Don’t let a car-rental company take you for a ride. Whether you think the daily rental rate you are quoted is a bargain or steep, even more tricky charges probably lurk down the road. And it’s not just the infamous overpriced insurance that rental companies are known to push at the checkout counter.
Here are ways to find lower rates and reduce the odds of being victimized by sneaky rental-car charges…
FIND THE BEST RATES
Travel websites such as Expedia, Priceline, Kayak and Hotwire sometimes offer appealing rental rates and are worth checking. But if you are willing to invest a bit more time, you could also…
• Try a travel agency. Old-fashioned brick-and-mortar travel agencies often have access to special car-rental rates through the travel agent consortiums they belong to.
• Search for deals at rental locations that aren’t at an airport. Airport-related taxes and fees can increase the cost of renting there by 10% to 25% or even more in some cases. You often come out ahead if you pick up your car at a lot that isn’t right at the airport even after factoring in the cost of taking a cab or car share to this lot.
• Shop early and late. Is it better to search for car-rental deals long in advance of the trip…or just before the trip? Both. Many rental-car reservations can be canceled without penalty. Reserve the best deal you can find as soon as your travel plans are set, but continue shopping as the travel date approaches. If you find a lower price, book it, too.
If you like, you could call the rental-car company that provided the original price and say, “I’m calling to cancel my reservation because I found a lower price…but before I do, could you match it?” The company often will.
Warning: Confirm that any reservation you make can be canceled without penalty. “Prepaid” rates that are offered by car-rental companies and many third-party travel websites are nonrefundable.
• Modify pick-up and drop-off times if your timing is somewhat flexible. Adjusting these by just an hour or two when you search for car-rental rates online could significantly affect the prices you find.
GET ADDITIONAL DISCOUNTS
You don’t have to search the entire Internet for rental-car special offers. Just take a few minutes to…
• Search for car-rental coupon codes on AutoSlash.com. It offers details about dozens of current car-rental coupon codes and other promotions. If you find an appealing offer, just enter its code on the rental company website when you make your reservation.
• Check whether an organization you belong to offers rental-car savings. AAA…AARP…USAA…and warehouse clubs BJ’s and Costco have partnered with rental-car companies to provide deals. Examples: You might save 5% to 30% off the “base” rate…receive free upgrades…or get certain fees waived.
• Reserve a smaller car, then ask for a free upgrade. If you would like a larger rental but don’t need one, reserve a smaller, less expensive car and then politely ask for an upgrade at the counter. Rental company employees typically have lots of leeway when it comes to upgrades. This is particularly likely to work if you can point out that you rent from the company often…or that you are on your honeymoon or celebrating a special occasion such as a silver anniversary.
BEWARE OF ADD-ONS AND OVERCHARGES
Questionable rental-car company tactics are more common than ever. Self-defense…
• Reject rental cars that have partially full gas tanks. If you return a rental car with less gas than you started out with, the rental company likely will charge a very steep per-gallon rate for the difference.
The best option is to reject the gas prepay option and instead fill up the tank at a gas station right before returning the car. But if the car started out with less than a full tank, it will be difficult to refill it to precisely the right level.
To avoid this issue, insist that the car you rent starts with a full tank of gas. Then you simply can top it off before returning it.
Save the receipt from the gas station when you fill the tank, and take a photo of this receipt (in case you misplace the original) and a photo of the car’s gas gauge when you return the car. Rental lots have been known to bill customers for gas even though the customers refilled the tank properly.
• Reject cars that have even small scratches or scuffs. It’s become distressingly common for car-rental firms to charge customers $400 to $499 for minor damage they did not cause.
Why $400 to $499? It’s because many people have $500 auto insurance deductibles. The car-rental companies don’t want insurance companies getting involved because insurers are aware of this scam and often won’t play ball.
The traditional advice is to inspect rental cars very carefully and report any damage to the rental agent before driving away so that it is noted on the rental agreement.
If possible, demand a different car that has no damage. A car that has visible damage often also has other damage that is not easy to spot.
Whether or not you spot any damage, take numerous pictures of the car from every possible angle, inside and out, before you drive the car off the lot. Do so again when you return the car. An app called Record360 (free for iOS and Android) can document precisely when and where these images were recorded, improving the strength of your case if you later need to prove that you returned the car in the same condition you got it.
• Turn down rental company insurance. The insurance offered by car-rental firms is massively overpriced—and you probably don’t even need it. Most drivers already have rental-car coverage through their auto insurance…the credit card they use to rent the car…or both. (Contact your insurer and card issuer before your trip to confirm this, especially because there are exceptions and limits.)
If you do need rental-car coverage—or you prefer to leave no chance that potentially costly gaps might lurk in your coverage—purchase it through InsureMyRentalCar.com prior to your trip. It provides reliable coverage for a fraction of what rental firms charge. Prices start at just $5 per day or $17.50 per trip.
• Reject the toll transponder, and avoid toll roads. Rental-car companies often charge $4 or $5 per day for a toll transponder that pays tolls automatically—on top of the cost of the tolls that the renter incurs.
Renters might be given the option of paying for this transponder when they pick up the car…or the transponder—and its daily fee—might be automatically triggered if the car passes through an automated toll plaza during the trip.
The best option is to reject this transponder (if it is optional) and use a map app to avoid toll roads—especially toll roads that do not offer a cash-payment option. When that isn’t practical, lean toward renting from Enterprise or Avis, which tend to at least be up front with transponder charges rather than try to trap customers with gotcha fees that show up later.
Another option is to bring your own transponder if you have one that will work on toll roads in the area you will be visiting—but there is a chance that a rental company transponder installed in the car could be triggered as well, leaving you to sort out a double-billing situation.
Similar: If you have your own portable GPS navigation unit (or a smartphone with a navigation app that you are comfortable using), bring it and reject the rental company’s optional navigation unit. This may save you $4 or $5 per day.
• Don’t get stuck with an age surcharge. You may know that young drivers (under age 25) usually are charged more for rental cars. But some rental companies in Europe now charge older drivers a surcharge or refuse to rent to them at all. And these companies often do not make these rules clear when people book reservations—older would-be customers are simply turned away when they try to pick up their rentals.
If you are age 70 or older and you intend to rent a car in Europe, contact the car-rental company, perhaps through its website, to ask whether any age limits or age-based surcharges will apply. This surcharge is most common in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland and Portugal.