Renting a car can be a baffling and annoying experience. There's so much fine print on the rental agreement you could spend your entire vacation trying to figure it out. Worse yet are the fabulously low rates that agencies are always trumpeting and then undercutting with mysterious charges, onerous regulations, and nasty nitpicking. Here's how to avoid -- or at least not be surprised by -- some standard rental-car rip-offs.
Print out your reservation confirmation info when you book online, or ask that a copy of your confirmation be mailed or faxed to you when you make reservations over the phone. Have the confirmation in hand when you pick up the car, in case your rental information is mysteriously lost or the computers are down and the rental company wants to charge you a higher rate. Having printed confirmation avoids potential confusion.
It's obvious to most people that returning a car late will result in late charges. What isn't so obvious is that returning a car early can also dramatically bump up your bill. If you got a special rate for multiple days, dropping the car off early can revoke that rate. Always check with the car company before you return early, and get any "no extra charge" promises in writing.
Chances are the last thing you want to do while standing at the head of a long line at the rental agency is read all the fine print on the contract. Booking online gives you a chance to review the contract before you arrive to pick up your car. And signing up for a rental company's frequent renter program allows you to do almost all of the paperwork in advance, so you aren't rushed, won't mistakenly approve insurance coverage or services you don't want, and can avoid the check-in and check-out lines.
Check the car inside and out before you drive away with it. Look for dents, scrapes, and dings, and make a note of even the tiniest ones. Pop open the trunk and make sure there is a functional spare and a jack. Look for rips and stains inside the car and in the trunk. Tell the attendant about any damage you find, and make sure the attendant notes any problems in writing on the rental agreement. If you don't report existing damage before you leave the premises, there's a good chance you'll be blamed and billed for it.
Make sure you fill up the tank before returning the car, since the rental agency will charge you at least double the going rate per gallon of gas. Find out where the nearest gas station is and fill up there before surrendering the car.
You can cheerfully decline most rental-car insurance plans if you're already covered by personal or business insurance, or if your credit-card issuer provides rental-car coverage. When using your own coverage, make sure it is valid in the country you're renting and/or traveling through. If you're renting an SUV, convertible, or luxury car make sure your personal insurance is valid for these types of vehicles and -- no matter what type of car you're renting -- covers windshield damage, flat tires, dents, road service, and theft -- the problems you're most likely to encounter. Also check to see if your personal insurance pays for "loss of use." If not, the rental-car company will happily bill you $250 or so a day while the damaged car is being repaired.
If your credit card offers very basic or no coverage and you don't have personal insurance, it's probably best to accept the collision damage waiver and the liability waiver from the car-rental agency. Be aware that no matter how good your insurance is, some countries require additional insurance (for example, Italy requires theft insurance on all rental cars), and in some cases it's simply easier to buy insurance coverage directly from the rental agency. (In Mexico, drivers who don't have insurance coverage from a Mexican company may be required to pay accident damages immediately or will go to jail until they can pay.)
Bear in mind that many rental insurance plans are void if the accident was caused by speeding, driving on unpaved roads, or driving while intoxicated, or if theft was caused by your negligence. If you rent often and don't have good personal or credit-card coverage, it may be best to purchase an umbrella personal liability policy from a private insurer for $200-$300 a year.
Put the rental agreement, return papers and any additional paperwork (even gas receipts) in a safe place for six or so months. Renters have reported receiving bills for repairs and damage months after returning cars. These post-return charges range from hairline cracks in windshields to engine damage supposedly caused by using the wrong type of gas. If you have the paperwork, you'll be better able to fight these sorts of charges if they do crop up.
Well maybe. The per-diem price may look great, but don't forget to factor in all the potential extra charges: state and city taxes (VAT charges in Europe), fees for airport pickup and airport recovery, underage and additional drivers, infant car seats, extra miles, tourism taxes -- the list goes on and on. If you book online you'll usually get a complete accounting of the full rate (check the fine print to make sure "additional charges" aren't going to be applied when you pick up the car). If you're quoted a fee over the phone, make sure to ask about taxes, extra fees, and surcharges.
There's no way of avoiding most of these fees without changing your plans (picking up and returning a car to a non-airport location, for example, or avoiding cities that punish tourists by imposing ridiculous taxes), but be especially wary of inexplicit extra charges when taking advantage of "special rates." Read discount offers carefully -- look for limited mileage on low rate deals: if you exceed that mileage you'll be billed for each additional mile.
Be wary when you arrive at the rental counter and are suddenly offered an unexpected upgrade at a special bargain rate, or when the rental agent insists that you have too many passengers or too much luggage to comfortably fit into the type of car you reserved. Chances are the rental firm either doesn't have any cars available in the category you reserved or is anxious to boost their sales stats for the month. In either case you should stand your ground and refuse to pay an additonal fee for an upgrade. As a general policy, if a particular class of reserved car is not available, most rental companies will offer the next size car to the renter at the same rate as the original reservation. Know the upgrade policy of your car-rental company before you're standing at the counter. If the staff refuses to give you a free upgrade, don't waste time arguing with them -- just call the company's 800 number and have them sort things out.
Avoid dropping off a car and running off. It's best to have the check-in attendant inspect the car while you wait so you can dispute or agree on any damage. Otherwise you might be billed for gasoline charges, car cleanup charges, late fees, and damage you didn't cause. Have the attendant sign off on the return agreement, noting that everything is okay, before you pay the rental charges.