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Check coverage you have before renting car

The Baltimore Sun

No one likes a bully - especially a bully who makes you buy something you don't want.

A couple of months ago, visiting the grandkids in New Hampshire, JoEllen Armitage encountered a clerk at Dollar Rent A Car who, she claimed, intimidated her into forking over money for insurance after she at first declined it.

Stressed out by the long line behind her, the clerk's impatience and the threat of what no coverage would mean if she had an accident, the 66-year-old Baltimorean said she reluctantly agreed to purchase insurance to cover "down time" or "loss-of-use," which is the fee a car company would collect for rental revenue lost while a damaged car is out of service.

Armitage didn't realize that the quoted $21 fee was by the day, not for the week. So what she thought was a relatively inexpensive rental ended up costing her $324.47.

"When she asked me if I wanted insurance, I told her my insurance was good," Armitage said, regretfully. "But she insisted that it wouldn't cover down time. So I searched for my glasses, but she just handed me the papers to sign. I can't read them, but I sign anyway. ... Now I find that the contract under my Visa, which is what I used to rent the car, covered loss-of-use charges.

"I felt misled and bullied."

We've all been in Armitage's shoes.

You've just dragged yourself off a flight, you're struggling with your luggage, you've got airplane stink on you, and all you want most in the world is to hop in a car and get where you want to go. You're tired, you're cranky - and vulnerable to making bad decisions.

That's no excuse to throw your money away. If anything, it's at that very moment that you should be most prepared to thwart those who would happily help you part with your money.

"If you are carrying comprehensive insurance on your own car, it will often cover you in a rental car," said Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, based in New York. "Your premium credit cards would also likely cover rental cars, as well.

"You should call both your insurance and credit-card companies to make doubly sure it's covered before you travel," Gorman said.

Understand that basic liability insurance covers what would happen if you damage someone else's car with your own, or if someone sues you for damaging their car with your own car. A comprehensive plan, however, covers your own car for all sorts of other unfortunate circumstances, such as theft; damage by earthquake, flooding or vandalism; or even missile attack. And comprehensive will often cover rental cars, Gorman said.

But you must call to double check. All auto insurance is not equal.

Nor are all credit cards.

Most premium cards, from Visa to American Express, offer what's known as collision damage waiver (CDW). Visa's, for example, provides "reimbursement for damage due to collision or theft up to the actual cash value of most rental vehicles" and covers "loss-of-use charges imposed by the auto rental company and reasonable towing charges."

Call the issuer

MasterCard coverage will depend on the bank issuer, that's why (yes, it bears repeating) it's best to call your card company to make sure.

The best part is that most credit-card CDW is free. So think about it. Pay absolutely nothing for coverage you already have or pay the rental company $15 to $25 a day for something you already have?

But (there's always a but, isn't there?) don't take this to mean that you should always reject an auto rental company's offer of insurance.

Gorman recommends that if you're taking a trip to a place where you're not familiar with the area and conditions are far from pristine, say a snowy mountain with icy cliffs, it might be smart to buy whatever coverage the rental company sells if you can afford it. Basically, if the chances are high that you might slide into a ditch, paying $15 to $25 a day might be worth it if you can walk away from a wreck without owing a cent instead of waiting for insurance and credit-card companies to battle it out.

"If conditions aren't great, you really should think about taking the rental company insurance," Gorman said.

Now, getting back to Armitage.

A few days after I contacted Dollar's parent, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, about Armitage's less-than-sparkly experience, spokesman Chris Payne e-mailed back to apologize.

"Our people are not supposed to tell people that, 'Hey, we know your insurance doesn't cover this,'" Payne said in a subsequent phone conversation. "For one thing, our people might not even know if that's true and, for another, that is something that customers should know before they even get to our counter.

"Occasionally, we get [an employee] who is more aggressive than they should be," Payne said. "We certainly don't want there to be a misunderstanding with our customers and we certainly don't want them purchasing something they don't need. We just want our customers to know that the insurance is available."

Payne also said that such aggressive sales tactics are not encouraged by Dollar Thrifty, which has about 800 corporate and franchised locations in the United States and Canada. "We've got some internal things we're doing now to improve customer service," said Payne, who said better training should help control overzealous sales associates.

As an act of good faith, Dollar Thrifty is reimbursing Armitage for $153.95 - along with an apology - that she spent on seven days of insurance. "I'm so happy they did that," Armitage said. "I do think it would be nice to know that their salespeople aren't going to misinform other customers in the future."

As with life, there are no such guarantees. The best way to help yourself is to be better informed so you'll know how to react to such persistent salesmanship.

Find out

"We also want to better train consumers about what they need to do, too," Payne said. "Consumers might assume that they're covered when they're not covered or they might assume they're not covered when they are. It can be potentially damaging if you're mistaken.

"If you think about it, we're basically putting an asset in your hands that's worth tens of thousands of dollars," Payne said. "With such high costs at stake, consumers need to ask questions and be better prepared to know what they need and don't need by the time they get to us."

I couldn't have said that better myself.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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