Car rental craziness: 6 odd rules -- and how to steer clear of them

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If you thought airlines had wacky rules, try renting a car.

Like airlines, car rental companies don't think twice about changing your rate. Except that they sometimes raise the price after you've driven off the lot.

Like airlines, car rental companies are astonishingly creative with their fees, from additional driver add-on costs to premiums for customers under the age of 25. There's even a down-to-earth equivalent of the cramped regional jet: Car rental companies are quietly redefining their vehicle sizes in an apparent attempt to lift their profits.

It seems that just about the only thing car rental companies don't have in common with airlines is -- well, cars don't fly.

Before I continue my rant about the state of the car rental industry, I want to acknowledge the industry perspective on this. Times are hard. Fees are a way of raising revenues. What do customers expect, free cars?

Point taken. To which the average customer would say, "Just raise your rates." Which would be an equally valid point. As a service to you, here are six of the most absurd car rental practices you're likely to encounter today.

1. LET'S PLAY A PRICE GAME

Those airfare games are nothing -- nothing -- compared to what car rental companies try.

Recently, Ilene Rachford, a retiree from Dayton, Ohio, rented a car at the airport on the eve of a big storm. The agent handed her the keys with a warning: "He said the rental charges for returning the car after Monday were just under $1,000 a day," she recalls. That makes airline prices seem almost reasonable.

What could be any worse than that? Charging someone more for returning the car early. That's happened to several readers recently, whose weekly rate reset to a higher price (http://www.elliott.org/the-troubleshooter/an-early-return-a-higher-price/) after they brought the vehicle back early.

These wildly fluctuating rates are dishonest. You can avoid them by returning your car on time or paying ahead of time by using a site like Priceline or Hotwire.

2. HOW OLD DID YOU SAY YOU WERE?

If you're under 25, a car rental company may add a surcharge of $20 a day or more to your bill. If you're under 21, it might be impossible to rent a car.

Auto rental companies insist the fees are necessary because younger drivers are likelier to damage a car. Funny, I thought that's what car insurance was for.

Note: Some companies, including Enterprise and Thrifty, have more lenient policies for young drivers. Check the fine print before renting.

3. THE EXTRA DRIVER IS ... EXTRA

If there's a second driver, car rental companies often ask for more money.

"These charges currently run about $10 to $12 per day," says Ron Prudhomme, a consultant from Sparks, Nevada. "A few years ago, spouses or close relatives were exempt, but car rental agencies are now not allowing any exemptions." How much more does it cost to permit a second, or third, driver? Probably nothing, speculates Prudhomme.

He's right. Although it's tough to avoid this fee, he tries to book through a discount Web site that allows him to prepay. Paying less is the best revenge.

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