How to save on car rentals

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How does a $69 car rental end up costing more than $200? Easy. The advertised rate is just the beginning.

Reporter Tod Marks, who covers shopping for Consumer Reports as Tightwad Tod, tried booking a Hertz economy car for two days in Charlotte, N.C. His best rate: $69. That jumped to $99 after four layers of taxes, concession and facility surcharges (imposed when renting at an airport), and a fee to recoup the cost of plates and registration.

Next came a pitch for other extras: a waiver to relieve Marks of responsibility for damage, theft, and loss of vehicle use, $58 for two days, supplemental liability insurance, $28, personal accident insurance/effects coverage to pay some medical bills and replace stolen items, $14, and emergency roadside assistance, $10. The new total: $209. Another decision: whether to prepay for a fill-up, to avoid looking for a gas station before returning the car. That makes sense for a long trip but not for anything less.

How do you keep the bill from going through the sunroof? We asked experts for tips and invited Consumer Reports Facebook fans to share lessons from past rentals. The first rule: Plan ahead to avoid making decisions under pressure at the rental counter. Other advice:

Shop early. Compare rates at rental-car websites and at Expedia, Hotwire, and TripAdvisor. Airlines may offer a fly-and-drive discount, though in our experience it’s not steep. AAA, AARP, and Costco dangle deals, too. Marks scored his $69 rate by using AAA, which offered extra savings through a promo code. Other rates for the same rental were as high as $109. AAA also offers member discounts on extras such as GPS navigation, and it waives the second-driver fee. Most reservations don’t require prepayment, so you can book and cancel if you find a better deal. Weigh that against “pay now” discounts—up to 35 percent for Budget customers, for instance.

Contact your insurer. You may be adequately covered through your auto policy, says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. Check on collision and comprehensive coverage, and be sure you’re protected for the “full value” of a loss, plus “loss of use,” to offset revenue lost while a car is out of service. If there are coverage gaps, consider loss (or collision) coverage. It won’t protect you if you’re negligent but can keep an accident from going on your insurance record. A homeowners policy usually covers theft of personal items from a rental car.

Check your credit card. Some cards automatically provide secondary coverage for collision damage, after you’ve paid the deductible. For $25 per rental of up to 42 days, American Express offers more extensive protection (theft, damage, medical, no deductibles), and the insurance is primary—you needn’t notify your insurer.

Steer clear of airports. Marks’ rental cost rose by $16 simply because the site was on airport property, where there are additional mandatory fees.

Examine the car. “Inspect the car in a bright-light zone before leaving the lot and be as nitpicking as the rental company,” advised a Facebook fan who had to pay for a damaged wheel he failed to see before driving off a dark lot. Note damage on the contract, and have it signed before driving off. Take photos.

Avoid penalties. Facebook posters reported penalties for canceling a reservation without ample notice, for returning a car more than a half-hour late or a few hours early, and for returning it to a different site. If the car smells oftobacco smoke, you could face a $250 cleaning fee.

Skip accessories. Wolf German of Westbury, N.Y., a Facebook fan, was talked into taking a Sunpass transponder (like an E-ZPass) to avoid toll plaza bottlenecks when visiting Disney World. All told, he spent $4 on tolls and $34 on the transponder fees.

The advertised rate is just the beginning, says travel industry expert Bill McGee: “The rental-car industry has begun charging for everything but the steering wheel.” Below, a few of the extras for which our reporter could have been charged. (Fees are per day.)

Satellite radio: $5

GPS navigator: $13

PlatePass transponder to zip through toll plazas (actual tolls are extra): $5

Child safety seat: $11

Second driver allowed: $13

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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