7 Rental Car ‘Gotchas’ and How to Avoid Them

Renting a car in the near future? Don’t make the mistake of paying more than you intend to, or more than you should.

Are you a frequent patron of rental car companies? If so, you may be well aware of their shrewd practices that can leave you in the hole if you fail to be a responsible shopper.

And what about all of the hidden or surprise fees that come with the territory?

When I made my first rental car reservation, I was stunned at how low the rate was. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that things aren’t always what they appear to be when I picked up my ride for the weekend.

The initial figure was just an illusion. I wish someone had warned me beforehand.

Here are a few common rental car “gotchas” to watch out for:

1. Penalties and extra fees

This is usually where the trapping begins. You walk into the rental car company, hand them your reservation, and drive away with exactly what you reserved at the quoted price, correct?

Well, not if you are offered a more luxurious ride, need to extend the rental for a day or bring the car back early, plan to use a debit card, or alter the return destination.

These are just a few of the scenarios in which your wallet can take a hit. To avoid these fees:

  • Decline the upgrade unless it is being offered as a courtesy to you.
  • Do not extend the rental car reservation unless it is an emergency. And if you must, be aware that the rate for the extra day will more than likely increase.
  • Avoid returning the rental car to a location that differs from where you retrieved it. Doing so may result in the assessment of a penalty.
  • Search for a rental car company that accepts cash or does not require a deposit for debit card transactions. If your attempts are unsuccessful, brace yourself for a $200 to $500 hold on your account and endless amounts of paperwork.
  • Refrain from smoking inside the vehicle. If you fail to heed my warning, you will pay a cleaning fee.

2. Airport rentals

Convenience definitely comes at a premium rate when you rent a vehicle from an airport location. Some airport locations have extended hours, making it easier to hop off a plane and go about your merry way without having to worry about unloading a wad of cash to pay for a taxi. However, the cost of these added perks is passed along to the consumer in the form of higher rates.

If at all possible, catch a taxi or take public transportation to an alternative location to avoid airport surcharges. It may require a bit of planning ahead, but it could prove worthwhile. And if you must rent at the airport, make your reservation online beforehand to secure the best rate.

3. Incidentals

The friendly sales representative at the counter may encourage you not to worry about gas because the rental agency can always fill the car up for you if you’re short on time. But you may want to think again, because the agency’s rate per gallon is typically a lot more expensive than you’ll pay at a gas station.

Also, say “no thanks” to the toll pass, GPS system, satellite radio, roadside protection, car seat or any other service that they offer to make your trip more “comfortable.” If you don’t say no, you will pay.

4. Insurance

According to the Insurance Information Institute, most rental car companies offer the following coverage options:

  • Loss-damage waiver ($9 to $19 per day).
  • Liability coverage ($7 to $14 per day).
  • Personal accident coverage ($3 per day).
  • Personal effects coverage ($1 to $2 per day).

But it’s possible you don’t need any of these options. Before you rent a car, call your car insurance company and your credit card company to see what kinds of coverage they already provide for rental cars, and under which circumstances it applies.

5. Mileage limitations

Looking to save a few bucks on your rental car reservation? A limited mileage arrangement may do the trick, but could also be disastrous if you fail to plan properly. You will be charged a flat fee only if you don’t exceed a specified number of miles in a single day or for the duration of your rental.

But if your plans change, brace yourself for the additional fees. Also, inquire about territorial restrictions, as your contract may allow only in-state travel.

6. Inspections

Even if you are in a hurry, do not leave the premises until the sales representative has performed a thorough interior and exterior inspection of the vehicle. Failure to do so can result in that scratch on the bumper or coffee stain in the rear passenger seat becoming your problem.

Cover yourself by taking photos during the inspection.

7. Underage drivers

Are you under the age of 25? Don’t get too thrilled about the prices you see online, because you may be paying almost double that amount.

Before I reached the “golden age” in the rental car world, I attempted to rent a car to travel to an out-of-town event so I could preserve my car’s mileage. The amount on the contract was equivalent to a car payment on a used vehicle.

Have you run into any of these issues when renting a car? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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  • Terry Fischer

    You forgot to mention, examine the vehicle and document any damage, even the slightest ding, with an employee, before you leave the lot, or you may end up having to pay for someone else’s damage.

  • ManoaHi

    I feel compelled to write about my experiences (I’ve never worked for a rental car company nor do I own any stock in any). I’ve rented cars around the world and I am very careful of reading the entire rental agreement or the English equivalent. There was only one time that I had an issue and it was in Saipan, which was eventually straightened out due to me arguing with the manager and my calling the police (funny thing is that as soon as the police arrived, my “additional” charges were immediately reversed, the police said nothing. But later outside, the policeman said this place is known for ripping customers off, but if they take it out, there is nothing the police can do). So, my compelling reason to write is that none of these events happened to me, so overall I’ve had generally good experiences. I think people only write to complain, but never write to compliment. Try that some time (I’ve done so on many occasions and in Yelp as well), you might be surprised. I’ve received free rentals (only one day, but still…) and gas coupons, complimentary upgrades.

    Regarding the GPS, if you are a frequent traveler then you might be better served if you buy your own GPS. If your smartphone is not supported in the place you are traveling to you can always take your GPS, but you will have to buy the maps. My current smartphone’s GPS works well, so I don’t use my stand alone GPS anymore. My last rental, a few months ago, the GPS was built in to the car’s console, i.e. you could not “opt out” and there was no extra charge for the GPS. By that I mean it is already paid for in the cost of the rental not a separate line item.

    I also always double and sometime triple confirm my reservation. Rental agreements also can be found on line, read them carefully. Also, if you have any delay, call the rental car company and tell them. After an undisclosed time, they can release your reservation and rent to someone else. I had one 5 hour delay caused by the airline, but I called them as soon as I knew about the delay, and they released my reservation but told me that I would get the next higher class of car at the same rate as my reservation whenever I finally arrived. When I did get there, on my rental agreement, there was a big red stamp saying that my upgrade fee was waived. When I got back home, I wrote them a thank you letter.

  • A Medena

    Unless they are asking for 50$ or more, toll pass can be a blessing. In states were electronic tolling is your only option it can be tricky to pay. Some cities are asking for pay by phone, so that is even more difficult. I paid 30$ for toll pass in Northern California. They said if I miss any tolls i have to pay 9$ service fee, plus toll fee. I had as many as 10 tolls. If i missed 2 that would already be 18$ in fees. Paying 30$ for all was worth it. I would have paid about the same if I called.

  • bigpinch

    Don’t forget the “second driver” charge. That was a new one on me, last year. My step-daughter rented a van for her, her mother, and me to drive up to Santa Fe, NM from Austin, TX. I’d planned to do all the driving and give the two women a rare chance to visit. I mentioned this in the conversation with the clerk at the rental office and we were assessed a $100 fee for the week.
    Really? Like they’d have any idea who was driving? What difference could it make?

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