Car rental gotchas and how to avoid them
Renting a car, like buying most travel services, exposes you to a few gotchas that can make your experience more expensive, less pleasant or both. But you can also avoid most of them, most of the time, by vetting your rental company and reading the fine print before you put down your credit card.
Insurance has always been the main minefield of renting a car. The rental agent will try to get you to buy some insurance you don’t need at all and some you can buy elsewhere at a lower price.
— Collision insurance covers damage to, or loss of, the car you rent. Obviously, when you are using someone else’s $30,000 asset, you need to insure yourself in case it is damaged when in your control. The rental company will try to sell you a waiver that eliminates your risk but roughly doubles the daily cost of the rental.
But your own insurance may cover you in a rented car, your credit card may cover what your regular insurance doesn’t — most travel-oriented cards do — or you can buy separate coverage from a third-party source for about one-third of what the rental company asks.
— Liability insurance covers you for any damage you may do to other people or property. Clearly, you should never get behind the wheel of any car without adequate liability insurance, but your risk is no higher in a rental car than in your own car. You need liability coverage whenever you drive any car, rental or otherwise.
Your own automobile, homeowner, umbrella or other policy probably covers you, so you don’t need extra. But if it doesn’t, then you have to pay.
— Personal Accident coverage is often bundled with personal property, and it usually duplicates coverage you already have. If you need it, you need it all the time, not just when renting a car.
Most rentals in the United States come with unlimited mileage, but you occasionally run into a rental with a maximum daily mileage. That may or may not curtail your trip, but if you plan on piling on the miles, make sure they’re unlimited.
The best rental contracts start you with a full tank of gas, and if you return the car full, you do not face a refueling charge.
Sometimes, when you’re returning a car at a departure airport, finding a convenient gas station can be a problem. But if you don’t return it full, you can expect a refueling gouge. When you refuel, get a receipt.
Some rental companies charge a flat rate for short-term rentals where you drive only a few miles — a rate that’s substantially more than what you’d pay for the gas you used.
But the biggest gotcha you face is going off-contract. Most contracts say you can’t drive on unpaved roads, let anyone drive who hasn’t signed on — and paid — as an extra driver, drive recklessly, or drive outside a contractually limited region. (Some rentals limit where you can drive. Smaller companies, in particular, may limit you to a single state or group of states.)
In many cases, the rental company will never know if you go off-contract. But if you do — and the rental company finds out — you’re in big trouble: Your insurance may be void, and your rental cost may revert to a high daily rate plus a stiff per-mile charge.
And rental companies know more than you think: Most rental cars have GPS, and even if you don’t use or pay for it, the rental company can track the vehicle through it.
What to do
Avoiding the gotchas is easy: Get the insurance you need through your own regular coverage, credit card or third-party policy; don’t rent on a contract that limits where you can drive; refuel before you return; avoid off-contract driving; and if you want someone else to share the driving, find a rental with no extra-driver charge.
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