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Get the Most Bang for Your Rental-Car Buck

Rental car agencies really don’t intend to make your life more difficult; they just want to make as much money off each rental as they possibly can. As Tony Soprano might say — right before he whacks you — “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Here are a few things to keep in mind when checking out rental cars this summer.

Let’s Make a Deal

  • If you rent a car more often than once a year or so, decide which car-rental company suits you best and join its preferred customer club. For a one-time fee of about $50, you’ll get discounts, upgrades and earn free rental days. You’ll also get faster service at the counter and access to a wider choice of vehicles at airport lots. National’s Emerald Club offers perks like full-size cars for mid-size rates, special pick-up lots reserved for club members, club members-only service counters and toll-free phone assistance, among other things.
  • Most of us logically assume that renting a compact car is less expensive than a standard-size model. But smaller cars are more popular with renters, so prices may be lower for the larger models. Check the fees. You may be pleasantly surprised.
  • Airports tend to be the most expensive places to rent cars. Why? Because politicians know it’s always a safe bet to slap taxes on airport rental cars. You may save twenty or thirty bucks in taxes if you pick up the car in town rather than at the airport.
  • Don’t assume that bringing the car back early will save you bucks. It may end up costing you instead. The same is true when you extend a rental — don’t expect to get the same great rate when you decide to keep the car for an extra day or two. If your plans have changed, discuss it with the rental company and get any new agreements in writing, and ask them to email or fax you the new rate.
  • Don’t forget about Priceline. You may be haunted by the suave-but-creepy image of pitchman William Shatner (at least he doesn’t sing “Rocketman” on their website), but you might also save a ton of cash. You still have to give them your credit card number when you make an offer, but you won’t be charged unless they accept your lowball rate. Start out ridiculously low — say, $10 a day — and then keep going up by a buck. When you reach your limit (or the rates you’re finding on other sites), walk away from the table. Priceline seems to work especially well if you’re renting in less-popular locations (one of our editors recently snagged a car in Charlotte, NC, for $16 a day), but you never know when it’s going to be your lucky day.
  • Just Sign Right Here

  • Before you leave the rental lot with the car, examine it carefully for damage. Look for dings on the windshield, dents and scrapes, torn upholstery, missing ashtrays, etc. Don’t forget to check the trunk, interior roof and floor. If there’s a CD player, pop in a CD and see if it works. If you don’t spot existing problems and bring them to the attention of the company (have them noted on your rental contract too), you may get charged for damages when you return the car.
  • In most cases, you’ll want to pass on the refuel option, whereby you pay the rental agency for a tank of gas rather than refueling the car yourself before you return it. Typically the per-gallon rate is much higher than you’d pay at a gas station. In other cases, the per-gallon rate may be lower, but you may be charged for an entire tank of gas even if the tank is half-empty. The best option is to fill up the tank on your own before you return the car.
  • Check your credit card’s insurance coverage to see exactly what it does and doesn’t cover. See if damage to the windshield, tires and car’s body are covered. Some policies pay collision damage but not for things like punctured tires or dings caused by gravel. If the coverage only kicks in after your personal insurance has paid for some or all of the damages — a typical stipulation — what happens if you don’t have personal insurance? Are you covered for liability (injuries to others) as well as collision damage? American Express tends to offer the most complete car insurance rental coverage to its cardholders.
  • Most credit card policies don’t cover SUVs, convertibles, exotic luxury cars, vans, and other types of vehicles. Don’t let sudden whims or midlife I-need-a-cool-car-crises overwhelm your better judgment. Likewise, don’t let a rental agent talk you into “upgrading into a more comfortable SUV.” Unplanned upgrades can leave you without insurance coverage.
  • If you have an accident or two on your insurance record, it may make more sense to purchase insurance from the rental agency to ensure that another fender-bender doesn’t result in a long-term raise in your personal insurance rates.
  • Overseas Issues

  • If you’re renting outside of North America, accept the rental company’s insurance coverage. If you do get into an accident or the car is damaged, it’s far less of a hassle if you have local coverage. Otherwise, you may end up spending a day or two sorting out the documents (and credit card companies don’t make it easy to file a claim — you’ll need police reports, garage estimates and plenty of other documentation). Local authorities or your rental car company may even be able to demand that you pay a deposit to cover damages until your credit card company pays up.
  • Be aware that the mid-sized European car you’ve reserved is probably a compact model in the U.S. If you’re traveling with a large group with lots of luggage, make sure the car you’ve reserved can accommodate everyone. A standard or full-sized car is a good bet for four people.
  • Most rental agencies will accept your valid state driver’s license with another form of photo ID, some also require an International Driver’s Permit, which states in a number of languages the type of license you have and its expiration date. Even if the rental agency doesn’t require it, if you’re travelling in rural areas and aren’t fluent in the language, you may find the international permit is easier for local authorities to understand. You don’t need to take a test to get an International Driver’s Permit; you just pay a fee of about $10-15. Permits are available through AAA and other agencies.
  • Take the Long Way Home

  • If you’re planning an extended road trip, check into the “drive-away” deals offered by many rental companies. Rental car companies often need to move the bulk of their fleet to specific locations to meet seasonal demand, and offer excellent one-way rates to renters who can transport cars for the company. Look for driveaway deals from Florida and Las Vegas to the Northeast at the start of the summer, and from California to the East Coast at the start and end of the summer. Rates may go as low as $10 a day for a car with unlimited mileage. These deals are rarely advertised; sign up for the rental car company’s special deal e-mails, or call and inquire about discounted drive-away or one-way rentals.
  • Leasing is another money-saving option. In Europe, if you need a car for 17 days or longer, you can often lease a spiffy luxury car at a discounted rate. Check out AutoEurope for great deals. Some rental companies in the U.S., like Avis, offer “mini-leases.” See their web site if you’re planning a three- or four-week road trip, or check prices on a short-term lease with auto dealerships that offer leasing.
  • Michelle Delio

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