Learn your auto rental rights while traveling and make your trip less stressful.
The simple part of automobile rentals is the basics—you need a valid driver’s license and a credit card. But, what many once took for granted—multiple drivers, inclusive liability insurance, and the ability to rent a car as long as you had a valid driver’s license—has changed and is not always part of the auto rental agreement.
NOTE: Debit cards, even with the MasterCard or Visa logo, will not be accepted by rental car companies at time of rental. They may be used for payment upon return of the vehicle.
What most travelers know was not ever included in rental agreements, such as collision damage waiver, now can be included—to a greater or lesser extent—if certain credit cards are used to rent certain types of cars in certain circumstances for a certain length of time and when driven along certain types of roads.
None of this seems complex until you end up in an accident or have to modify a reservation at the last minute. Or, until you are faced with a rental agent who looks you straight in the eye and tells you your credit card collision damage waiver (CDW) doesn’t cover the automobile you are planning to rent. (At least he or she “can’t guarantee that the car is covered” or they “wouldn’t want to chance it.”)
Naturally, none of us wants to “chance it” with massive liabilities. If you have any questions, simply pick up the phone and call your credit card company. All have special numbers to call for collision damage waiver information. The 800 number on your card will allow you to reach those experts so you can be sure. The next pages show how much these policies vary. So read on and be prepared before you face the agents.
Collision damage waiver
In this section, we deal with the most common source of confusion for automobile renters—collision damage waiver (CDW) or loss damage waiver (LDW). There are several basics:
Most people who rent automobiles do not need to pay for the additional collision damage waiver. They have other coverage which, in effect, duplicates the expensive rental car company waiver.
If you have your own automobile insurance with collision coverage, you probably have enough liability insurance to meet most legal challenges and most small collisions. However, most personal automobile policies limit the amount of damages paid to the value of your personal car. Check with your insurance company to find out exactly what their coverage is on rental cars.
Most Visa Gold and Gold MasterCard credit cards, some normal credit cards, Diners Club and American Express provide a form of CDW.
Credit cards provide one of two types of coverage:
Primary coverage means that while you are renting a car according to the card rules, the credit card waiver is your primary insurance. If you have an accident, your own insurance will not be responsible for any payments.
Secondary coverage (the most prevalent form) means that in case of an accident your own automobile insurance company is responsible for initial insurance payments and the credit card will pay any excess not covered by your personal auto insurance.
How credit card CDW works
The collision damage waiver you get with your credit card is not the same as purchasing CDW from the rental company.
The rental company CDW releases you from any responsibility for damage to the vehicle in case of accident. With credit card CDW you are personally responsible for any damages: in some cases you must pay the car rental company for the damages and will be reimbursed by your credit card company. In other situations, the credit card company will pay the damages directly to the car rental company—they are paying your bill.
If, in case of an accident, you cannot afford to make a short-term damage payment until you are reimbursed by your personal automobile insurance and the credit card company, you may be better off paying for the CDW sold by the rental car company.
Once you know what your insurance covers and you decide to use your credit card collision waiver, you activate the waiver by charging the rental against your credit card and declining all waivers or insurance offered by the rental car company.
The basic credit card coverage will include physical damage to the car, theft of the car, towing charges and a “loss-of-use” charge.
In an actual incident my rental car windshield was cracked by a rock thrown up by a truck while crossing a mountain pass in Colorado. Dollar noted that my rental was paid for with a Diners Club credit card. I called Diners Club and reported the incident. They sent me all necessary forms and paid for the broken windshield and the day or so of “lost usage” claimed by Dollar. Though there was paperwork involved, it was minimal. The system worked smoothly and efficiently.
When you have an accident with a rental car and your coverage is with your own insurance and the credit card CDW, make sure to make all your reports in a timely manner. Credit cards have strict claims reporting deadlines. And, they stick to their limits.
NOTE: Credit card company policies vary significantly, not only in their primary and secondary coverage, but also in length of rental that is insured. The basic rule seems to be that automobile rentals here in the U.S. are covered up to 15 days. Foreign rentals are covered for 15 to 31 days, so make sure your collision damage waiver will last as long as your planned rental.
Primary cardholder insurance means that the credit card company will pay off any damages and not ask your personal automobile insurance company to pay for any claim. Secondary coverage means that the credit card company will pay any excess claims above and beyond that paid for by your personal company.
If you use a Diners Club card you are covered worldwide with full value primary insurance for 31 days.
American Express cards provide secondary coverage for up to 30 days.
MasterCard BusinessCard provides full-value primary collision/loss damage insurance for 31 days.
MasterCard Gold provides secondary insurance for 15 days (international rentals get primary insurance).
Visa provides secondary coverage for 15 days domestically and primary coverage for 31 days internationally.
Almost every other normal MasterCard does not include CDW coverage. Most Discover Cards do not provide collision damage waiver.
Credit card CDW programs
As noted above, most credit cards provide secondary insurance coverage. Several charge cards offer primary coverage, but their numbers are dwindling. Check the fine print in your card agreement to find out what type of coverage your card provides.
Diners Club and MasterCard BusinessCard are the only cards that offers full-value primary insurance to all card holders for domestic and international rentals. Recently, Visa has also announced a business card with primary insurance.
Check carefully to find out whether the CDW provided by your credit card will cover additional drivers listed on the rental contract. Also see whether the credit cards provide loss of revenue coverage, which reimburses the rental car company for any revenue lost while the car is being repaired.
Check with your credit card issuer to find out which automobile models are covered by their policy.
Note: There are many differences in credit card collision damage coverage.
Credit card CDW provides a lesson in the importance of reading the fine print. Though credit card companies never talk about the differences in their rental collision policies, they can make a big difference in deciding which card to use.
If you are renting a Mercedes or BMW in the U.S., you’ll have to use the AT&T Visa Gold or Diners Club; the other cards don’t provide coverage.
If you are planning a trip in a minivan and don’t know which make of vehicle you’ll get from the rental company, use Diners Club or AT&T Gold MasterCard—all minivans are covered.
If you are going to rent a sport/utility vehicle such as a Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Bronco or Suzuki Samurai and plan to drive it only on paved roads, use the American Express Card, Diners Club or Visa Gold—they give complete coverage. MasterCard Gold specifically excludes them.
Credit card coverage specifics
Diners Club does not cover
- All trucks, pickups, full-size vans mounted on truck chassis, campers, off‐road vehicles, and other recreational vehicles.
- All sport utility trucks. These are vehicles that have been or can be converted to an open-bed truck (including, but not limited to, Chevy Avalanche, GMC Envoy, and Cadillac Escalade EXT).
- Trailers, motorbikes, motorcycles, and any other vehicle having fewer than four (4) wheels.
- Antique vehicles (vehicles that are more than twenty (20) years old or have not been manufactured for at least ten (10) years), or limousines.
- Any rental vehicle that has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price that exceeds $75,000 USD.
CitiBank MasterCard BusinessCard does not cover:
“Rental of trucks, campers, Jeep-type vehicles, trailers, off-road vehicles, motorbikes, recreational vehicles, vans or minivans mounted on a truck chassis (call the MasterCard Assistance Center before renting a van or minivan to confirm whether the vehicle is covered), antique cars (which means cars that are over 20 years old or have not been manufactured for 10 or more years), limousines, expensive or exotic cars (for example, Corvette, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Jaguar; call the MasterCard Assistance Center before renting a car to confirm whether the vehicle is covered); except that restrictions on exotic or expensive cars do not apply to cars rented outside the United States.”
American Express Corporate Card does not cover the following vehicles:
Expensive cars, valued at over $50,000 (restrictions on expensive, exotic or antique cars do not apply to cars rented outside the U.S., its territories and possessions).
- Exotic cars, such as Aston-Martin, Bentley, Bricklin, Cadillac Fleetwood Limo, Daimler, DeLorean, Excalibur, Ferrari, Jensen, Lamborghini, Lincoln Limo, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, or similar vehicle;
- Antique cars (over 20 years old or not manufactured for 10 or more years);
- Off-road vehicles, motorcycles, mopeds, recreational vehicles, trucks, campers, trailers, certain vans, and any other vehicle which is not a rental car;
- Minivans which are used for commercial hire. (Minivans are covered when rented for personal and business use only.)
- Four-wheel drive sport/utility vehicles when driven off-road. (Four-wheel drive vehicles, including but not limited to Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Bronco and Suzuki Samurai, are covered when driven on paved roads.)
- Cars rented in Jamaica, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
MasterCard Gold and Platinum Cards have the same MasterRental® program.
- According to material taken from the MasterCard web site, most vehicles are covered, including all minivans.
- Excluded rental vehicles: Trucks, sport utility vehicles (e.g., Jeep Cherokee), full-size vans mounted on truck chassis, campers, off-road vehicles (e.g., Jeep Wrangler) and other recreational vehicles, trailers, motorbikes, antique cars (which means cars that are over 20 years old or have not been manufactured for at least 10 years), limousines, expensive or exotic cars, (e.g., Corvette, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Jaguar). If you have any questions, or to confirm coverage for a particular vehicle, call 1-800-MC-ASSIST.
- Restrictions on expensive or exotic cars do not apply to rentals outside the U.S. — Visa Gold Auto Rental Insurance excludes the following vehicles on a worldwide basis: Expensive, exotic, and antique automobiles; certain vans; trucks; motorcycles, mopeds, and motorbikes; limousines; and recreational vehicles.
- Examples of excluded expensive or exotic automobiles are the Aston-Martin, Bentley, Bricklin, Daimler, DeLorean, Excalibur, Ferrari, Jensen, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maserati, Porsche, and Rolls-Royce. However, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, and Lincoln are covered worldwide (as long as they are not models otherwise excluded).
- An antique automobile is defined as any vehicle over 20 years old or any vehicle that has not been manufactured for 10 years or more.
- Only vans that are standard vehicles with standard equipment and designed to carry a maximum of eight people are covered.
- If you have any questions, or to confirm coverage for a particular vehicle, call 1-800-VISA-911.
Other credit card insurance limitations
Your credit card collision damage waiver does not cover any damage to the other car. The American Express Corporate Card Description of Coverage states, “For example in the event of a collision involving the Cardmember’s rental car, damage to the other driver’s car or the injury of anyone or anything are not covered.”
If you get into an accident and it can be proved that you were intoxicated (with drugs or alcohol), many credit card collision damage policies, such as the American Express, Diners Club, and those of AT&T Universal Card, will not pay any claims. The MasterCard BusinessCard policy doesn’t mention that factor.
Remember the claims reporting requirements when using credit card CDW and personal insurance. You are responsible for all the follow-up. Diners Club has a 90-day claims reporting limit, but Visa and MasterCard are much more limited.
Visa rules require that the accident and claim be reported to Visa within 20 days of the date of loss; then the Visa Auto Rental Claim form must be completed and postmarked within 90 days of the loss whether or not the supporting materials have been gathered.
MasterCard rules are not as stringent. Claims must be reported within 30 days. You will be sent a claims form which must be completed and sent in with other required documentation.
American Express requires the first report within 48 hours. They will send a claims form to be returned with supporting documents within 60 days (Amex allows additional time for the final claim).
Although collision damage is limited to the value of a vehicle you might total, liability for personal injury is virtually unlimited and therefore much more significant. Unfortunately, the laws covering personal injury are as varied as the states.
Everything—vehicle ownership, driver negligence, mechanical failure, and more—comes into play. There are no absolutes, except that you should make sure you are covered in some way.
Once upon a time, full, primary liability insurance was included in all car rental contracts, but that has changed. Today, in most states, most of the largest car rental companies only provide secondary liability coverage. That is, they pick up your coverage when your personal insurance is exhausted.
This pattern is spreading. Take time to find out what liability coverage is provided when you make your reservations and be ready to make sure you have adequate liability coverage.
Liability/collision insurance limitations on personal automobile policies
On the personal automobile insurance side of the question, some insurance companies are now starting to eliminate the automatic inclusion of collision and liability coverage for policy holders who travel on business. In the case of personal rentals, many companies are making their liability coverage secondary.
Make sure to check your policy carefully. Coverage varies on a state-by-state basis. This additional rental car coverage for business travel is often available only as an optional rider.
The other option is to buy umbrella insurance which will normally cover all accidents with liability issues.
Negotiating rental car rates
Rental car rates are as complicated as airline rates. In addition to daily, weekly, weekend, subcompact, compact, mid-sized, and so forth, renters have to deal with frequent-flier rates, automobile club rates, and other special promotional rates. If you don’t already have a good idea of what rate you want to pay, your chances of getting the lowest rate are significantly diminished.
Most automobile rental agents can not inform potential renters of the lowest rates available unless prompted by references to specific promotional rates quoted from newspapers or frequent flier brochures. To be honest, with such a complicated matrix of prices, the rental agents simply have no idea of the “best” rate until they learn which associations, frequent flier clubs, insurance programs, travel clubs and so on to which you belong.
With rental car rates, research is as important as with airline tickets, but even more so—airline reservationists will almost always offer the lowest rate on a given flight on a specific day. Rental car reservationists must be carefully prompted to get the lowest rate. Many times even they do not know which combination of association discount, frequent flier program and rental contract will result in the lowest rental rate.
Large associations like USAA and AAA have negotiated rates which are a bargain if you must rent a car on short notice during the week. However, these negotiated rates are not as big a bargain as many of the promotional and weekend rates car rental ads tout.
Often, the best rates are through airline frequent flyer programs or associated with the airline upon which you arrive at the airport where you pick up your car. Reservationists have told me that great deals are available to members of wholesale clubs such as Sam’s or Price/COSTCO.
Once you have made a reservation for a specific car at a specific rate, the rental car company is committed to providing you that rate, but not necessarily that size car. For example, if after making a reservation for a compact, you arrive and no compacts are available, the rental car company must provide you another car of the same or greater size for the same rate. If only smaller cars are available, the rental car company should make that car available at a reduced rate based on your original rental rate.
Again, everything is up for negotiation and depends to a large degree on the manager on duty and your bargaining skills.
If you have rented a car for a fixed number of days, many major car rental agencies require that you keep your car for a minimum number of days. Incidents have been reported where renters returning automobiles early have been charged the normal daily rate rather than the pre-negotiated weekly rate. This may result, in some cases, in a doubling of the daily rate. For your own protection, when you make your reservation, ask whether returning the car early means paying a different rate.
Non-U.S. residents planning to rent automobiles in the United States should call ahead for special weekly rental rates before leaving their home country. Often, travelers can garner significant savings by signing up for one of the tourism rates major rental companies offer foreign tourists.
Check whether your automobile reservation is subject to a cancellation fee. These fees are not widespread and are normally applied to pre-paid rentals, but they are creeping into the automobile rental industry. They are found in major vacation destinations such as Florida, Southern California and Hawaii.
The normal charges run from $10-50. Our basic rule is not to make any reservation that may result in a cancellation fee unless the deal is so extraordinary that you are willing to be liable for this fee.
Cancellation fees of $50 are also applied for no-shows that pre-paid for their cars by Alamo, Avis and Budget. Hertz charges a $130 no-show fee. Payless charges the full rental for no-shows. And, Thrifty charges the first day’s rental.
IMPORTANT: If you have to cancel the reservation, make sure to get the cancellation number and the name of the agent with whom you speak.
Mileage caps and additional mileage charges
Always ask whether your car rental is with unlimited mileage or whether there is a limit to free miles. Many rental car companies provide their automobiles for rent with a limit on the mileage included in the quoted rate. In many cities mileage quickly adds up and when driving even relatively modest distances, you’ll be surprised how quickly miles roll by. When automobile rental companies place a limit on mileage, they charge anywhere from 20¢ to 25¢ per additional mile—that adds up fast.
Some rental car companies will only allow their automobiles to be driven within the state in which the car was rented or some other limited geographic region.
Always ask whether there are geographic limitations on the automobile rental. This is very important in border locations where renters might assume they can drive the automobile into Canada or Mexico and it most often is not the case.
This also comes into play when considering rentals in Europe where travel in the former Eastern Bloc countries or outside of the European Union is planned. Make sure the rental car you are picking up can be driven into Eastern Europe.
Some rental car companies also have restrictions on the types of cars permitted to be driven into Italy. Many times Mercedes and BMWs may not be taken into Italy. Check before you leave the counter. These policies are in place because of the high rate of automobile theft in those locations. For instance, one report I recently received indicated that one out of eight automobiles rented in Naples, Italy, is never returned!
If a rental car disappears while it is in a restricted country, the drivers are out of luck and the insurance, whether with your credit card or directly from the rental car company, will not normally apply.
Additional driver rules and charges
Many rental car companies now charge an additional fee per additional driver per day. If you are renting a car and plan to share the driving, make sure to check out additional driver charges. They can come as a surprise at the car rental counter, and may ruin what appeared to be a good deal.
These additional driver charges vary greatly between rental locations. Some Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Dollar, Payless, Thrifty and other locations charge nothing for additional drivers; other charge $3.50 per rental and yet others assess anywhere from $4 up to $10 per day. Hertz waives additional driver charges for all AAA members. Some locations charge for additional drivers under 25 years of age but don’t charge for other additional drivers. Some rental companies charge for spouses and family members; others don’t.
California prohibits extra-driver charges, and New York caps them at $3 per day. Some rental car companies exempt drivers on business or government workers traveling officially.
NOTE: When you rent a car, every additional driver must be on the rental form or it must be clearly stated that “immediate family members may drive the automobile” or something to that effect. If not, any collision damage or liability insurance is null and void in case of an accident by a driver not recorded on the form.
Charges for younger drivers
Most automobile rental companies require drivers to be at least 25 years of age and have a major credit card. Some companies have a lower age limit of 21, with an additional charge for those ages 21 to 24. And, some organizations, such as USAA, have negotiated special rates for drivers from ages 18-25 years old.
Drivers between the ages of 21 to 24 can rent from Advantage, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, and Thrifty by paying a $14 to $73 extra fee per day. US government or military personnel traveling on official business are exempt from young driver surcharges. Some car rental companies have restrictions on the types of cars which folks under 25 years can rent.
These young driver surcharges can be hefty, adding significantly to the cost of a rental. Make sure to check on them when making rentals. Plus, the extra fees vary widely across rental car companies. These restrictions are enforced except in Michigan and New York, where state law bans this practice.
Renting a car at one location and then dropping it off at another location usually results in additional charges. In some cases, rental car companies will allow renters to pick up a car at one regional airport and then drop the car off at another airport or downtown location in the same region. This may be the case in San Francisco, where there are two major airports as well as numerous downtown locations. It may also be possible in the Los Angeles region, where nearby airports such as Ontario and LAX may be treated by some rental car companies as the same region, so they waive drop-off charges.
Always ask about drop-off charges whenever you rent a car and will be dropping it off at another location, even when the drop-off location may be only a few miles away.
Some rental car companies have weekly rates or slightly higher daily rates for rentals that will be dropped off in the same state or between specific high-traffic city pairs such as Chicago-St. Louis or Washington D.C.-Boston. The bottom line is call, and then call to get the different rates. In the one-way rental market rates can vary dramatically and many of the best rates are from the largest car rental companies rather than the smaller operators who might have normally lower daily return-to-the-same-location rates.
For example: We called each of the major automobile rental companies as well as some of the smaller operators. The rental rates for the same market varied dramatically.
AAA’s deal with Hertz
The American Automobile Association (AAA) has an arrangement with Hertz that becomes one of the best discounts available. AAA members are guaranteed the lowest available rates, discounts up to 20 percent and promotional coupon programs. Hertz also waives any normal Saturday night stayover requirements as well as additional driver charges for AAA members. They also provide improved insurance benefits with a $3,000 liability cap and limited primary personal liability insurance.
At press time no other automobile rental companies have similar contracts with AAA, but virtually all rental car companies offer AAA discounts.
Local taxes, fees and surcharges
These added costs can add more than 100 percent to a quoted rental charge. Car rental companies are not required to include them in advertisements since they are not assessed for every rental.
There is not much travelers can do about these taxes and fees, but knowing how much you will be dunned when you return the car eliminates the surprise and eases the impact.
For the most part, the taxes are simply an extension of a state and city’s normal sales tax. Other states and cities add special taxes to every car rental. Still other states, cities, airports and municipalities add additional fees and surcharges to your rental car bill.
These fees and surcharges are assessed for everything from easing Boston’s burden of uncollected parking tickets and paying for auto licenses in California, to rebuilding highways and disposing of old batteries, oil and tires. Other fees, depending on the airport, are charged for picking up passengers at the terminal, and expanding convention facilities.
Ask the rental agent when you pick up your car about the additional fees and taxes. That way, you’ll have an idea of what the charge will be when you return the car. Don’t expect the rental car reservation agent to have a clue about the local taxes and fees, though you may be lucky enough to get a list when you make your reservation.
Screening driver’s licenses
A new twist to automobile rentals is a growing system of screening driving records. Big Brother has definitely arrived at many rental car companies. Now, many car rental companies screen the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) records of drivers requesting a rental car in a growing number of states. Yes, the rental company computer accesses your home state driving record from the DMV computers.
Everyone gets checked. All state DMVs are required to share driving records with rental car companies. The biggest differences in these driver record checks come when one state is computerized and another is not. Clearly, drivers from states with computerized DMVs will have much more accessible driver records.
If you have had an accident within the last two or three years the companies may refuse to rent you a car based on their criteria—basically, if there was any personal injury or a fatality you may be out of luck. Other no-nos include driving intoxicated, leaving the scene of an accident and suspended or revoked licenses. Most rental firms are creating a blacklist, so if you are refused rental in one state, you will probably be refused rental everywhere.
If you are with a client on a business trip, this may be downright embarrassing.
NOTE: Driver’s licenses are checked when you show up to rent the car rather than at the time of the reservation. This makes getting another car from another company, especially another car at a similar rate, difficult, if indeed possible.
When you are refused a rental you have no tested auto rental rights—even if the DMV records are in error. Check your driving record at your state DMV.
Ask before you arrive at the rental counter whether the auto rental company screens driver’s licenses.
If you have been found unfit for a rental because of a license check you will have to find a company that does not check licenses. Call your DMV and find out what you can do to clear your record. But be aware—in some states there is no erasing any accident record.
To check your driving record contact your DMV or call TML Information Services at 1-800-388-9099. They perform about 80 percent of the checks for car rental companies. They will perform a personal check of your record for $9.95 (or $7.95 for AAA members). It only takes a few minutes and a credit card for payment.
In the rental companies’ defense, these checks were prompted by liability laws in New York, Florida and about 10 other states which have vicarious liability laws that hold the automobile owner responsible for the damages caused by it, even when operated by someone else. Unfortunately, what began as a defense against massive personal-injury awards in a few states has spread to affect all of us.
Check your rental car — Basics to look for
What happens if you have a flat tire and the spare is also flat, or the lug wrench is missing? Or what can the rental car company do for you when you reach the top of a mountain pass and find that the snow chains provided are the wrong size—worse yet, too small? What if you discover, after lunch, a crumpled fender you didn’t notice before you left the lot?
In these cases you are normally up the proverbial creek without a paddle. So protect yourself and check out any car you are getting ready to rent.
If there is anything else amiss, have it repaired or noted on the rental agreement before you leave the lot. Make sure it is documented.
Check the spare and make sure you have the basic automobile tool kit with the lug wrench and jack.
If you are picking up chains, carefully ensure that they are the proper ones for your tires.
Do a walk-around and check for broken lights, scratches and dents, or other damage you may be held responsible for. Note which side the fuel filler door is on. This is only a little thing, but can ease hassles at your first filling station.
If you are paying for mileage, make sure to check the odometer and note the level of the gas tank. If mileage doesn’t match the rental form, or if the tank isn’t full, let the attendant know.
Rental car breakdowns
What happens if your rental car transmission freezes in reverse, or you lose power and find yourself stranded on the highway, or the engine just won’t start?
This is where bigger is better. The larger rental agencies such as Hertz, Avis, Budget or National can provide a real advantage over the smaller ones. Since the large companies have more rental locations, it is easier to get another car and to get help. Other large agencies like Alamo or Dollar can also provide good assistance, depending on how close you are to one of their offices. Smaller agencies with fewer locations just can’t help as quickly and conveniently.
- Alamo roadside service is 800-803-4444.
- Avis has a nationwide toll-free hotline (800-345-2847) that will send any distress call automatically to the nearest Avis outlet providing road service. Some of their phone systems let you know the closest 24-hour location.
- Budget has phone numbers in the rental contract; you can also call the 24-hour reservations number with your problem (800-527-0700).
- Dollar has a similar arrangement with the Cross Country Motor Club. Their number is 800-235-9393.
- Hertz provides a toll-free number (800-654-5060) and claims to be able to have renters back on the road in less than an hour in most cases. Alternatively, they send renters to appointments by taxi or other transport.
- National has an agreement with the Cross Country Motor Club, which has 15,000 service and towing affiliates and 24-hour service. Call 800-367-6767. They also handle flats and low batteries.
International car rental considerations
Driving or renting cars outside of the United States means dealing with an entirely different set of rules and laws. The law changes whether you pick up your car abroad or drive from the U.S. to Canada or Mexico.
When a U.S. citizen or resident is planning to rent an automobile in Europe or elsewhere outside of the country, it is important that the reservation be made here in the United States for pickup in Europe or elsewhere. The savings are significant and are sometimes even more than 50 percent.
A good place to start checking on automobile rental rates is with Auto Europe (1-800-223-5555), a rental car consolidator, that guarantees the lowest prices for rentals picked up in Europe. They also will provide a US$ rate which will be guaranteed in dollars (for Canada the guarantee is in Canadian dollars), so tourists do not have to worry about changes in exchange rates.
Check on the minimum driving ages in Europe. Most rental agencies require that drivers be 25 years of age or traveling on business to rent a car.
International one-way rentals
When renting automobiles in Europe, the drop-off rules change. This is the basic drop-off rule in Europe—pick up and drop off in the same country means you pay no drop-off charge.
There are variations on the theme that all work to the rental car clients’ advantage. One such rule is that with some international rentals of 21 days or longer, renters may pick up a car in Switzerland and drop it off in France, Germany, Italy or the Netherlands with no drop-off charge.
NOTE: These rules vary from company to company and they are in effect only for relatively long-term rentals.
Hertz has a program called Rent it Here/Leave it There that allows travelers in Europe to pick up a car in one country and drop it off in another with a drop-off fee of only about US$100–125. This program links more than 100 cities and 200 Hertz locations in eight countries. Call Hertz for details. The countries are France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. Call for specifics. There are quirks such as Dutch cars are not allowed to be dropped off in Italy.
A unique one-way convenience is Le Swap, where Hertz, in conjunction with the Channel Tunnel, allows travelers to swap their right-hand-drive rental car in Calais for a left-hand-drive car (or vice-versa). This program works between the U.K. and rental locations in Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
International credit card collision damage insurance
If you use credit card CDW overseas, it is automatically considered primary coverage.
Special conditions exist in some countries, specifically New Zealand and Australia, which require you to purchase local insurance regardless of credit card coverage. An “approval” will also be placed on your credit card for gas (about $40) and the insurance deductible (around $500 in most cases).
Some foreign automobile rental agencies (and a few in the U.S.) may place a hold on a certain amount of your card credit. In some cases this may push the card over your credit limit.
NOTE: One solution to credit card holds is to travel with two credit cards.
Credit holds are most common in the Caribbean and South America. Make sure to ask the car rental reservationist whether a hold or deposit will be required. But beware: even if you get everything in writing here in the U.S., it may be worthless overseas. So plan on having to leave a deposit.
Credit card CDW in most cases is limited to either two weeks or one month. If you are planning a longer rental you can turn in your car at the end of the credit card insurance period and rent it again. If you do this it would be best to use a different credit card for the second rental. This works and is legal, but it is often difficult depending on your travels. Another option is to look into a purchase lease of a car in a foreign country. These purchase lease arrangements often provide insurance as part of the lease price and they are normally less expensive than a straight rental.
If you are not using a credit card be aware that almost all U.S. automobile insurance policies are not in effect when driving outside the U.S. or Canada. Personal car insurance rarely provides foreign coverage, owing to the variety of international insurance regulations and standards.
American Express Cards do not insure cars rented in Jamaica, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
CDW/Theft in Italy, Ireland & Israel
In both Italy and Israel, CDW and theft coverage must be purchased from the rental company. Some credit cards offer coverage in Italy, but it means nothing because all major rental companies require the purchase of CDW and theft insurance. The only question left is will your credit card reimburse the deductible in case of damage or theft?
You may also wind up purchasing CDW/ theft in Ireland, as only Mastercard’s World Card, Business Card, and Diner’s Club cards provide coverage there. In addition, in order to avoid purchasing CDW/theft from most Ireland rental companies, the renter must also produce written proof of credit card coverage.
Credit Card Insurance Limitations
- Coverage applies to the cardholder whose name appears on the car rental contract. Other drivers listed on the rental contract are also covered.
Caution: If you use your credit card to pay for another person’s rental, that person will not be covered for CDW/theft unless you are listed as a driver on the rental contract.
- Be aware that some vehicles are exempt from credit card CDW/theft coverage. Exotic cars and expensive vehicles such as Porsche, Bentley, Ferrari, 9-passenger vans, trucks, and top categories of Mercedes, BMW and Audi are usually not covered. However, most 7-passenger vans and selected BMW, Mercedes, and Audi cars are covered. Check with your credit card company.
- Your credit card limits its CDW/theft coverage to a certain number of rental days. Some Mastercards cover rental contracts of up to 15 days. Most Visa, American Express (see Tip below), and Diner’s Club cards provide coverage to 31 days. If your rental period exceeds those limits you will not be covered for any portion of the rental. Check with your credit card.
In some cases, in order to decline the rental company’s offer of insurance, you may have to provide proof of insurance. Your credit card company can email you a letter that proves you have CDW/theft coverage. We suggest you carry that letter with you to Europe to show at the rental counter.
Another purchase option that offers better rates than those offered by car rental companies is Travel Guard’s $9 per day CDW and Theft coverage. The deductible is $250. Other travel insurers have similar policies.
Tip: American Express card members may find it worthwhile to enroll in the company’s Premium Car Rental Protection. Enrollees in this plan get CDW/theft coverage on rental contracts as long as 42 days. The cost is $19 to $25 per rental but coverage is “primary” and there are other benefits, including coverage of more expensive cars and the 9-passenger van.
When CDW/Theft is Included in the Rate
It is standard procedure for online, Europe-based car rental brokers to offer insurance for collision (CDW) and theft as part of their basic price, not as an option. Sounds great, but there’s a catch. The included CDW and theft insurance often carries a substantial deductible, usually in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, and you do not have the option of declining this coverage and relying on the insurance coverage provided by your credit card. In order to reduce the deductible or “excess” to zero or near zero you will have to purchase additional insurance, often referred to as “Super CDW.”
Austria: Winter tires are mandatory and included in the basic rental car price.
France : Europcar, which dominates the France rental car market, offers winter tires only on a few vehicles at a high cost. Hertz has snow equipment on request at only a few, mostly high altitude, stations.
Germany: German law requires winter tires when driving in “wintry” conditions and rental car companies charge extra for them, though the charge is usually included in the basic rental car rate. The penalty if your car doesn’t have winter tires and you are caught driving in snow, is about €40. Worse, however, you may be financially liable if you don’t have them and are involved in an accident on snow. And, since you would be breaking the law, driving without winter tires might also void your insurance coverage.
Winter tires are now mandatory for Avis, Europcar, and Hertz rentals, commencing November 1-March 31.
The good news is if you’re not in the mountains, your chances of actually driving on snow are pretty low. And when it does snow in Germany, roads are quickly cleared.
Switzerland: Winter tires are also mandatory here and usually included in the basic rental car rates.
Other countries: Four-wheel-drive vehicles in all countries are scarce and expensive. Some companies no longer offer tire chains as extra equipment. Some drivers feel more comfortable with front-wheel drive cars in ice and snow, though no rental company will guarantee front-wheel drive.
Avoid Airport Pickups
Commence your rental at a European airport and you’re likely to pay a tax of 15 to 22 percent. Notable exceptions are France, Spain, Ireland, and the U.K., where airport and rail station charges range from $35 to $80. In Germany, however, that midsize VW Passat you can get at an off-airport location for, say, $200, costs $244 at an airport or rail station, thanks to a 22 percent tax. This so-called “premium station” fee also applies to rail stations. It’s worth noting there is no extra charge for returning a car to a “premium station.”
Avoid Sunday Rentals and Drop-offs
The vast majority of off-airport rental car locations in Europe are closed on Sundays, making it likely you will have to pay an expensive airport pickup charge if you plan to start a rental on that day.
Plus, when returning a car on the weekends, early in the morning or after hours, renters are totally at the mercy of the rental office staff when it comes to any discrepancies for the returned car such as not enough gas in the tank, missing hubcaps, scratches, etc.
Avoid Renting in Small Towns
Fewer cars to choose from and less savvy agents make renting a car in a small town a bit more adventurous than in Europe’s major cities. The small-town rental agent, who deals mainly with European rentals, may not be completely familiar with the terms and conditions of bookings made in North America. Most Europeans, for example, do not rely on a credit card for optional collision and theft insurance and the small town agent may assume you want that coverage when you do not. As a result, you may find unwanted charges on your credit card when you return home. Not understanding that North American credit cards provide free insurance, the agent may insist you buy his coverage.
Another problem is the skimpy selection of cars. You may have a confirmed reservation for a car with automatic transmission, but some smaller stations don’t have them in their fleets; they are brought in on an as-needed basis. Occasionally the system breaks down and when the renter arrives there simply is no automatic available. When
that happens, the customer is left with what’s on hand and if there’s no automatic…..
Stick With One Driver
Most, but not all, rental companies charge a substantial fee if you want to list more than one driver on the rental contract. Early in this report we mentioned a “best deal” price of less than $175 on a compact car in Germany for one week. However, the deal is not so good if there will be more than one driver. Avis in Germany, for example, charges €5 a day to a max of €50 for additional drivers. Europcar in Germany allows immediate family members to drive free, and Hertz €10.7 per day, €53 per week to a maximum of €160.
Think Twice About International One- Way Rentals
Two problems with a one-way rental between countries: it can be expensive and sometimes is simply not possible. The one-way charge is always in addition to other rental charges and can range from around $100 to $4,000. At the lower end of the scale are one-ways between such cities as Munich and Zürich, Paris and Frankfurt. Anything involving Italy, Spain, former eastern bloc countries, and Scandinavian countries will be expensive. Stick to major cities. One-ways involving small cities are frequently not possible or much more expensive. Recently, a customer slated to drop a Frankfurt car in Paris decided to instead leave it in Tours. The drop fee went from $125 to $350. One-way rentals within the same country, however, are almost always free.
Request a Diesel
Diesel engines are no longer noisy, smelly and underpowered and they get great mileage. The fuel is cheaper than gas in Europe and available at every service station. For the most part, you usually can’t guarantee a diesel, but you lose nothing by asking and, depending on the country and vehicle, you have about a 50-50 chance of getting one. By the way, don’t put gasoline in a diesel-powered car—and vice versa.
International Driver’s Permit
Though Canada and most countries in Europe recognize a U.S. driver’s license, several such as Italy, Austria and Germany require local translations of the documents. For all other countries your best bet is to get an International Driving Permit from AAA.
International Driving Permits are good for a year. Start the process by mailing a month before your departure. If you live near an AAA office, you can accomplish the entire process, including photos, in less than a hour. International Driving Permits cost $10. Call (800) AAA-HELP for the forms and the location of the nearest office issuing permits. In Canada call (800) 336-HELP. You’ll need:
- your license
- two passport-type photos, color or black and white (those from a dime-store photo booth are fine). If you have photos taken at a AAA office the cost is $8 for members, $10 for nonmembers.
Rules for driving to Canada and Mexico
Driving a rental car or your own car to Mexico or Canada requires a bit of preparation, especially if you are heading down Mexico way.
You need a U.S. driver’s license, and remember to carry your passport or birth certificate to get back to the U.S.
You must have minimum liability insurance equivalent to Cdn$200,000 (about US$160,000) everywhere except in the province of Quebec, where the minimum is Cdn$50,000 (about US$40,000).
Most U.S. insurers cover drivers in Canada, but you should make sure. Though insurance cards are rarely asked for, have your insurance company send you a Canadian Non-Resident Inter-Provincial Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance Card.
Credit card CDW works in Canada, but you’ll need your own insurance to provide liability coverage.
Get ready for red tape. You will need a passport or certified copy of your birth certificate, valid U.S. driver’s license, and Mexican Tourist Card (no-cost from Mexican consulates or at the border) if you plan to stay more than three days.
If you are taking your own car further than the immediate border area (loosely defined as within 10 to 12 miles of any border crossing) you’ll need to take the original of your title or registration plus a copy. Then when you hit the border station for cars, about 12 miles inside the Mexican border, you can get your driving permit by paying $10 with a credit card issued by a bank outside Mexico. If you are driving a company car or a friend’s car, bring along a notarized letter authorizing you to drive the car, signed by the proper owner or the owner’s representative.
A border state AAA program issues all immigration and customs forms. Fees vary.
Your stateside insurance is probably no good in Mexico. You’ll have to buy Mexican liability insurance from an office at the border crossing, from AAA or from the rental agency if you take a rental car. Credit card collision waiver is good in Mexico.
This routine is the same with rental car or personal auto. If you rent in Mexico, you pay a very stiff price but eliminate much of the hassle.
NOTE: Most rental agencies in San Diego, California and San Antonio, Texas, as well as most major agencies near the Mexican border, do not allow you to take their rental cars into Mexico.
Swiss and Austrian highway taxes
Tolls on superhighways in Switzerland are assessed as an annual road tax. If you don’t want to drive on a superhighway, you don’t pay the tax. However, for most of us traveling through Switzerland on vacation or business, the superhighways are vital to move through the country quickly.
When the calendar-year toll is paid, a Swiss Autobahn decal is attached to the window of the car. Most rental cars in Europe have this toll paid. But if you are picking up a car at one end of Europe and driving through Switzerland, check to see whether the highway toll decal is in the window. If you arrive in Switzerland without the decal you will have to pay about $25 for one. Most rental companies will reimburse you for the cost, but if you don’t know about this rule it can be a pain.
Austria also has a superhighway tax. Rather than issuing stickers that show cars have paid the tax for a year, the Austrian system charges for shorter periods of time. Upon entering Austria, drivers planning to use the Autobahn system must pay a highway tax based on the length of time they are planning to stay in the country. A ten-day highway sticker costs about US$6. This highway tax is your responsibility. It will not be reimbursed by the rental car company.
Frequently Asked Questions about Car Rentals from Elliott.org
BEFORE YOU RENT
Where should I book my car?
Here are your options:
Ask your travel agent. A full-service agent can offer recommendations and negotiated rates that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re uncomfortable booking online, or don’t rent cars often, this is your best choice. Bear in mind that agents get paid a commission on rentals, so they may steer you toward a company that pays a higher commission or bonus. (That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad deal for you.)
Book directly. If you are partial to one brand, you’ll probably want to go straight to the car rental company’s website or call its 800-number. Car rental companies will offer bonuses and other incentives to deal directly with them. You can also negotiate a discount using many membership organizations, such as AAA or AARP. The downside? You won’t be able to make an easy price comparison, and unless you’re careful, you might book a nonrefundable rate through the site.
Use an online travel agency. Companies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity offer virtually every major car rental brand, as well as price guarantees that make them an attractive option when shopping for or booking a rental car. Note that as with full-service agencies, online agents sometimes display the cars that pay them the highest commissions (or exclude the companies that pay a lower commission). Don’t assume you’re getting every option with an online agency, so shop around.
Opaque sites. Sites like Priceline and Hotwire sell you prepaid, deeply-discounted rentals, but you don’t find out the name of the car rental company until you book the car. The benefit? You can save between 20 and 40 percent, and the voucher you receive includes all mandatory taxes and fees. But there’s a catch: the car is totally non-refundable. Book with any of the other methods and you can usually cancel the reservation without a penalty, but not always. Specialty vehicles and cars rented during special events may not be cancelable, either.
Go local. Smaller, independent car rental companies generally don’t show up on online travel sites such as Expedia, yet can offer a competitive rate. You’ll have to do an internet search for car rental companies in the area to which you’ll be traveling, and if you’re flying into an airport, transportation to the car rental company can be a hassle. Also, you may be assigned an older rental unit — so be sure to ask questions over the phone to establish the local rental company’s modus operandi.
No matter how you book your car, you’ll want to double-check the dates of your rental and the location for pickup and drop off before pulling the trigger. If you’ve made an error, you can always fix it if you’ve booked through one of the three conventional methods. If you’re using an opaque site, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to modify your reservation. (As a general rule, the quicker you let the company know of the error, the better your chances are of getting it corrected.)
Above all, read the confirmation you get by email. Then read it again. The last thing you want is to discover a problem on the day of your trip.
Should I book my car at the last minute?
Not if you can avoid it. Many car rental companies jack their rental rates up for last-minute, or “walk-up” customers. Why? Supply and demand, it’s as simple as that. They have the car, you want the car. Don’t get caught at the last minute without a car. Plan ahead. If you do, consider booking through an “opaque” site like Hotwire or Priceline, which can offer you a reasonable (though nonrefundable) rate at the last minute.
What about car classes?
Car rental companies offer vehicle classes ranging from subcompact to luxury. These designations are about as meaningful as the star ratings used to grade hotels, which is to say they can be a useful guide, but you shouldn’t give them too much weight. Your car rental agreement usually doesn’t guarantee an exact car type. One car may be considered a “compact” by one company and “midsize” by another. Why? Because the car rental companies say so, that’s why!
How do I find the best rental car?
Savvy car renter use two strategies:
Reserve the car class you think you’ll need. Most drivers do this—they take an inventory of number of passengers, luggage, and consider their itinerary and then book the vehicle that’s best suited to them. It’s a safe strategy.
Book the smallest car and hope they run out. It’s an open secret that car rental companies often run out of subcompacts because they’re so popular (or maybe because this strategy is so popular). The accepted industry practice is to give you a car in the next available class, which can mean a free upgrade for you. This is a risky move if you have more than two passengers and lots of luggage, because the car rental company could have the vehicle you reserved. Worst case scenario, they’ll see you need a bigger car and offer you an upgrade, or you can inquire about one yourself. You’ll be paying for the car class you should have booked anyway.
Is it OK to make a duplicate reservation?
Since you can make as many reservations as you want and then cancel them without a penalty, you could play one car rental company off another. I know of some frequent business travelers who will always make a “backup” reservation just in case they can’t get the car they want, or in case the company runs out of vehicles. I take a dim view of this, and so does the industry. Not only does it mess up the car rental company’s inventory management, but it is selfish to take more than you’ll use.
A note about specialty vehicles: If you need something that’s not on the “menu” on the car rental company’s website, don’t assume that it’s not available. Some locations may carry other kinds of vehicles, but you don’t see them because the reservation system they belong to uses generic photos of vehicles as suggestions of what may be available. Solution? Get the name of the location manager, and call at least a week before your rental date. Ask what types of minivans, SUVs or trucks they have in their fleet.
What do these car rental fees mean? Do I have to pay them?
Fees are a never-ending source of frustration to travelers. But they don’t have to be.
Here’s a sample price of a one-day rental at Orlando International Airport with one of the major car rental sites:
Base Rate: 1 day(s) 38.99 USD
Taxes & Surcharges: 13.06 USD
Surcharge: 9.88 USD
– $0.60 per day, max 10 days (Energy Recovery Fee)
– $2.00 per day (Florida Surcharge)
– $0.02 per day (Waste Tire/Battery Fee)
– $0.78 per day (Vehicle License Fee)
– $2.50 per day, max 5 days (Customer Facility Fee)
– 10% (Concession Fee)
Tax ( 6.500% ) 3.18 USD
Base Rate and Charges: 52.05 USD
Rental Options: 16.94 USD
Maximum 8 Day(s)
Estimated Total: 68.99 USD
Pretty complicated, huh? At first glance, maybe.
But let’s break it down. The base rate is a theoretical price, minus taxes, fees, and rental options. No one ever pays the base rate, but the car rental company wants you to see it because, 1) it makes their rental look less expensive; and 2) you know how much money the car rental company is actually making, which really isn’t that much, most of the time. (In fact, car rental profit margins are generally razor thin.)
Mandatory taxes and surcharges are then added to the bill. I won’t list and annotate every one of these, except to say that you can’t negotiate your way out of them. For example, if there’s an airport surcharge — which covers the car rental company’s cost of operating at the airport — getting dropped off at the airport rather than flying in will not let you dodge the fee.
Some of these fees are imposed by local municipalities, the airport, or the state, and yes, they often fund stadiums and convention centers, and all other manner of pet projects. For you, the driver, the only thing you really need to know is that you must pay them. (However, you can avoid many of them by renting at an off-airport location.) Either way, you’re best off ignoring the base rate.
The number you’ll want to pay attention to is the estimated total. That’s usually the amount of money you’ll pay, plus or minus a few percents. If you’re making a budget for your trip, that’s the figure to use.
Note that fuel-purchase options are not part of this quote. They’re optional, and you’ll have to settle on them when you pick up the vehicle. More on that in a moment.
You can also add any number of optional services to your bill. Let’s do that right now. These are daily charges.
Rental Options: 22.93 USD
GPS Navigation: 11.95 USD
Roadside SafetyNet (RSN): 5.99 USD
SiriusXM Radio: 4.99 USD
Protections – Coverages: 48.37 USD
Loss Damage Waiver (LDW): 26.99 USD
Personal Accident Insurance (PAI): 4.00 USD
Personal Effects Protection (PEP): 2.95 USD
Additional Liability Insurance (ALI): 14.43
Note that saying “yes” to all of these choices will more than double the daily rate of your car — and again, we haven’t even added the fuel-purchase option or a charge for an additional driver, which some car rental companies will add.
The first category (Rental Options) is more or less self-explanatory. If you need a navigation system or a SiriusXM radio, here’s a chance to rent it. You can also get the equivalent of “OnStar” for roadside service, although the car rental company also has a 24-hour, toll-free number you can call if you need assistance. These are somewhat profitable add-ons for the company, and I would definitely think carefully before giving them the nod. For $5 a day, you could buy a lot of new music for your iPod and simply play it through the car’s stereo. Also, many phones now have navigational system apps, and don’t forget the old-fashioned paper maps, which your car rental company should offer at no extra charge.
The second category (Protections) is not as obvious. Car rental companies offer several insurance options. You absolutely have to think about insurance before you arrive at the counter. If you don’t, you may buy too much insurance, or worse, not enough.
Do I need car rental insurance?
Don’t drive a car without insurance. Ever. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but here’s the sad reality: If you have no insurance, and anything happens to a rental vehicle while it’s in your possession, you’re responsible. And yes, car rental companies won’t hesitate to ask you to pay for a new car if you total one of theirs.
What do all these car rental insurance options mean?
Let’s take a closer look at each type of insurance.
- Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) –- This is your basic insurance, and it normally covers the loss of the vehicle, or damage to it, and any loss of use to the rental company. (A related kind of insurance, Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is more limited, covering the car but not injuries or damage to other property.)
- Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) — Covers you and the passengers in your car if you’re injured in an accident.
- Personal Effects Protection (PEP) — Insures the property in the car, up to a certain amount.
- Additional Liability Insurance (ALI) — Extra protection that covers everything from bodily injury to death to property damage.
- Note that the names of these insurance policies may vary based on which company you rent from.
When should I make a decision about insurance?
The sooner, the better. Review your car insurance policy, credit card insurance and travel insurance before you leave to see if your rental car is covered. Also, if you’re renting outside the United States, be sure that you are meeting that country’s insurance requirements — otherwise, you may be forced to buy insurance. Bottom line: know before you go.
How do you decide which policy to buy?
You need to understand a few things about car rental insurance before you buy. Some of these policies make perfect sense for you, and are a good deal. Others are overpriced and unnecessary. Which is which? It depends on where you’re renting and who you are.
Normally, you’ll have enough coverage between your credit card insurance and personal car insurance policy, but watch out — if you’re renting a specialty vehicle like an exotic vehicle, van or SUV, or if you’re renting outside the country, your policy may not work. (Israel, Ireland and Jamaica rentals are not covered by most major credit cards, and you’ll need to purchase a separate policy when you rent a car in those countries.) Read your policy and cardmember agreement before you rent. Remember, your credit card or car rental insurance may or may not cover all of the damage to a rental car. Make sure you know.
Point is, you want to avoid having to make up your mind at the counter. Car rental agents are trained to sell you insurance and other extras. They are not travel agents; they’re often evaluated based on how much insurance and other add-ons they can sell you when you pick up the car. You won’t be able to avoid the pitch, but you can manage it.
I want to do a one-way rental, but it’s too expensive. How do I save money?
You have two options. First, you may want to call several agencies to find out if they’re willing to discount their rentals. Car rental companies need to move their fleets from one part of the country to another, so if your timing is right, there’s a good chance that at least one of the major chains will offer a discount. And second, you could find out if there are any “driveaway” opportunities — car owners who want to move their vehicles from one part of the country to another and might actually pay you to drive their vehicle.
DURING YOUR RENTAL
What options do I really need?
The fuel purchase option. This comes in several flavors, from prepaying for a tank of gas, to paying for the fuel you consume after you return, to topping off the tank before you bring back the car. If you choose the latter option, keep your gas station receipt — you may have to show it as proof you refueled within a certain mileage radius of the rental location. The first and second options may work for you if you’re in a hurry, or on an expense account; otherwise, go for door #3. Note: Car rental companies will probably make money off any fuel purchase option unless you return the tank bone-dry.
The insurance. Look, if you haven’t done your homework before you get to the counter, and have to endure the sales pitch, complete with the images of damaged cars (yes, I’ve been there), then you owe it to yourself to buy at least a basic CDW policy. Why? Because you don’t know if you’re covered, and that means if you’re in an accident, you may have to buy a $30,000 car.
Nav systems, toll tags, and SiriusXM radio. Totally your call. You know where you’re going and what you need. If you require any of these items, then go for it. Be certain that you haven’t inadvertently opted in for a toll tag. If you do, you might pay twice for tolls. Also, some toll tagging systems bill you by the day once you start using them, whether you use a toll road or not. That’s not exactly a bargain if your car is parked in a hotel lot most of the time.
What’s upgrade “roulette”?
If you’re on vacation and want a nicer set of wheels, you can play something I call upgrade “roulette.” As part of their training, agents will try to talk you into an upgrade. What you might not know is that there could be one of two reasons: Either they want to make more money, or they don’t have any cars in the class you reserved. Either way, you’re better off saying “no.” Most car rental firms have a policy that you’ll get an upgrade for free if they run out of the class of car you have reserved. [By the way, there are times when you’ll want to turn down that upgrade. If your insurance won’t cover a more expensive specialty vehicle, or if you’re concerned with gas mileage, you may be better off downgrading and having the price adjusted.]
Do I need to do anything before signing my car rental contract?
Make sure the options you asked for are on the final contract you sign. Some car rental employees have been known to “accidentally” check the option for insurance, and if you sign the contract accepting it, you will be charged the full amount, and there’s usually no way to get the money back. Electronic signature pads, which may or may not display your contract adequately before you sign, have made this even trickier. Only the most ethically-challenged rental agents try this cheat, but in the end you are responsible for what you’ve signed. If you don’t understand the contract (or if it’s in another language), ask an employee to explain. If you’re uncomfortable with anything at all, don’t sign. Take your business elsewhere.
What should I do before I drive away?
Many car rental problems can be avoided by taking a few precautionary steps. Do you know how to operate the car? Car rental companies are now offering everything from electric vehicles to hybrids to Smart Cars (microcars), and they don’t operate the same way the standard gas-operated cars do. (Don’t believe me? Try starting a Toyota Prius without first reading the manual. Go on. I’ll wait.) This is the time to ask. Car rental employees are trained to help you get acquainted with your car. Note: This is especially important if you’re switching from a right-hand to left-hand drive vehicle, where many of the switches are reversed. At the very least, check your glove compartment to make sure the manual is there. You’ll be glad you did.
Should I take a picture of my rental car?
Yes. Every rental car must be photographed or, better yet, videotaped by you before you leave the rental lot. I’m not joking. Most car rental companies do not adequately document the condition of your vehicle, and only a small fraction take photos of your car before you rent it. Whip out your digital camera or smartphone, and let’s get to work. At a bare minimum, you need shots of the front, back and sides of the car. I would recommend two close-up shots of each side, the front and rear windshield, the front and rear of the car, and the roof. Don’t forget the interior: the dashboard, front seats, back seats, and trunk. If you want to be extra careful, take snapshots of the wheels and under the two bumpers. Believe it or not, motorists have been billed for damage that’s unseen by the naked eye at the time of the rental. You can’t be too careful.
Note: If you’re in a garage with low light, drive the car somewhere in the parking area that’s well-lighted to conduct your visual inspection. Do not leave the rental lot without taking these pictures. Repeat: Do not leave.
It is impossible to over-photograph or videotape the car. By the way, if you are videotaping, hold the camera steady, and make sure it’s set to the highest resolution. If you’re shooting still images, and you have the option to timestamp the photos, make sure that function is activated on your camera.
Download your photos, and then upload them into the cloud for safekeeping. How long should you keep these photos? At least six months after your rental. That’s the longest I’ve seen a car rental company wait to file a damage claim. After that, feel free to delete these files.
Your car rental company should furnish you with a form where you can note the condition of the vehicle. The form allows you to identify any problems on a diagram of a car. Record any pre-existing damage on this form and make sure a car rental employee signs it. Don’t, under any circumstances, leave without a copy of the signed form.
What if I see a ding, dent or crack?
If you spot a scratch or dent while you’re photographing the vehicle, tell an attendant. You will either need to document the damage in writing or ask for a different vehicle. Don’t let anyone tell you that a dent or scratch “the size of a golf ball or smaller” doesn’t count. Everything counts. My personal advice is that if the car is dirty and/or has large dents, you need to ask for another one. Not because you’re being picky, but because you could be held accountable for those dents later on. Also, scratches and other imperfections are difficult to see when the car isn’t clean. If you need to take a flawed vehicle, be extra vigilant about noting the damage on your form. Again, make sure an employee signs off on it.
Other reasons to reject your rental:
- It’s not the car you reserved that is stated on the contract.
- It appears unsafe to drive (balding tires, lights don’t work).
- Registration is expired, or will expire during your rental (don’t forget to check).
- High mileage (over 50,000 miles).
- Chipped windshield. You should have zero tolerance for anything irregular on the front or back windshield.
- Wrong color. (I’m kidding.)
- Upon driving off the lot, don’t be afraid to return if you feel the car is not driving properly.
How about the sign-off?
Before you leave the airport car rental lot, you’ll pass through a checkpoint where your rental agreement and driver’s license will be checked by an employee. So, don’t put those away just yet (I usually leave them on the seat next to me, for easy access.) This last check is yet another opportunity to make sure your car is what it should be. Don’t be shy about getting out of the car, walking around it, and mentioning to the employee if something looks wrong. Remember, this is your last chance.
(These procedures will vary if you’re renting from a non-airport location. For example, there won’t be a gate, and pick-ups and returns may be handled differently, but the same principles apply: make sure you photograph your vehicle, document any damage, and know how to operate it.)
You’ve put a dent in your rental vehicle. Now what?
This is a hugely controversial issue. Car rental companies are faced with hundreds of millions of dollars in damage expenses every year, and the companies say they are just pursuing the customers who damage their vehicles. Many travelers believe car rental companies are profiting from damage claims, insisting that scratches or dents for which they were charged were either pre-existing or completely fictional.
What about other types damage, like the kind caused by weather or wear and tear?
Increasingly, car rental companies are taking a hard line on other damage. For example, if you’re renting a car in Denver during the summer, there’s a chance you’ll run into a hail storm and receive a bill for hail damage to your vehicle. If your rental has a flat tire, you’ll be asked to pay for the entire tire plus the replacement cost. Insurance won’t always cover this damage, and often, the rental company will charge your card directly for the damage and let you work it out with your insurance company — if you can.
What are the steps of a claim?
Ideally, the car rental claims process will start when you return a damaged vehicle. An employee will ask you to fill out a claim form in which you acknowledge the damage, and explicitly agree to pay for it.
Recently, some rental companies have begun charging a renter’s credit card a deductible even when there’s been no formal damage estimate. I’m skeptical of that practice. While it may be legal, I think you’re better off waiting for a bill before paying up or asking your insurance to settle the claim.
If you purchased the optional insurance, you’re all done. You shouldn’t have to worry about anything else, but if you’re using your own insurance, or, God forbid, you’re not insured, you’re not out of the woods yet. You’re going to have to deal with your car insurance agency or credit card company quickly (there’s a time limit on filing a claim), and then negotiate with the car rental company or an outside company that specializes in damage claims (often referred to as a subrogation management company).
AFTER YOUR RENTAL
What should I do when I return my vehicle?
A vast majority of disputed car rental damage claims happen because of little dings and dents that no one noticed before you drove off the lot. Maybe you were parked at the mall, and the SUV next to you put a little bump in your side panel when the driver opened his door. The trick is to identify any minor damage when you return your set of wheels to the rental location. You’ll want to give yourself 10 extra minutes to walk through these steps. Believe me, they’re worth it.
1) Find a bright space, preferably out in the open. Whip out your camera, and photograph the inside and outside of the vehicle. Take as many images as possible. Note any dings, dents or scratches. Pay close attention to the windshield; that area is the number one source of damage claims.
2) Ask the car rental employee handling your return to walk around the car with you. They will often be busy (tell them you can wait), or totally unavailable (see step 3). Walk around the car with the form you filled out when you rented the car, and then ask the employee to sign the form, or give you something else in writing verifying that the car was returned in the same shape as you drove it away. If the employee says a printed receipt is sufficient, then at least note the name of the worker who assured you the receipt was sufficient. You may need it later, if it comes to a dispute.
3) If no one is available, go inside, ask for the name and email address of the branch manager, and send the manager a brief email with your name, rental number, and a few snapshots of the car as you returned it. Is that overkill? No, and especially not if you are using your own insurance, as opposed to the optional Collision Damage Waiver offered by the rental company. It signals to the rental location that filing a frivolous claim against you will be difficult.
4) Keep your photos, video, receipts and signed documents for at least six months. That’s how long it could take a potential claims process to play out.
How do I dispute a claim?
In some cases, a car rental company will discover damage to a vehicle after you’ve returned your car. If you’ve gone through the process of photographing your car, and getting a sign-off from a real person, then this is a non-issue. Simply send your extensive documentation back to the claims department, and your case will be closed.
What if you forgot to take pictures, and simply dashed off to the airport terminal? (Hey, it happens.) Well, there’s a way out of that, too.
Note: If you think there’s a chance the car was damaged while you had it, and a car rental company can show you credible documentation to that effect, then I would urge you to accept responsibility for the bill. Car rental customers sometimes say they shouldn’t be held responsible if they were not at fault in an accident or fender-bender. That’s incorrect. If the car was damaged while you had it, you have to pay for the repair.
First, the bad news. You’ll get an email or letter from either the car rental company or a claims management company, alerting you to the damage. This can be unsettling because it often doesn’t contain many details – it only informs you of the problem and asks for your credit card information and/or your insurance information.
Next, the proof. The message will be followed by an email or letter that contains photos of the damaged car and an estimate of the repair. It could also contain two fees unrelated to the repair: loss of use, and diminishment of value. These fees are exactly what they say: 1) an estimate of how many days the car was out of commission and the average daily rate it might have earned; and 2) an estimate of how much less the car is worth, now that it’s been banged up. Read everything carefully. Make sure the license plate matches the plate on your rental and that it’s the same car. (Sometimes, it’s not.)
Lastly — pay up… or else. If you don’t respond to the first or second letter, the car rental company will threaten to refer your case to a collections agency. This is probably the last time you’ll hear from the agency, and it is your last opportunity to come to an agreement. By the way, if you fail to respond, you won’t just have a collections agency harassing you, you’ll also be blacklisted from ever renting from the agency again.
What are some strategies for disputing a claim?
Again, assuming you are absolutely certain that you returned your car undamaged, here are the steps.
- Politely tell them you didn’t do it. This should be done in writing, not by phone. Resist the urge to get an immediate resolution. The process takes time. Be as detailed as you can in your explanation, but keep your initial letter tight. Most of these rebuttals are rejected, but all the same, they are a necessary part of the claims process, and you’ll need to get your denial on the record.
- If you do receive a denial, send a more strongly-worded email to the car rental company, restating your position. Copy your insurance company. By now, you should have received a repair estimate. Feel free to challenge some of the items, including loss of use, and diminishment charges, which can be as inflated as your repair bill. With a little prodding, I’ve seen these charges lowered or even removed.
- If that doesn’t work, I would recommend appealing to a manager, a customer service vice president, or the CEO of the car rental company. This is a good time to loop in your attorney and the insurance commissioner in the state in which the car was rented. I’ve spoken with damage claim companies who say that if it gets to this point, and the damage is less than $500, they will drop the claim as a matter of policy. If none of those strategies work, call me.
I think the claim I’ve received from the car rental agency is a scam. Now what?
Your scam radar should be on full alert if you see any of the following:
- A claim that’s a few dollars short of $500, which is the standard car insurance deductible. This may be a sign that the car rental company is trying to ding you for a trumped-up damage claim. It doesn’t want to go over $500, and invite the scrutiny of an insurance company.
- A damage claim for normal wear and tear. If an essential part of the car stopped working on your watch, and it was due to a maintenance problem, then it’s not your fault. A car rental company is responsible for changing the oil in its cars, and keeping the fluid levels where they ought to be.
- Damage to a part of the car that’s unseen to a normal person. That would include the roof and the undercarriage. Almost no one checks the roof before they rent a car, and no one crawls under the car. It’s really their word against yours that something happened.
- A cleaning fee for smoking or pets — especially if you don’t smoke or didn’t bring your dog or cat on your trip.
Can I ask for an independent review of the repair bill?
Generally, the answer is “no.” Car rental companies can’t be bothered with getting a second opinion when they’re processing thousands of claims, but that shouldn’t stop you from questioning the bill, or doing your own research to determine if you’re being billed the right amount.
What about moving violations?
If you’ve run through a tollbooth or a red light, there’s nothing you can do at this point. Your car rental company will forward the paperwork to you. In many cases, the company will furnish you with photos that establish your guilt. At the very least, it should document the time and place of the alleged violation. Review this information carefully. I’ve dealt with many tickets where the driver was out of state, and couldn’t have possibly run the red light, or where the wrong car was billed for a moving violation.