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How to find the best deal

Buck the trend of car-rental surprises

Last reviewed: June 2011

Rental-car companies used to try harder to put you in the driver's seat with ease. Today, renting a car can expose you to every ill known to consumers, such as gotcha pricing and aggressive sales pitches for costly extras.

But you don't have to take it. Here are some car-rental hassles our readers have alerted us to and how to avoid them.

Stealth surcharges

David Sullivan, of Washington, was happy to find an EZ-Pass toll-payment transponder in his Manchester, N.H., Hertz rental, and used it to pay two $1 tolls. But he felt duped when he was billed $9.50 for the privilege, thanks to "convenience fees" of $2.50 for every day of his rental if he used the EZ-Pass even once (with a maximum charge of $10 a month). Be aware that you'll pay a fee for every extra that you touch, including GPS navigation, satellite radio, and child safety seats.

Don't take it

Dispute any surprise charges with your credit-card company. Sullivan argued that he wasn't properly notified of the possible charges, and he says he got his money back. But treat a rental car as you would a hotel mini bar: Don't take any goodies without knowing the price. Ask about these possible hidden fees: late or early return of the car, going through an unmanned, electronic-only toll gate, road service if you run out of gas or lock your keys in the car, and administrative fees related to parking tickets and moving violations.

Insurance hard sell

The rental agent might strongly urge you to take a loss damage waiver; for $60 to $250 a week it limits your liability for damages. Paul Lewis of Boston was recently given a choice of three plans by Fox Rent a Car in Las Vegas in such a way that not taking the coverage didn't seem to be an option. It was.

Don't take it

You might not need the LDW if your own auto insurance policy includes collision and/or comprehensive coverage or if you use a credit card that provides protection. Call your insurer and credit-card customer service to be sure. For example, your personal coverage might not be valid abroad. Make sure that your policy covers rentals and business travel and that it pays the "full value" of a loss, administrative fees, towing, and "loss of use." Also, your credit card might not cover a second driver or comprehensive claims (such as fire, theft, and vandalism). If you find big coverage gaps, consider taking the LDW, and if you do, ask whether the coverage is effective if you drive across state lines.

Scratch-and-dent claims

It's a good idea to protect yourself against possible damage claims by the rental company. Eugene Axelrod, of Plymouth, Mich., was billed $304 for "damage" after he dropped off an Avis rental in Lyon, France, at the locked return lot before business hours.

Don't take it

Always pay by credit card so that you can dispute inaccurate charges. That's what Axelrod did, and he got the charges removed. Protect yourself by fully inspecting the car when you pick it up. Note any damage on your paperwork, and ask for a signed, dated copy. Do the same at drop-off. If it's before or after business hours, take photos to document the car's condition.

Gasoline gotcha

If you don't return the car with a full tank, you'll pay as much as $8 per gallon to have the rental agency fill 'er up. Other gas overpricing might not be so obvious. For example, Hertz's fuel-purchase option—buy a full tank at the prevailing local per-gallon price—might seem like a good deal, but you pay for a whole tank even if you use only a fraction of it.

Don't take it

Always pump it yourself before drop-off.

Upgrade pitches

In good economic years, agencies had more cars than they could rent. Now inventories are tighter, so don't expect to be offered a roomier car than the one you reserved for no extra cost. Worse, agents might try to talk you into taking a costlier car.

Don't take it

If the agent talks down a model in your size class, ask about other cars in the same group. Ronald Laugen, of The Woodlands, Texas, tells of an Enterprise agent in San Diego who tried to get him to upgrade from the basic Chevy he'd chosen to a larger car for $7 more per day. "I asked, ‘What about those loaded compact Kia EXs over there?'" Laugen recalls. He got a Kia at the lower price.