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Car Rentals: 12 Things Everyone Needs to Know to Save Time & Money ... and Avoid Grief

and finding a good deal -- can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. With so many places to look, and prices varying widely from day to day and company to company, knowing some inside tips can drastically change your car rental experience.

As it stands, rental prices are increasing overall. In 2005, prices increased about 12 percent from 2004 because of growing travel demands and a tight supply of vehicles.

Car Rentals

Take the time to read through these helpful pointers, and you'll be one of the savviest car renters on the block.

"Business is robust, both at airports and non-airport locations," agrees car-rental consultant Neil Abrams.

So before you jump in the driver's seat, take a look at these important pointers.

1. Rent the smallest car you can use, then ask for free upgrades. Price differences between small- and intermediate-sized cars can range from 5-15 percent. If you can get by with a small car, do. Then ask about any upgrade specials, as you may be able to get a free upgrade.

2. Be wary of their insurance. "You definitely have to insure their car," said Priscilla Myers, president of Executive Travel & Tours in McLean, Virginia. However, your own auto insurance probably covers a rental car, and credit cards also may provide some coverage. Check into your policy beforehand so you can avoid pricey insurance add-ons from the rental company.

3. Weekend travel may be cheaper. Some rental car companies offer specials from Friday to Sunday.

4. Plan ahead or check around if traveling last-minute. If you know you'll be traveling over a busy period (like Memorial day or Thanksgiving), plan ahead. Companies offer deals ahead of time but prices go up closer to the date as their cars are rented. On the other hand, rental car companies sometimes put unreserved cars on slash-rate sales at the last minute. You can call the rental car company directly to find out about any last-minute deals.

5. Comparison shop online. Shopping online allows you to compare prices rather quickly and easily, especially if you use aggregator sites like Kayak (, SideStep (, Mobissimo ( and Travelzoo (

Another site, Hotwire (, often has low rates, but you won't find out the company the car is coming from until you commit to it. You can also place a bid on Priceline (, which allows you to set a limit on how much you want to spend, but also doesn't tell you which company you're renting from until your price is accepted.

You can also find rates at the car rental companies own sites, but they are typically comparable to other travel sites. There are some exceptions to this though, as the home sites will occasionally offer discounts.

6. Fill up the gas tank on your own. If you return your rental car without filling up, the company will charge you their own gas prices, which can be double (or more) the local gas prices -- even up to $6.99 a gallon.

"Customers can pay twice as much when re-fueling through the rental car company," said Jim Gaz, senior director of travel and entertainment at J.D. Power and Associates. "Usually, customers will take time to get gas, but if they're in a hurry or can't find a convenient gas station near the drop-off location, they'll have to pay a much higher price."

Also, only put in the amount of gas you used. If you left with three-quarters of a tank, for instance, you only have to fill it back up to the three-quarter mark.

7. Don't rent at the airport, if possible. Rental companies pay concession fees at airports, and, as a result, rates can be twice as much as those off-site. On average, airport rentals cost 26 percent more, so if you can, take the company's shuttle and go to their more remote location.

Car Rentals

Return your rental car with an empty tank and you could pay double the local gas prices to fill it.

8. Try a travel agent. Some agents will arrange rental cars for you (with no other travel) for a fee. Their discount arrangement with the company may be large enough to make it worthwhile, even with the extra fee.

9. Look for savings. If you're a member of AAA, AARP, Costco or Sam's Club, you may qualify for special car rental discounts. Even just asking the rental agent for a discounted rate before you book may pay off -- particularly if you know of a special going on with another company. Say, "Is this the best rate you can give me?"

10. Watch out for extra fees. These also vary widely from company to company, so check around. Fees can include charges for extra miles, a second driver (which can add $4-$25 a day), and late fees (which could even be a whole extra day charge). Drives under the age of 25 will also typically be charged an extra fee of $20-$80 a day (most states require that rental drivers be at least 21).

11. Make sure every ding and scratch is noted before you first leave. Rental companies can charge you $500 or more for dings and scratches on your rental car. If these dings are there before you leave, it's essential to have the agent note every one of them if you want to avoid a headache later. During the "walk-a-around" when the agent is giving you the car, point out any and every scratch, ding or nick you see, no matter how small -- and be sure they're recorded on the paperwork before you sign.

12. Try one of the companies that rated higher in customer service. Enterprise, Avis and Hertz make up the top three (in that order) rental car companies in terms of customer satisfaction, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Rental Car Satisfaction Study.

Recommended Reading

Save Big on Airfare: 8 Top Tips to Reduce the Cost of Your Airline Tickets

Six of the World's Grimmest Tourist Destinations


CBS News

USA Today: Car Renters Come Across Steeper Rates

10 Ways to Save on Car Rentals

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