Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Saving Money on Car Rentals

I just returned from a trip where we had to rent a car, which can be a transaction as complicated as doing taxes. We're not particularly brand-loyal. We shop around online, inquire about any discounts we might be eligible for, and we usually end up with a pretty good price.

Then comes the upsell. First, they want to change you to a bigger car. From economy to mid-size. Mid-size to full-size. Full-size to luxury. (Sometimes they're out of your category, and they'll give you a free upgrade if you don't take their offer to pay for one.) On this occasion, the counter agent said, "You're in luck. I can put you in a Mercedes convertible." My husband said, "Great. For the same price?" Well no, it was going to be about twice what we'd been quoted for our full-size sedan. No thanks, we'll stick with the Toyota Camry we reserved.

Do you need a GPS? Just a couple more dollars a day. No, we'll use the GPS on our phones, thank you. Car seat? No kids. Extra driver? Most companies don't charge extra to add a spouse, but if you're renting with an unrelated person, make sure you both plan to drive before adding this expense. I rented a car with two friends once, and they wanted us to pay an extra $10 a day for each additional driver. We did end up adding one extra driver, but we didn't need two.

Another time we rented a car in New Mexico, and when the agent handed over the contract for me to sign, I noticed the charges were higher than the quote I'd printed out. I asked her why. "Your quote didn't include the emergency roadside assistance. It's only two dollars a day, and everyone wants it." I had her remove it, as I already have that coverage through AAA (American Automobile Association).

Not filling up the car before you return it can be costly, and you'll be warned of this penalty at check-out. However, you may be offered the option of purchasing a tank of gas in advance at a per-gallon price lower than what you'll see at the pumps, and then returning the car empty. Only problem, you'll pay for the full tank of gas even if you only use half or less. Don't fall for this add-on unless you plan to drive far enough to burn through a whole tank and can actually return the car on fumes.

Luckily, the online quotes now list all the non-negotiable taxes and fees you'll be charged. For our most recent rental, we paid sales tax, vehicle license recovery, airport concession, and a California tourism fee. In the old days, when we got a quote over the phone of a daily rate "plus tax," I was always surprised at how much the bottom line increased by the time all those charges were added.

And then there's the insurance. A lot of agents ask questions like, "Do you want full coverage, or just the basic?" My answer is usually, "Neither."

The most common "basic" coverage car rental companies offer is CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) or LDW (Loss Damage Waiver). Adding this coverage can increase the cost of your rental contract by 25-30%, but counter agents will try to scare you into taking it, as otherwise, you are fully liable for theft or any damage to the vehicle, regardless of who is at fault.

And sometimes things happen. We've been fortunate in our travels so far, but we've come close to disaster a few times. Once, in Hawaii, we were parked on a street lined with palm trees. When we returned to our car, we noticed the car in front of ours had a huge dent in its roof—damaged by a falling coconut! It could just as easily have been us.

But if you have collision and comprehensive coverage on your own automobiles, check your insurance policy before you go, because there's a good chance you'll enjoy the same coverage in a rental car. (Especially in the United States; check the rules if you're renting a car in another country.) Also, many credit card companies provide CDW/LDW at no charge if you use that card for the rental and decline the car company's coverage. Check the fine print or call your credit card issuer, and pay with the card that provides the best coverage.

Other optional insurance you can buy includes personal accident insurance (covers your medical costs resulting from an accident) and personal effects coverage (damage or loss of personal property you place in the car). Again, check the coverage you already have. If you're renting a car in the United States, chances are your personal health insurance will cover your medical bills in case of an accident. And the liability portion of your automobile insurance policy will cover those of others who are injured. If you have homeowners or rental insurance, that policy may cover your personal effects.

If you're traveling abroad and are buying travel insurance for your vacation, it might be cheaper to add coverage for car rentals to that policy than to purchase the insurance separately from the rental car company. Do a little research before you leave.

By all means, don't put yourself at unnecessary risk. But you might be able to save money by avoiding the purchase of duplicate coverage and options you don't need.

What tips do you have for saving on car rentals? I'd love to hear your comments.

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