I've been doing stories about saving money and avoiding rip-offs for more than 20 years, so you'd think I'd never fall into some stupid fee trap. I wish.
On a recent trip to New York, I needed to rent a car for one day. The goal was to pick it up at JFK airport and return it the next day to a nearby town about 15 minutes away.
I shopped several rental car sites but ultimately chose Enterprise. While their prices weren’t great ($62.50 for a sub-compact), they were competitive. And most importantly, I knew they had an office in the nearby town where I needed to leave the car.
There was no way to indicate online that I wanted to return the car to a location other than JFK. But rather than do the smart thing – call Enterprise and ask them if there would be an extra fee – I did the dumb thing. I said to myself, “I’m sure there’s going to be a fee for not returning the car to the airport, but how much could it be?”
Answer? $75. Which was more than it cost to rent the car.
This is something I learned only after stepping up to the Enterprise counter at JFK. I did manage to talk the rental agent down to $50, but there’s still no excuse for putting myself in this position, especially considering my experience with this exact type of story.
The reason I was renting a car was to drive to Yonkers, NY, to attend a conference at Consumer Reports. Ironically, at about the same time I was leaving JFK in my Nissan Cube, Consumer Reports was issuing a press release titled CR Warns Against Rental Car Gimmicks.
While their press release didn’t mention what happened to me, it did warn against some other interesting rental car fees to watch for…
Treat a rental car like a hotel mini bar: Don’t take any goodies without knowing the price. This includes GPS navigation, satellite radio, and child safety seats. One Consumer Reports reader was charged $9.50 for $2 worth of tolls after he used an EZ-Pass toll payment transponder he found inside his Hertz rental.
Other things they warned about…
Damage waiver: Even though you know you’re already covered by your car insurance policy, rental agents pushing their company’s damage waiver coverage will sound so convincing that you’ll feel like you’re risking it all for refusing their extra coverage. Fall for it, and according to Consumer reports, you could end up shelling out an extra $60 to $250 a week.
Damage claims: Consumer Reports says one of their readers was charged $304 for “damage” to a rental car after dropping it off when the place was closed. Their advice: Always pay by credit card so you an dispute inaccurate charges. My additional advice? Use your phone’s camera to take pictures of any scratches on the car before you rent it, and to document its condition when you return it.
Fill it up: This is old news. Everyone knows by now that if you’re supposed to bring it back full and you fail to do so, the rental car company will mark up the gas price you’ll pay. What you may not know, however, is just how much they’re marking it up these days: according to CR, up to $8 per gallon.
Then there’s the other side of the same coin: When I rented my car, Enterprise offered to charge me less than the going price for gas. The catch? I had to buy the whole tank’s worth. While I didn’t know exactly how many miles I’d be driving, or what kind of mileage the car would get, I declined. Good decision – when I filled up the car prior to returning it, I found my entire trip from JFK to Yonkers and back took less than 4 gallons.
Stick with the cheapest cars: In days past, rental car companies would often give free upgrades. Now that cars are in shorter supply, this is less common. While still worth asking for, if you can’t get a free upgrade, don’t get talked into paying for one. Smaller cars are typically easier to drive and park, use less gas, and if – God forbid – something uninsured does happen, cost less to replace.
For more ways to save on rental cars, check out Rental Cars: 5 Tips for a Better Deal.