Rental Cars for Less

by Gary Foreman

Ah, summertime! Our thoughts turn to travel and vacations. And if you're like many Americans, some of that time will be spent behind the wheel of a rental car. We'll spend about $16 billion this year for rented wheels. So let's take a look at how to get the best deal on rental cars.

First the basics. To rent a car you'll need to be over 25 years of age, have a valid driver's license and credit card. Many rental companies will also check your driving record. If you've had a problem with accidents, tickets or driving while intoxicated you might not be able to rent a car.

Next, you'll need to decide how big a car you'll need. Remember that a "mid-size" isn't the same at all rental companies. Ask which specific models are included in a class. Make sure that you'd be reasonably happy with any of the models in that class. In most cases you won't get a guarantee of a specific make and model.

You'll be offered optional insurance. You can buy collision damage waiver (CDW), liability insurance and coverage for your personal items in the car. Your current auto or homeowner's policies may already cover these risks. If they do you don't need any additional insurance. Even if your auto policy doesn't cover rental cars, it's possible that your credit card does. Some provide coverage if you use the card to charge the rental. A phone call will verify what insurance you have. It's time well spent. Ask specifically about mileage charges. Some companies will charge for every mile over 100 per day. That's not very far if you're on vacation.

If you don't think that the extras are profitable for the industry, check this out. One consulting firm that specializes in advising car rental companies brags that they can turn a 7% increase in sales into a 100% increase in profits. That means the consumer is buying things they don't use.

Once you know what you need it's time to go shopping. And, even though you'll only have the car for a short time, it's worth a little effort. As a general rule, it's good to book your car at the same time that you book your airline and hotel. Prices can change often. Last week's best price could be lower today. The more time you have the better your chances of finding a bargain.

Make sure that you get the price including all taxes and surcharges. Have them include any insurance that you might require. Don't forget to include a car seat or ski rack if you'll need one. Ask about discounts. They're available for a wide number of memberships and affiliations.

If you'll be using a coupon or an ad, read the fine print carefully. Sometimes the car advertised is only available on a "limited basis." That could mean that by the time you get there the special won't be available. Find out when you make your reservation.

Taxes can vary even within the same destination area. Airport surcharges are common. The airport charges the rental company and they pass it along to you. That will translate into a cheaper rate off the airport.

If your pick-up and drop-off locations are different you may face a drop-off charge. Find out in advance. Don't forget to ask about fees for additional drivers.

If you've had an accident or two you'll want to know whether they'll check your driving record. It's legal for them to refuse to rent you a car if your record isn't up to their standards. You'll be turned away even if you have a reservation.

Renting a car is definitely one case where you should read all the fine print. The conditions and limitations could be different than what you thought the agent has said. If that happens the contract will be the final word. Ask if there's a charge for 'no shows' or early returns. There's nothing wrong with making a reservation and then canceling it if you find a better deal later. In fact, you should shop again before you leave. If you find a better deal, take it. You can even call the company that you have the reservation with. If you don't cancel at least once, you're probably not trying hard enough to find a bargain!

There are also some things to remember when you go to pick up your car. If no cars are available in your class, the rental company should upgrade you to the next larger class without additional charge. Be prepared to show them your driver's license and insurance card. You'll also need a credit card with a credit balance large enough for this transaction.

Look the car over carefully before you leave the lot. Any scratches or dings should be noted on the rental agreement and initialed by the rental agent. Proof now is better than your word later.

Find out about fuel. Some companies will charge you a set amount regardless of how much gas is in the car when it's returned. If that's the case do not refuel. You will not receive credit for your generosity. If you are responsible for returning it with a full tank, buy your own gas. You'll pay less for gas, even near the airport, if you refill the tank before returning the car.

Usually rates are for a 24 hour day with a one hour grace period. So if you keep the car for 26 hours you'll end up paying for two days or paying for additional hours at an hourly rate. When you return the car make sure that they inspect it for any damages. You want them to acknowledge that you returned the car without any new wrinkles. So there you have it. Even if you've never rented a car before, a little extra time and effort can help insure a wonderful trip. Happy vacationing!

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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