Monday, April 25, 2016

Renting Cars Without Getting Fleeced

And Silvercar too!

Everyone thinks they know how to rent a car.  But, judging from what I've observed most people just reserve a car online and then proceed to get royally screwed.

I've rented a car almost every week for 30 years. So here are a few basic Roadboy tips on how to get a fair rate and minimize wasted time in line.

Lets start with the basics. Are you 25 with a valid credit card? If yes to both questions, you are probably good to go. If no to either or both questions, plan on making special arrangements.

First the ground rules.

Rental car companies make much of their profit by selling you extras. Rental counter agents get commissions for getting you to buy stuff. So expect to be pressured into buying upgrades, additional insurance, a GPS device and toll tags.

• Upgrades
Normally the first up sell will be for an upgrade. It might go something like "Oh I see you are tall, is that little car going to be big enough for you? I can put you in a larger car for only $XX."

First off, the $XX quoted is daily and will be in addition to the rate you reserved.  Upgrading at the counter is almost always a bad idea.

Upgrades are also frequently pitched when the lot is out of the car class you reserved. If you are dealing with a reputable rental agency they'll readily admit it and go on to offer you an upgrade for the same  rate. You should never tolerate an extended wait for a car in the class you reserved.

• Insurance 
This one requires 15 minutes of homework before you rent a car.
1. Contact your auto insurance company and verify that you are fully insured when you rent a car for business and/or leisure.

2. Check with your credit card company to determine if it covers you for a car rental. Many credit cards do only IF you decline all rental car company offers of supplemental insurance. However, even credit cards that offer car rental coverage, frequently limit this coverage to domestic use, so don't rely on them for an international rental.

Expect the agent to try to subtle intimidation with comments like "You do understand you are responsible for the full value of the car?"

• Prepaid Fuel
The next question you will be asked is: "Would you like to pre-pay a tank of gas at (enter cheap per gallon rate here) and return the car empty?"

This sounds good, but the rental car company realizes that most customers return their cars with quite a bit of gas in the tank. So, getting you to pay for a whole tank, despite the discount per gallon rate, is almost always a bad deal for you.

• Emergency Road Service and Other Up Charges
Before you leave the rental counter scan the summary of charges on the contract they hand you. You will likely be amazed at the array of charges added to your bill. In some cities (Seattle is a good example) the added taxes and charges frequently exceed the daily rental rate for the car.  Sorry, but you are stuck with most of those fees. But one fee added in that is usually optional is emergency road service. 

So if any charge or fee seems vague ask. It never hurts. Thrifty in Salt Lake City always used to add an expensive daily "Emergency Road Service" fee. I missed seeing this fee a couple of times and got stuck paying for something I really didn't need.

Consider becoming a basic member of AAA. Here's why. Once rented a car and a few hours later I locked the car keys inside. First I called local locksmiths and was told "We don't do auto lockouts" anymore. I then called the rental car company and was told the "emergency road service" I bought was limited to mechanical break downs, not a lock out.

So my only two options were to hire a taxi to / from the airport (to pick up a spare key) or break a window. So faced with a $200 cab fare or the expense of replacing a broken window, I thought I'd check AAA. They unlocked my car in 20 minutes at no charge. I almost always save more than my annual AAA fee each year just in hotel rate savings.

• Paying for the Last Guy's Sins
Never simply get in a rental car and drive off.

Even if the lot is dark use your cell phone flashlight and examine the body, windshield, headlights and the tires. Take cell phone photos of anything you see and get the gate agent to initial your updated damage form.

Alamo in Albuquerque once rented me a car once with a tiny windshield crack. I blew it off. But when I returned it I was told they "cannot rent a car with even a tiny crack" and proceeded to charge me for a full windshield replacement.

Just this week I noticed my rental car steering wheel was just a little off after I had left Silvercar in Denver.

Admittedly, It seemed odd for an otherwise nice car. Since there was no shimmy or pulling, I ignored it.

But an hour after returning the car I got a call accusing me of hitting a curb and told I may be subjected to paying for damages to the tire and/or suspension etc. Although the roads were dry for my rental Denver experienced a big late spring storm the week before. So I'm betting the last renter slid into a curb. So examine tires and NEVER drive a car with a steering wheel that is not 100% dead level.

• Road Tolls
If you will be in an area with toll roads check into the various rental cars toll policy. Many charge excessive daily charges for toll tags. This is a real pain when you have a 5 day rental and only a small part of your trip will include a toll road.

I recently had one rental car company issue me a toll tag, then charge me $8 per toll gate (where the cash charge for the actual toll was only 80 cents).

So Here is Roadboy's Tips:

1. Shop
Research prices for your car on a site like That allows you to scan rates for the dates and market you need from lots of agencies at once. Be careful to avoid pre-paid rentals unless you are totally sure of your travel plans.  If yur a willing to pay a pre-paid rental check Hotwire and Priceline. But rmeember Hotwire adds a service charge. The key is to  always compare the total rental charge, not the daily rate.

If the car you want is under $69 / day then go to the actual rental car site to rent that car.

Please, before you male the reservation spend 5 minutes to become a member of the car rental agencies frequent rental club. Then log in and reserve the car. Now, when you arrive you'll get access to the expedited lane and eliminate much (if not all) of the car rental counter up sell hell experience.

2.  Timing
If you can, shop for a car 45 days before your trip. Advance rates are usually (but not always) lower than prices will be just before you travel.

But, I try to also check back 7-14 days before I travel. Sometimes I'll find rates have gone down. When that happens, I reserve a new rental and go back and cancel the old one.

3. Buy Your Own Gas
If you have the time, plan to buy your own gas. Otherwise many rental car companies will charge an exorbitant price to refill.

4. Smile - Never Argue
No matter how awful the experience is try hard not to argue or get mad. If a conflict arises be firm, but reasonable.

Yelling almost never benefits you. Conversely, being the nice guy who comes up ot the counter after an agent has just served a string of upset customers, frequently results in making the agent more inclined to treat you well.

5. Check Silvercar
If the rental rate for the dates / locale exceed $69 / day then check if your destination is served by Silvercar.  Silvercar delivers a wonderful premium rental car experience. It only rents newish Audi A4's. ANd every car has both satellite radio and WiFi. They have a fair toll and refuel policy too. You'll first need to add their app to your smart phone. Then upon arrival you simply use your smart phone to check the car out (no rental counter lines, no high pressure up selling, no BS).

6. Car Sharing
And for you Millennial's (with car sharing accounts), see if you can ride a light rail to your hotel and use your ride sharing account. This allows you to bag the whole hassle of renting a car!

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

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