damage waiver, or CDW, is an optional charge allowed in some states. It is not technically collision insurance. It's a guarantee that the rental car company will pay for damage to the car you rent.

If you decline the waiver, you're accepting responsibility for any damage. That's fine if your personal car insurance policy covers rental cars or if you have good coverage through a credit card or motor club. But make sure you do, because if not, you could be liable for the full value of the car. I always accept all the rental company insurance when I rent a car in a foreign country, just to avoid potential headaches and hassles.

Personal accident insurance, or PAI, pays a death benefit and/or pays a portion of your medical bills if you're in an accident while driving the rental car. If you have a good life insurance policy and good health care coverage, you shouldn't need this.

Personal Effects Coverage, or PEC, is insurance for your luggage while you travel. Many homeowner's and renter's policies cover this. Find out, and if so, don't waste your money.

Fuel charges are handled a couple different ways. You can prepay for the right to return the car empty. Or you can opt to refuel the car yourself. If you prepay, the rental car company will refuel for you and charge a price higher than what you'd find at an off-airport gas station. If you choose to refuel yourself and then fail to fill up, the rental car company will charge you a price way higher than what you'd find at an off-airport gas station. The gamble is yours.

Mileage charges are another thing to watch out for. It seems that most rental car companies offer unlimited mileage these days, but don't take that for granted. Some companies charge a few cents per mile. Others charge a flat fee if you go over your mileage allowance. On the other hand, you may be able to get a lower overall rate if you know you won't be driving far and you ask for a low mileage cap.

Do Your Homework

If you are planning to rent a car for four or five days, inquire about the weekly rate. Often, the weekly rate is actually lower than paying the daily rate for several days. Also inquire about special weekend rates.

Ask about fees that will raise the base rate, so you'll know the true price. For example, airport taxes and fees to drop the car off somewhere other than where you rented it.

Some rental car companies check your driving record when you arrive to pick up your car. Even if you have a confirmed reservation, they may reject you on the spot if you don't meet their safety standards. Check the company's policy when you book.

Ask whether the rental car company will be blocking funds on your credit card while you drive the car. Companies do this in case you go on a joyride and never return. They don't actually complete the charge, but it does reduce the spending limit on your card. Keep that in mind if you plan to use the same card for all your other travel expenses.

Where to Complain

Rental car companies are largely unregulated. Address complaints to the state consumer protection office where you rented the car or where the rental car company is based.
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