WHEN YOU rent a car, the rental agency offers to sell you trip insurance to cover an accident you might have.
Motorists usually decline it. They get the same or better protection from their personal auto insurance or insurance provided by the credit card they use.
But there are holes in your personal or credit-card coverage. If you don't know the rules, and decline the rental agency's offer, you may be driving uninsured.
It's natural to want to avoid rental-agency coverage. It's shockingly expensive.
To take just one example, Hertz charges up to $18 a day in most states, to free you of responsibility for repairing or replacing a damaged or stolen car. That's $252 for a two-week trip. (Some states cap the price at $5 to $10. New York and Illinois won't let these "waivers" be sold at all.)
In most states, you'd pay Hertz a further $8.95 a day for $1 million in liability protection, to cover someone you hurt in an accident. It's another $4.95 a day to cover yourself and your passengers for limited amounts of property loss and accidental death insurance.
To avoid this costly coverage, ask your auto insurance agent whether your personal policy covers you when you drive a rental car. If the answer is yes, ask about the limitations (and double-check them in the policy itself).
You should have liability coverage for injuring another person. There's collision and theft coverage, too -- but only if you carry it for your personal car.
Some policies don't cover rental cars, or cover them only when your car is being repaired.
If you're driving a rented car on company business, your company probably insures you -- but ask about it. The company might refuse to pay if you have an accident on a day that you took a personal side trip.
Hertz spokesman Joe Russo tells of a travel writer who had an accident while using a rental car, originally rented for business purposes, to move some personal property. Her insurance claim was turned down.
Your personal auto policy may cover you in the United States or Canada but not anywhere else. Check on this, if you'll be driving a rental car abroad. Mexico, for example, requires its own insurance.
If your auto policy doesn't cover collision or theft when you're driving a rental car, you have another option. Certain credit cards will protect you against damage or theft, if you use the card when you pay for the rental. It may also cover any deductibles under your regular auto insurance.
But again, there are limitations. For example, Visa offers the coverage only with their gold cards; MasterCard gives it with gold cards and some standard cards; American Express covers all its U.S. personal card holders.
You're normally insured only for standard cars and minivans carrying up to eight passengers, not luxury cars, larger vans or sport vehicles driven off road. American Express cancels your insurance if you're two months behind on your bill.
Your personal auto or credit-card coverage typically lasts only for 15, 30 or 31 days. If you have an accident on day 10, but don't turn in the car until day 32, you're not insured. For long rentals, see if your auto insurer has a special deal. If not, it's better to buy rental-agency coverage than to go bare.
If you do have an accident, you risk losing your credit-card coverage unless you follow certain procedures. You must call the credit-card company -- not the bank, but the card company itself -- within a limited period of time (48 hours for AmEx, 20 days for Visa, 30 days for MasterCard). There's a special phone number which you should keep in your wallet -- an 800 number for the United States, a different number if you're traveling abroad.
Your card company might require a photograph of the damage. Consider traveling with a cheap throwaway flash camera, just in case. If you don't know your rental-car insurance rules, call your auto insurer or credit-card company and ask for them. Double-check occasionally. The rules do change. You don't want to be caught out.
Pub Date: 12/16/96