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Reserve rental cars early, and check the fine print


Renting a car while on vacation sometimes turns out to be a bit more costly and complicated than you expect.

Discount coupons aren't always applicable. There are insurance considerations, as well as decisions about how to best pay for gasoline. Car availability can be a concern.

In addition, as we enter the busy 1995 vacation season, some car rental firms are taking steps that could make unlimited mileage a concept of the past.

Both Hertz Corp. and Avis Inc. have begun imposing mileage fees on certain car renters in selected markets. They say they may expand that concept elsewhere. Meanwhile, Alamo Rent A Car has tested mileage fees for some renters, though it hasn't decided whether to continue, and other rental firms are also studying the idea.

Such mileage fees are usually 25 cents a mile for each mile over 100 on a daily rental and over 700 miles on a weekly rental. This obviously requires increased odometer-watching for some customers. Rental companies will monitor what rivals are doing before committing to a specific plan.

"The mileage cap is an attempt to adjust pricing upward to cover the higher cost of our fleet of cars," said Joseph Russo, spokesman for Hertz. "Remember, the majority of renters do not drive more than our 100-miles-a-day cap."

There's the possibility of a scarcity of rental cars due to heavy demand this summer, so it will probably pay to reserve early.

"Reserving early not only guarantees that you can get a car but also makes it possible to obtain low-tier rates," explained Russell James, a spokesman for Avis.

A smart consumer must understand all the angles.

"Be aware that in some locations car rental companies impose geographic limits, such as not permitting you to drive into an adjoining state or charging you more money if you do," noted Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter in San Francisco.

You may not always get the best deal when a rental company offers to let you prepay for a full tank of gas so you won't have to have it filled later, Mr. Perkins added. After all, you may not even use a full tank of gas, and even if you do, it's likely you won't bring the car back completely empty. Furthermore, sometimes the "competitive" price they say they're charging for the gas is inflated.

Mr. Perkins hears plenty of complaints from consumers about rental car coupons from frequent flier or other programs offering car upgrades, free days or price discounts.

Customers sometimes negotiate a favorable rate, but when they ask to use the coupon, the company says it doesn't apply to that particular rate. To take advantage of the coupon, you have to pay a higher rental rate and avoid blackout dates for coupon use.

"If you're looking to save money, you might think about renting a car off the airport property, where prices are probably less," advised Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who noted that Enterprise is one of the car rental firms that will deliver your vehicle right to your hotel.

Always stick with brand-name companies even if you pay a few dollars more, Mr. Petersen suggested, since you'll probably get a well-maintained car with less than 15,000 miles on it rather than an older one with more miles.

Despite the possible limitations, make a point to clip whatever discount coupons you do happen to see.

There are insurance considerations, too.

"A lot of people think their credit card covers the collision damage waiver, so they don't take the rental car insurance, but ** they may find that the credit card only provides insurance secondary to their own car insurance," pointed out Mr. Petersen.

"They may discover that any damage to a car rental actually goes against their own insurance record, so they could therefore wind up paying higher insurance premiums."

Bring your own child safety seat rather than pay an extra fee of $25 or more a week to the company to use one. Watch out for potential drop-off charges if you leave the car at a different location than where you picked it up. Finally, find out from your insurance agent whether you'll need additional coverage for the car, your family or the personal possessions inside the car.

* Tribune Media Services

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