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The Real Deal With Rental Cars

Whether you're traveling on business or on vacation, you may need to rent a car for at least part of your trip. I have had the pleasure, and displeasure of renting three cars in the past 5 months - enough times to really appreciate the differences in the industry. One company was great, one was fine, and one was terrible!

My criteria for judging a car rental deal are threefold: price, condition/type of car, and service. In my travels, I have found first and foremost that the best car and the best service do not necessarily come with the highest price or with the biggest name.

When staying in Las Vegas, I decided to go with a relatively unknown company. I had never heard of them before, but at $18 a day, how could I say no? It was a pleasant experience, as the car was brand new and the service was good. When I was in San Francisco, I decided to go with a more well-known company, and unfortunately endured a dirty car, and downright awful service. Returning from a recent trip from Orlando, I decided to go with a major national chain. The car and the service were first rate; however, the price was high mainly because of the one-way rental. With so many companies to choose from and so many factors to consider, how can you find the best deal in terms of price, quality, and service?

The Basics

Finding the best rental car rates can sometimes be even more challenging than finding the best airfare. Rates are set by each company, and vary depending on the location, length of rental, season, and type of vehicle.

Smarter Living
As always, you should check Smarter Living's Car Rental Database and Smarter Living's Car Rental Guide for current deals, specials, and tips before. Also, don't forget to inquire about special rates you may be eligible for, including corporate and senior rates.


Most rental car companies require a major credit card, or debit card with a major credit card affiliation, at the time of rental. If you do not have a credit or debit card, you can often pay with cash or you can obtain a pre-paid voucher through a travel agency.


If you should fail to cancel a reservation in advance or if you simply don't show up to pick up your car, you may be subjecting yourself to penalty. Most car companies charge penalties for four-wheel drives, minivans, convertibles and other specialty rentals. Some companies will do so on all rentals.

Age Requirements

Most major companies will not rent a car to anyone under 21 or in some cases 25, unless that person is an employee using a corporate account or military personnel traveling on orders. In addition, companies that do rent to people as young as 21 usually charge an additional fee for drivers between 21 and 24.

Foreign Rentals

If you are renting in a foreign country, you will need to do some research. Laws regulating car rentals differ in every country. Most countries will accept your valid state driver's license with another form of photo ID. However, certain countries may also require an International Driver's Permit. This is an ID, which lists, in a number of languages, the type of license you have, limitations, and expiration date. You don't need to take a test to get an International Driver's Permit; however, you will need to pay a fee to obtain one. You can attain one at any AAA office, and other license agencies


Rental car companies can add extra fees on if you are not careful. All companies must inform you about the fees before you rent. The most common add-ons are:

  • Mileage charges. While many companies offer unlimited mileage, mileage charge policies change frequently, and you should ask each time you rent.
  • Extra fees for renting at an airport. Renting at an airport may be more expensive than renting at an urban or suburban location, because airports and local governments often add surcharges and taxes to rental car rates.
  • Additional driver fees. Most rental car companies charge extra for anyone who drives the car other than the person who signs the rental agreement. Many times, additional driver charges are waived for your spouse, immediate family member, or business associate.
  • Young driver fees. Most car rental companies add a daily surcharge for any driver aged 21 to 24.
  • Child safety seat fees. All states require children under a certain age to be placed in child car seats. If you don't bring your own seat, you will be required to rent one, usually at a cost of $3-$5 per day, or $25 per week.
  • One-way rentals. You may be charged more for one-way rentals, and you may be required to make an extra deposit for the seat if you are paying cash for the car rental.
  • Vehicle drop-off fees. Many rental car companies charge higher rates for dropping off a car at a location other than where you rented, unless the drop-off location is within the same metropolitan area as where you picked up the vehicle.
  • Refueling charges. All companies require you to return the rental car with a full tank of gas. If you don't, you will be forced to pay the company's exorbitant price per gallon. Some fees are as much as $3 a gallon! DO NOT buy the full tank of gas! This is one of the biggest rip-offs in the travel industry. Unless you plan to drive hundreds of miles, it shouldn't be an option. Many people think they will be credited when you return the car with gas. Wrong! YOU WILL NOT be credited for any surplus gas in the tank when you return the car.

The Skinny on Insurance

What about insurance? Do you need it? Not necessarily. Rental car insurance options are difficult and confusing to understand. Most insurance is not necessary because your personal automobile insurance policy and credit cards often extend coverage when you are renting. It is estimated that travelers in North America spend 2 billion dollars on rental car insurance. States such as California and Texas require that car companies advise you that the rental car insurance may duplicate your personal automobile policy. Know what coverage you already have through your automobile insurance and credit card affiliations.

Beware of the loss damage waiver, and/or collision damage waiver. Rental agents tend to push this insurance more than any other, and it tends to be the most expensive type of insurance. Loss damage waiver is a written statement stating the rental car company's right to collect from you if the rental car is damaged or stolen while under your control. In most rental contracts, the rental company shifts all responsibility for collision damage or other loss to you. If you purchase a loss damage wavier policy the liability will be shifted back to the rental car company. There are some loopholes in the loss damage waiver that allow the car company to charge you even if you purchased the policy.

Again, read the fine print! Are there times when you need this coverage? Yes. There are times when loss damage waiver may be necessary, such as foreign rentals. Check to see if your personal policy and/or credit card cover you for foreign rentals. If not, you should probably purchase loss damage waiver protection. In addition, if you do not own a car, as many city residents do not, you should purchase the insurance.

In short, you should know what is covered by your personal car insurance policy and credit cards to avoid duplicate insurance and the added expenses. Happy Renting!

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