Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hassle-Free Car Rental Guide Part 1: USA

In my years as a travel counselor, I’ve seen more traveler problems with one segment of the travel business than any other: rental cars. In this article, I will share my tips for a hassle-free car rental. I’ve listed the most likely pitfalls for car renting consumers and how to avoid them. In these recommendations, I have assumed that the renter is a U.S. citizen with valid driver license renting in the United States.

MAKING THE RESERVATION - I recommend using an experienced travel agent or travel consultant to make your arrangements. There’s just no substitute for their experience and insight for helping you avoid problems and getting you the best value.

GIVE COMPLETE AND ACCURATE INFORMATION However you reserve, it’s best to provide as much information to your agent or to the rental car company as possible: your age, your flight number (if you’re arriving by plane), how you want to pay, and any frequent traveler number you’d like to earn miles on. Be sure that you give accurate times for pick up and drop off to ensure that the rental location is open when you need it. Tell how many drivers you’d like to include on the rental and provide their information as well.

LOCATION - Don’t assume that the location is at or near an airport if that’s what you request. Be sure to find out exactly where the location is. For example, if you request Newark Airport (EWR) from Alamo Rent A Car, their system defaults to a location 20 minutes away with no shuttle service.

DEBIT CARDS – Credit Cards are almost always required for a rental. Find out what the terms of payment are if you don’t have a credit card or if you have a debit card only. Often, debit cards are not accepted at the time of rental or they’re only allowed in special circumstances that require additional documents to be given: additional ID, proof of return travel etc.

UNDERSTAND THE RATE – Make sure that you understand the rate. Is it daily or weekly? How does it apply to your rental period? Is mileage included? Look for additional charges that may include: taxes, fees, concession charges, frequent flyer charges, and recovery charges. Make sure that you understand how these apply to your rental and get it in writing.

POOR DRIVING RECORD – If you have a poor driving record be advised that car rental companies are routinely checking driver records in states where it’s legal. If you’ve had more than one moving violation in a two year period before the rental or any serious violations like a DUI, find out in advance how they will handle it. The rental companies may refuse to rent the vehicle or charge you a higher rate. Don’t get surprised at the rental counter.

AT THE RENTAL COUNTER – The car reservation shows that you’ve reserved a certain car class at a particular rate. Well, what does that mean? A car class describes vehicles that share certain specific characteristics: compact, automatic transmission, four doors, and air conditioning, for example. You are not guaranteed a particular model or color, but you can always ask at the counter. If there are no more cars available in the car class you’ve reserved you will usually be offered an upgrade to a more expensive car class for the same rate you’ve reserved. If you’re really watching your budget, be careful -- your fuel bill is going to jump significantly if you’re upgraded from a compact car to an SUV. Choose wisely if fuel economy is a big concern; perhaps even ask if you can move down to a smaller car at a lower rate.

PERSONAL INSURANCE AND LIABILITY – The rental agent will ask if you want to add CDW or LDW and additional insurance coverage. Before you choose, be sure that you understand exactly what type of insurance coverage you already that may apply to rental cars. Contact your insurance provider directly and get the information in writing. Some questions to ask: Do I have coverage while driving a rental? What’s my deductible? What vehicle types are covered? (Often vans and trucks are not covered). Are there restrictions on the length or rental? (Rentals longer than two weeks are frequently not covered). Understand that if there’s a mention of “rental car” on your policy document it most likely refers to rental car charges incurred while having your personal vehicle repaired, not coverage while driving a rental, so ask.

CREDIT CARD INSURANCE – Most major credit cards offer some type of insurance coverage to cardholders if they use the credit card to reserve and pay for a rental car. Coverage varies widely from card to card, call your card issuer and get the details in writing. Ask the same questions as for personal insurance (above) and ask if the insurance is primary or secondary. Secondary coverage requires that you have your own personal coverage.

If you have a debit card with the VISA or MasterCard logo on it, use it as a credit card, do not enter a PIN code. If you use the debit function and enter a PIN, you lose most of the consumer protections that come along with the card, often including the insurance.

CDW/LDW - Rental car companies typically offer an option for protecting renters from excess liability for an additional charge. Loss damage Waiver (LDW) protects if the car is stolen or damaged while you’re renting. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is pretty much the same thing with a different name. These waivers are not insurance, just the rental company’s agreement to limit your liability. Remember that the waivers do not cover loss or damage of your property. LDW and CDW vary from company to company and are not legal in every state. Some companies offer modified LDW/CDW plans that waive liability for smaller dollar amounts to cover the deductible expense for renters using their own insurance.

OTHER INSURANCE – Travel Insurance available from travel agencies and tour operators may offer better coverage for the vehicle, baggage, personal effects and medical services at a competitive price. Talk with your travel professional.

FUEL OPTIONS – Most car rental companies offer the ability to prepay for a full tank of gas at a reasonable market rate price. They’ll explain that they charge a rate three to four times market rate per gallon if you return the car with less than a full tank of gas. Of course, they make out like bandits with the prepay system unless you coast in on fumes. That’s why I don’t recommend the prepay service unless you absolutely want the convenience of not worrying about filling the tank before returning the car.

CHECK OUT THE CAR – When you finally get to the car, take a few minutes to closely inspect its condition, both for safety and to ensure you don’t pay for damage already inflicted on the vehicle. Check the tread and inflation on the tires, try the lights and horn. Be absolutely sure to note the fuel level and every stain, scratch or cosmetic damage to the car (they usually give a form for this) and turn it in to the attendant. Be sure to get a copy with their signature and the date on it. If you don’t do this, the rental agreement states that the car is in perfect condition unless otherwise noted.

DURING THE RENTAL – Keep the rental agreement with the car at all times, it is the legal equivalent of the vehicle registration that you’ll need if you encounter law enforcement. If you have any problems with an accident or breakdown, call the rental company as soon as possible. If there’s an accident, try to take some photos of the scene if you can do so safely. Do not keep the car past the agreed upon rental period. If you need to extend the rental, call the company or your travel professional to arrange this before the initial rental period elapses.

RETURNING THE CAR – If you can get a receipt from an attendant who inspects the vehicle when you return it, you are pretty well protected from surprises later. If you’re returning the vehicle after hours or any time where the vehicle is not inspected, be sure to document the mileage and fuel level. Keep any receipts for fuel you purchased during the rental and take a photo of the car at the return facility if you have a camera. Finally, and this is very important, pay by Credit Card. Don’t pay by cash, check or debit function (using a PIN), or you will lose the powerful consumer protections built into the cards.

AFTER THE RENTAL – From time to time, renters receive some correspondence from a rental car company afterwards, alleging some damage or requesting additional payment. Sometimes an extra charge shows up on a credit card statement. This is why it’s essential to have the proper documentation after the fact, especially if you need to dispute credit card charges through you credit card issuer. Your travel agent or consultant can also be a powerful advocate for you in a situation like this simply because or their experience and ongoing business relationship with the rental company – don’t hesitate to use them.

Watch for my car rental tips for Western Europe.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

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