Chances are you will find yourself renting a car, whether for business or pleasure, sometime in the coming months.
Just as domestic airlines have taken to nickel and diming passengers for everything from extra legroom to checked bags to soft drinks, car rental companies have also devised clever ways to make you pony up for extra services and fees: collision damage waivers, pre-pay and return refueling options for gasoline and those handy GPS navigation devices.
Don't automatically say yes. Ask whether the insurance coverage they're selling duplicates protection you already have. Do your credit cards or other memberships offer discounts you've overlooked? And are you sure it's worth paying extra for trinkets such as GPS and satellite radio?
Before you get to the rental car counter, do your homework to make sure you're getting the lowest daily rate possible.
Use the Internet to shop around for the rental company offering the best rate. Newer car rental aggregation sites, such as RentalCarMomma.com and CarRentals.com, offer coupons and help you compare prices.
Check more than the eight major national companies (Enterprise, National, Alamo, Hertz, Avis, Budget, Thrifty and Dollar). Smaller regional companies often offer better rates in certain parts of the country. Try Fox Rent-a-Car in California and cities from Dallas to Seattle, Triangle Rent-a-Car in North Carolina and other Southern states, Midway Car Rental in Los Angeles and Advantage Rent-a-Car in touristy locales such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
Remember the daily price of your rental depends on where you pick up the car. Convenience has its price; airport locations tend to be the most expensive.
Airport surcharges and fees make a two-day weekend rental from Avis at BWI $10 more expensive than renting the same economy car from Avis' Sheraton City Center location in downtown Baltimore.
Money to be saved
"Even if it's the same company, Hertz or Avis or National, just by renting off-airport you can save at least $10 a day," said Neil Abrams, a rental car industry consultant who used to work for Hertz. "There's a lot of money to be saved there."
Weekend rates (Friday through Monday) also are usually lower. Rental companies can charge twice as much or more to rent on Tuesday through Thursday, when many rentals are paid by corporate expense accounts. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, for example, recently was charging $33.24 per weekend day to rent a compact at BWI, compared to a weekday rate of $80.95.
Don't overlook AAA and AARP membership benefits and corporate discounts from your employer. AAA-partner Hertz offers members up to a 20 percent discount on daily rates. AAA also offers benefits such as a free tank of gas and car model upgrades and waives extra-driver charges if you book the rental at an AAA branch. Those over 50 who belong to AARP can save between 5 percent and 25 percent on rental car rates, and have mileage limits, second-driver and vehicle upgrade fees waived.
If you're flying to your destination, consider an airline package deal that includes a rental car. Southwest Airlines, for example, aggregates the best car rental deals on Southwest.com, offering discounts and Rapid Rewards credits if you book through the site. You don't even have to first book a flight to purchase a rental through Southwest. AirTran also gives you discounts and extra rewards credit when you book a Hertz car through its site.
Securing a reasonable daily rate is your first task. Then you've got to watch out for add-ons that can greatly inflate your bill.
To avoid expensive refueling charges, AAA Mid-Atlantic recommends filling up the vehicle yourself just before dropping it off. But you might not find a gas station if you wait until the last airport exit.
Rental car refueling rates have been reduced in Maryland, thanks to an agreement pressed by the Office of the Attorney General. But they can still charge you up to 42 percent over local pump prices to refuel. And nationwide, only Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which also owns National and Alamo car rentals, and Hertz Car Rental have enacted policies to reduce their refueling rates on cars returned in Maryland with a less-than-full tank.
Be sure you'll get your money's worth if you opt to prepay for a full tank of gas, even if the fixed per-gallon rate is a bit lower than the market price. If you return the car half-full, you've just given the company a free half-tank of gas.
The other big item: those insurance packages that can add up to $30 a day to your rental bill.
That extra coverage, which is often already provided by your existing auto policy or credit cards, is a key revenue source for rental companies,
"The insurance that rental car companies try to sell generally is duplicative of what your own auto insurance policy would provide," said Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, a state assistant attorney general. "We recommend that you check with your auto insurance agency first to make sure that you're covered. But it's probably not a good idea to buy it."
If you have collision coverage on your policy, you should be set. And most American Express, VISA and Master Cards, particularly the gold and platinum ones, provide collision and theft protection as long as you book the rental with that card. They will even kick in to cover your deductible and other damage costs that your primary insurer doesn't pay for.
"It's definitely a great benefit that we want more of our card members to take advantage of," said American Express spokeswoman Mona Hamouly.
Your liability insurance limits should also apply to your rental. Most insurers treat a rental as your primary - or "temporary substitute" - vehicle when it's in your possession. Maryland requires all drivers to have liability insurance of at least $20,000 per person, $40,000 per accident for bodily injury and $15,000 for property damage. Car rental companies must cover you with that minimum amount, even if you lack your own auto insurance policy.
What about renting a car outside the United States or Canada? Most insurers don't cover car rentals abroad, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. And the credit card collision benefits are more restricted by country and type of vehicle.
Other add-ons that will inflate your bill include high-tech tools such as GPS navigation systems, satellite radio panels and EZ-Pass devices. Renting a GPS system alone costs at least $12 a day. Use an old-fashioned map or bring your own portable GPS along instead.
Other expenses to watch for include mileage restrictions and second-driver costs. You can often pay more for unlimited mileage with your rental, but a mileage cap of 150 miles per day can save you $3 to $7 per day, according to Thrifty Car Rental. Some renters will also waive second-driver fees for spouses, domestic partners or a colleague you are on a business trip with.
And return the car on time. Find out in advance whether the company charges for a partial or full day for late returns.
But don't return the vehicle more than 24 hours early. Most companies charge you about a $15 early-return fee. Just be on time.
TRIM YOUR RENTAL BILL
Shop locations: Renting at an airport often costs up to $10 more a day. You get hit with extra airport surcharges and fees.
Regional renters: Smaller companies may offer better deal. Check them out.
Discounts: Members of AAA and AARP and other organizations can get discounts. Some warehouse shopping clubs also offer discounts. See if your employer entitles you to a corporate discount.
Avoid late charges: Return on time and ask, if late, whether you will be charged for a partial or full day. If it's not a 24-hour branch, find out the hours of operation and after hours drop-off procedure.
Insurance: Check your auto insurance policy. You're probably covered. Many credit cards also provide collision and theft protection provided you use the car to pay for the rental. The benefit only kicks in if you first decline the renter's Collision/Loss Damage Waiver fee.
Gas: Refill the tank yourself.
Fancy gadgets: Springing for GPS navigation systems, satellite radio and EZ-Pass devices ratchets up that daily bill.
Sources: AAA Mid-Atlantic, Maryland Insurance Administration, Abrams Consulting Group Inc.