Avoid Getting Slammed by Crazy Car Rental Fees

Outsmart Car Rental Agencies

Nothing can put a damper on a trip faster than feeling you've been a victim of a car rental scam. Getting slapped with unexpected fees, claims of damage to the car or a rental rate shockingly higher than the one advertised can almost make you swear never to rent again. But with a little education, you can avoid feeling like you've been taken for a ride.

These tips can help you outsmart car rental agencies and keep car rental fees to a minimum.

Inspect Your Car at Pickup and Drop-Off

Being stuck with a bill for damage you didn't cause is a renter's nightmare. Unfortunately, it's not an uncommon complaint.

"Companies are holding on to cars longer than they used to," says Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. This means consumers are more likely to rent an older car with dings or scratches.

To avoid footing someone else's bill, thoroughly examine your vehicle before leaving the lot. Pay particular attention to the back and front bumpers, as these parts damage easily. Doors and keyholes should also get a careful once-over. If you find damage -- however minor -- immediately report it to an employee and get the problem recorded on your contract. The contract often comes with a diagram of a car on which you can circle the locations of the dings and scratches.

Make a similar inspection when returning the car. Neil Abrams of Abrams Consulting Group, a car rental consulting agency, advises documenting the vehicle's condition by photographing it before handing over the keys. "It takes about 30 seconds," Abrams says, "and could protect you from exposure to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars." Hang on to those pictures for a while. "You could be notified of damage weeks afterward," he says.

Avoid Changes to Your Contract

Not surprisingly, returning a rental car late will result in an extra fee -- but sometimes even returning it early may cost you. When traveling in Austria, Joyce Aldawood of Illinois was shocked to find an extra $300 on her bill after returning her rental car to a well-known franchise in what she thought was a timely manner. The reason behind the extra fee? "We only had the car for 13 days and 23 hours, not the full 14 days as called for in the contract," she says.

While Aldawood's experience was extreme, the fact is returning your car early -- or making other changes to your contract -- could result in a higher total. "Let's say you book a car for a week but return it after three days," Russo says. "Your rental reverts from a weekly rate to a daily (rate), which might be much higher." Depending on the new rate, you could shell out more for the shortened period than you would have under the original terms.

Russo says renters can also get walloped with a service fee for extending an existing contract. This can be avoided, however, by returning the car on the original return date and renting it again under a new contract.

Understand Your Insurance Policy

Renters often waste money by unnecessarily purchasing insurance through car rental agencies. "These protection packages can double your rental cost," says Abrams. Renters should instead look to protections they already have in place. Most major credit cards and personal car insurance extend "collision damage waiver" protection to car rentals at no extra cost, saving you as much as $20 per day.

But before declining a rental agency's protection package, familiarize yourself with the terms of your alternate coverage to make sure it covers a car you rent for travel. Identify any policy limits to the length of rental, the amount of reimbursement, types of vehicles covered and foreign countries that might be excluded from coverage.

Resist the Hard Sell

Never forget: Counter agents at car rental agencies are commissioned salespeople trained to persuade consumers to rent a pricier vehicle or purchase additional features and services. Because these extras can rack up your car rental fees, you should fully understand your needs before stepping up to the counter.

Consider in advance whether you truly require items such as GPS or the prepaid fuel option. "GPS can be valuable for a rental customer," says Abrams, "but at $10 to $12 per day, it can add up to a third of the rental cost." And although the prepaid fuel option saves you the hassle of refueling before drop-off, remember that because you're paying upfront for a full tank of gas, you could end up paying for several gallons of gas you didn't use.

Susceptible to a strong sales pitch? Skip the counter altogether, says Mark Mannell, CEO of CarRentalSavers.com. Most car rental companies offer "frequent renter programs" that allow members to pick up their car without stopping at the counter. These programs have the added benefit of offering discounts and special deals to members.

Consider Alternate Rental Locations

When looking for the best rental price, don't just hop from company to company in search of a bargain. You can often find substantially lower rates by looking at alternate pickup locations. Abrams says to compare the car rental rates at different airports before purchasing your plane tickets. Major airports can have significantly higher rates than nearby smaller ones, even for the same car model and rental length.

Also consider ditching the airport rental entirely. Because airports add a hefty surcharge to car rentals, car rental agencies at the closest train station or city might have a better price. Abrams notes that even if you must pay for transportation to the alternate location, you can still end up ahead. "If you pay $20 for the bus or cab but save $100 on the airport surcharge fee, that's a good return on investment."