Car Shopping Tip: Renting a Car

April 21, 2006

Renting a car can be a trying experience. Hard-driven rental fleets are now kept longer than ever, and in many big cities, traffic gridlocks and unfamiliar surroundings make having a car more of a hassle than an asset. Shuttles or light-rail systems may erase your need for a rental car, but if you do need one, read on for some essential advice for a smooth rental experience.

Shopping around

Shop around! Remember that rental-car rates change just as often and erratically as airline tickets, and rates are determined by the game of supply and demand. Rates may vary drastically within the same airport due to each company’s particular inventory at the moment. Always confirm with the agent that you are getting the lowest possible fare. Major companies sometimes offer special, Internet-only discounts, and the Internet is the best place to compare general rates for particular areas.

Airport rentals can be costly. Rental rates are often cheaper at off-airport locations, and shuttle buses may make them just as convenient. Quoted rates usually don’t include hefty airport sales taxes and concession fees, which can add up to more than a 30-percent additional charge.

Choose small; upgrade later. Before reserving, look on the company’s Web site or a brochure and decide which car class is the minimum size for your needs. Then make a reservation for the minimum size and comfort you need. Agencies tend to keep a better inventory of the larger cars, so you might get upgraded to something larger for free.

Use special discounts and perks. Also determine if you’re entitled to any discounts through reciprocal frequent-customer plans or AAA membership. Some airlines’ frequent-flyer programs award miles for each rental, and rental companies sometimes have free upgrades for frequent-flyer members.

Making the reservation

Don’t underestimate your rental time. Make the reservation for the number of days that you really need. If you are late, most agencies begin accruing costly, per-hour charges that may add up to more than the cost of an extra day.

Reserve the car as far in advance as possible. The major rental companies have discount rates in some major markets that are only offered with a seven-day advance reservation.

Get the right mileage plan. Make sure you understand the mileage policy. Most rental car agencies have two or three different mileage policies, each with different rates. Unlimited mileage may only apply to travel within particular states, and some other companies may only allow 100 or 150 miles per day, with a charge per mile after that.

Assure that you’re insured. Save yourself some worry by figuring out insurance before you leave home. Rental companies always try to push extra Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), hospitalization, and Personal Effects Coverage (PEC) policies for added fees of up to $25 per day. First, call your auto insurance company and ask if they provide coverage for rental cars. Then, ask your credit-card company, as they may provide coverage if you’re a "gold" or "platinum" cardholder and use the card for the rental. If there’s any doubt, it’s a smart move to get CDW and LDW, that way you won’t have to worry about paying a costly deductible.

At the counter

Don’t fall for pricey refueling options. Many of the big-name rental companies have an option where you pay in advance for a full tank of fuel at inflated, "market" prices. This option invites the customer to run the tank empty, a questionable procedure in unfamiliar surroundings. Go for the more sensible option of starting out with a full tank and agreeing to return the car with a full tank.

List any additional drivers. Get them on the rental agreement. Most companies will add one or two drivers to the rental agreement free of charge as long as they are at least 25 years old.

Request child seats. Remember that you should not let children ride in the front passenger seat, and any children in the back seat should be properly secured in a child safety seat. Rental companies will lend child safety seats for a minimal fee.

Know where to call in an emergency. Get after-hour emergency numbers for the rental agency. Always call 911 first, and then the rental agency’s emergency line.

Read all the conditions of the rental! Don’t initial or sign for anything you aren’t sure about.

Before you leave the lot

Check the car’s condition. If you see any damage or serious stains, go back inside and report it to the clerk to avoid being charged for it later.

Familiarize before you go. Get acquainted with the car’s controls, especially noting where the wiper, headlight, and defogger controls are. Adjust the climate control, seat position, and mirrors before setting out.

Take it back if you don’t like it. Take a short drive around the block. If you feel that the car is excessively worn or if there are any problems with the way it drives, go immediately back to the rental desk and ask for another car. Worn, high-mileage cars can often be avoided by specifically asking for a low-mileage car.

Check in

Clean out all of the soda bottles and candy wrappers, and inspect the car once more for any damage. Arrive back to the airport with enough time to properly check in and finalize the rental. Make sure you get a final receipt upon check-in. Do your part for future renters by mentioning any problems upon check-in.

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