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Six Recommendations for a Summer Car Rental

Many of you will be renting cars when you get to your summer vacation destination. A reader who was planning that asked:

“Is there anything different I should know about renting a car this summer?”

The short answer is that nothing fundamental has changed, but some of the old problems seem to be getting worse. Here are six recommendations to avoid or at least mitigate the problems you’ll face:

Rent the Right Size Car

Over the years, I’ve seen too many travelers try to cut their costs a few bucks by renting cars too small for their families or travel groups on an extended trip. For any group of more than two adults and two small children, typical compact and even intermediate cars relegate rear-seat passengers to crowding that’s even worse than economy seats on airplanes. The obvious defense is to make sure you get a car with adequate rear-seat room.

Minimize Rate Inflation

If you haven’t rented since last summer, you might be in for sticker shock. Rates are up sharply. And local authorities continue to view tourists who rent cars in their areas—and don’t vote in them—as a happy hunting ground for fees, taxes, and charges. The net result is that the total costs of renting will be quite a bit higher than you might have expected—especially at airports.

The best defense is to rent through one of the opaque outlets—Hotwire or Priceline. As long as you get the model you want, where you want, many of you don’t really care which company supplies the rental. Another defense is to rent off-airport. When you’re shopping around, check the fine print to note all the fees specifically associated with an airport location. Figure the cost and hassle of going to an off-airport location—my figure would be about $25, but your might be different. Then, if the airport fees are significantly higher, avoid the airport. In most areas, even if you rent a car off-airport, you can still return it to an airport location without extra fees.

Reserve Early

One of the reasons rental companies have been able to increase their rates is that they’ve cut back on their fleets and aren’t trying to fill up extra cars at low-ball rates. According to trade sources, Europe is especially tight this summer.

The defense is obvious: Arrange the rental as soon as you can firm up your dates and locations.

Rent Full, Return Full

The only way to avoid a possible gouge on fuel is to take the option of renting the car with a full tank and returning it with a full tank. But make sure you return the car filled to the top, even if it wasn’t really topped off when you started. If you don’t fill to the top, the rental company will charge you up to $20 a gallon to fill the car. Even if the gauge shows “full,” the rental company may try to hit you with a fill-up fee. The defense is to refill as close to the return location as possible, top off there, and keep the receipt to prove it.

Don’t fall for the “buy a full tank” option. Unless you’re very careful or willing to take a risk, the car will have some remaining gas when you return it. And when you do, you’re donating whatever gas remains in the tank to the rental company—and a car rental company probably isn’t your favorite charity. The defense is to insist on the full-out, full-in pricing, and make sure to complete the final fill.

Avoid Insurance Gouges

By now, you must know that many—perhaps most—credit cards provide coverage for collision/theft of the car you’re renting. You probably know that the rental companies are in an ongoing struggle with the credit card companies to invent new charges that your credit card won’t cover. You probably know that most credit cards provide only secondary coverage: If your rental car is damaged, the credit card picks up only what you can’t first claim on your regular insurance. You probably know that the claim for a damaged rental car will almost surely be much higher than the claim if you damaged your own car. And you probably know that you might have to come up with the damage payment first, then argue for reimbursement.

These are among the reasons I recommend a credit card with primary rather than secondary collision coverage. Primary coverage means that the credit card issuer pays the entire bill without your making to make any claims on your own insurance. Unfortunately, primary credit card coverage is rare: As far as I know, Diners Club is the only card offering primary coverage at no extra cost, and American Express is the only card offering primary coverage as an optional extra. Given the outrageous prices the rental companies ask for collision damage waiver, I favor relying on a credit card even if the coverage is only secondary. But you’re running an unquestioned risk.

Any other insurance a rental company sells is (1) grossly overpriced and (2) likely duplicative of insurance you already have. Ignore them. And watch out for rental contracts with “accepts” pre-entered in the insurance boxes—a practice more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

Watch out for Traps in Europe

If you rent in Europe, you’ll encounter many of the same problems you find at home. But Europe harbors a few special traps. Among them:

  • Cars driven into city centers in London, several Italian cities, and some cities elsewhere are subject to stiff congestion tolls. They’re enforced by camera, not toll booths, so you might wander into one of those zones without realizing it. Be careful.
  • Although some gas/diesel stations can dispense fuel 24/7, off-hours and holiday fueling may be available only through automated pumps operated by credit card. And, as I’ve noted, many such automatic devices no longer accept credit cards issued in the U.S., Canada, or anywhere else that banks don’t yet issue chip-and-pin cards. At present, nobody has a solution to the problem of credit card incompatibility. All you can do is plan your driving so you can fill your tank when stations are attended. You find the same problem on some toll highways, and, again, so far there’s no Plan B.
  • Some “discount” rental agencies arrange what they claim to be “inclusive” rental rates, but those rates typically impose a huge deductible on the supposedly included collision coverage. For full coverage, you have to buy extra “super CDW.” Where that gets tricky is in credit card coverage: Typically, buying CDW negates a card’s coverage. The last time I checked, AmEx and Visa said that as long as you did not have the option to decline the bundled CDW, the card would pick up the deductible, but MasterCard said it would not. I don’t recommend dealing with these European-based discounters—if anything goes wrong, getting recourse is almost impossible. But if you do plan to deal with one of them, check to make sure your card will pick up the deductible.

Bob Bestor of Gemutlchkeit, an online newsletter covering travel in Europe’s German speaking regions, just published a 16-page guide to renting cars in Europe. Although it’s a bit self-promoting, overall it’s one of the best resources I’ve seen on European driving. You can download it free from the website.

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