Many people only rent cars about twice a year, once during a summer vacation and once during the Christmas holidays. That leaves a lot of unsuspecting motorists open to common rip-off fees that the car-rental agencies like to push.
Here are some simple ways to make sure you get cheap car rentals
Before you take your trip, be sure to find out if your auto insurer covers you for temporary use of a rental car. Most insurers will cover you for 13 days, 14 days, or 30 days of a car rental.
That should always be your first line of defense against the most common rip-off called collision damage waiver (CDW).
When you're at the rental counter, you will probably be warned about the consequences of not accepting the CDW, also known by the codes LDW or PDW. Certain credit cards will provide this coverage and allow you to decline the CDW as an add-on. Check with your individual credit card issuer for further details.
These junk fees can raise the cost of your rental by $25 a day or even more. So you've got to pay attention to this stuff!
Personal effects coverage may also be offered at the rental counter. This covers you in the event something is stolen from your vehicle. Again, you can forget about it. Your credit card may cover you.
If you're looking for the best card to use when renting a car, check with CardHub.com's 2014 Credit Card Auto Rental Insurance Report. They've named American Express as having the best rental car insurance policy among the major issuers.
Meanwhile, there's a newer product in the market from a major insurer called InsureMyRentalCar.com. Wiht InsureMyRentalCar.com, you pay a flat rate for coverage if you want to buy CDL and other insurances, but it's sold at a much cheaper rate than you'd be charged at the car rental counter.
InsureMyRentalClar will charge $30 for the whole rental (versus $25 or more a day), and if you rent cars frequently you can sign up for a year of coverage for $100.
Should you go for the gas offer and the roadside assistance?
On the question of gasoline, you'll very often be asked if you want to prepay for a tank of fuel. Always decline to prepay, and always fill up the car yourself before you turn it back in. If you choose to prepay, you may be charged 2 or 3 times more in service charges than the going rate of gasoline.
Beware that some insurers are now using new technology to fee you to death over gasoline.
In addition, some rental companies are now pushing a daily roadside assistance fee of approximately $5 each day. If the vehicle breaks down on the road, many companies won't help you unless you purchase this coverage. However, if you have a car for 10 days or longer, you'd probably be better off with a simple AAA membership that will cover you in your regular vehicle for the entire year.
The latest wrinkle in the gotcha fees area is that now there's a class action lawsuit alleging some Dollar Rent A Car agents at select locations actually forged signatures after people declined add-on coverage! So they'd run the charges you didn't agree to and, if later questioned, they'd produce a forged document to make it look like you agreed to the charges in the first place!
You've got to be careful out there. It's easy for cheap car rentals to become expensive if you don't watch the add-on fees.
Should you rent a car or drive your own on vacation?
More than 80% of people that will travel over summer will do so by car, not by plane. So what's the right way to do that?
If you're talking about the typical 1-week summer road trip with substantial miles, it almost always makes more sense to rent a car than to drive your own.
That's because the miles you put on a rental car are cheaper than your own car. According to AAA estimates, it costs 59 cents per mile to operate a car. Of that 59 cents, you're only paying around 13 cents in gas. The other 46 cents goes for expenses like insurance, maintenance, and depreciation.
Use your smartphone to document car rental damage
For the longest time, whenever I've picked up a rental car, I've meticulously noted any damage to the vehicle that I could see. But it can still be your word versus that of the rental company in the event of a dispute about damage.
Then I read Ed Perkins of SmarterTravel.com and one of his prior columns on the subject. He has a new wrinkle that I've never thought of: Use your cell phone camera to document any damage before you leave the car rental lot. Duh, why didn't I think of that?
Simply use your built-in camera on your phone to make a visual document of the car as you do a walk around the vehicle looking for damage. This should be done in addition to -- not in lieu of -- having the damage noted by hand before you take off. It's just another way to protect yourself.