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Posted: 6:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Car rental gotcha fees becoming harder to avoid

By Clark Howard

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.

Before you take your trip, be sure to find out if your auto insurer covers you for temporary use of a rental car. 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.

If you rent a car more than six times a year, consider getting a Diner's Club card. The card does have an annual fee, but it is the only one I know that serves as primary -- not secondary -- insurance coverage.

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.

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 two or three times more in service charges than the going rate of 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.