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7 rental car 'gotchas' and how to avoid them

Renting a car in the near future? Don't make the mistake of paying more than you intend to or more than you should.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 26, 2014 1:44PM

This post comes from Allison Martin at partner site Money Talks News

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyAre you a frequent patron of rental car companies? If so, you may be well aware of their shrewd practices that can leave you in the hole if you fail to be a responsible shopper.

And what about all of the hidden or surprise fees that come with the territory?

Woman in car adjusting mirror © Jose Luis Pelaez Inc, Blend Images, Getty ImagesWhen I made my first rental car reservation, I was stunned at how low the rate was. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that things aren't always what they appear to be when I picked up my ride for the weekend.

The initial figure was just an illusion. I wish someone had warned me beforehand.

Here are a few common rental car "gotchas" to watch out for:

1. Penalties and extra fees

This is usually where the trapping begins. You walk into the rental car company, hand them your reservation, and you drive away with exactly what you reserved at the quoted price, correct?

Well, not quite if you are offered a more luxurious ride, need to extend the rental for a day or so or bring the car back early, plan to use a debit card, or alter the return destination.

These are just a few of the scenarios in which your wallet can take a hit. Want to avoid these fees?

  • Decline the upgrade unless it is being offered as a courtesy to you.
  • Do not extend the rental car reservation unless it is an emergency. And if you must, be aware that the rate for the extra day will more than likely increase.
  • Avoid returning the rental car to a location that differs from where you retrieved it. Doing so may result in the assessment of a penalty.
  • Search for a rental car company that accepts cash or does not require a deposit for debit card transactions. If your attempts are unsuccessful, brace yourself for the $200 to $500 hold on your account and endless amounts of paperwork.
  • Refrain from smoking inside the vehicle. If you fail to heed my warning, you will pay a cleaning fee.

2. Airport rentals

Convenience definitely comes at a premium rate when you rent a vehicle from an airport location. Some airport locations have extended hours, making it easier to hop off a plane and go about your merry way without having to worry about unloading a wad of cash to pay for a taxi. However, the cost of these added perks are passed along to the consumer in the form of higher rates.

If at all possible, catch a taxi or take public transportation to an alternative location to avoid airport surcharges. It may require a tad bit of planning ahead, but could prove to be worthwhile. And if you must rent at the airport, make your reservation online beforehand to secure the best rate.

3. Incidentals

The friendly sales representative at the counter may encourage you not to worry about the gas because they can always fill the car up for you if you're short on time. But you may want to think again, because their rate per gallon is typically a lot more expensive than you'll pay at a gas station.

Also, pass on the toll pass, GPS system, satellite radio, roadside protection, car seat or any other service that they offer to make your trip more "comfortable" or you'll pay.

4. Insurance

According to, most rental car companies offer the following coverage options:

  • Loss-damage waiver ($9 to $19 per day).
  • Liability coverage ($7 to $14 per day).
  • Personal accident coverage ($1 to $5 per day).
  • Personal effects coverage ($1 to $4 per day).

But it's possible you don't need them. Before you rent a car, call your car insurance company and also your credit card company to see what kinds of coverage they already provide for rental cars and under which circumstances it applies.

5. Mileage limitations

Looking to save a few bucks on your rental car reservation? A limited mileage arrangement may do the trick, but could also be disastrous if you fail to plan properly. You will be charged a flat fee only if you don't exceed a specified number of miles in a single day or for the duration of your rental.

But if your plans change, brace yourself for the additional fees. Also, inquire about territorial restrictions, as your contract may allow only in-state travel.

6. Inspections

Even if you are in a hurry, do not leave the premises until the sales representative has performed a thorough interior and exterior inspection of the vehicle. Failure to do so can result in that scratch on the bumper or coffee stain in the rear passenger seat becoming your problem.

Cover yourself by taking photos during the inspection.

7. Underage drivers

Are you under the age of 25? Don't get too thrilled about the prices you see online, because you may be paying almost double that amount.

Before I reached the "golden age" in the rental car world, I attempted to rent a car to travel to an out-of-town event so I could preserve my car's mileage. The amount on the contract was equivalent to a car payment on a used vehicle.

Have you run into any of these issues when renting a car?

More on Money Talks News:

Mar 26, 2014 4:31PM
As a former car rental company employee, I can say these are all excellent tips. I can't tell you how many times these issues popped up and surprised people. Which led the agents to deal with the customers frustration. Do your research before you rent.
Mar 26, 2014 7:08PM
What she fails to mention is on

#1 (Penalties & Extra Fees) Most car rental companies will not rent you a car if you don't have a credit card (some places accept debit) to hold a deposit on, you must have some credit history if you are going to use a debit card so make sure you read the local rules of the renting location to see if there are any restrictions that might block you from renting.

#3 (Incidentals) Its a hit or miss issue, for example Dollar Rent A Car has a Toll Device that is a flat fee of $12/day or $70 for the week, and if you are driving from North Carolina to New York, Boston, etc. you might be saving money on tolls, especially if you do this roundtrip. So do your research!

#4 (Insurance) Your personal car insurance won't cover you if you rent a vehicle in a higher "car class" than your own car. For example, you will not be covered by your own insurance if your own car is a Corolla (Compact) and you are renting a Impala (Fullsize) car, also you have to make sure your Credit card coverage is PRIMARY and not secondary. Primary Coverage will cover the damage while Secondary coverage means that the cc companies will pay anything that your own insurance wont pay. Also don't forget the fees the agencies will charge you like Loss of Use (which is usually not covered by personal insurance) so you will want to ask these questions to see where you are covered, and most credit cards DO NOT offer 3rd party (liability) coverage so you will need to make an educated choice whether you want to decline Liability, use your own insurer (if you are covered), or purchase it through the rental agency. With some accidents you don't need to be as worried about the vehicle your renting than the damages to the 3rd party.

#6 (Inspection) The best thing to do is film or take pictures of  the exterior (& interior if your more thorough) and ask the agent about anything that you see questionable. All car rental companies are different, Enterprise (which burns customers the most) will notate damages at check out and make sure you didn't add anything when you return the vehicle while other places like Thrifty, Payless have customers self-inspect the car and don't really care as much about the dings and scratches, especially on the rear bumper.

#7 (Underage Driver) I'd advise underage drivers to join USAA if you haven't already. USAA has codes for Budget, Hertz, Avis, and( Enterprise I believe) to waive the underage fees, and its only for USAA members.

Also some more tips

If you don't like to be offered anything when you are at the rental counter join the car rental companies frequent renter programs.
1.) You won't get upsold on anything since (at most places) you will be skipping the rental counter, getting in your car and exiting.
2.) A lot of these programs issue "points" or "days" that are good towards redeeming  free rental day/s
3.) There are designated lines for the members so you can bypass the regular customer line.
4.) Most of these programs are Free anyways.

I apologize to make this a long comment, although I get annoyed when these "Car Rental" articles simply tell people not to buy anything, especially when the author of this article most likely won't help you if you get into a bind by following her advice.

Mar 27, 2014 4:10AM

You need to thoroughly inspect the rental car inside and out before you leave the rental car agency and have any damage documented and signed off on the vehicle inspection report before you leave.


Last year when I rented a car at the airport, the customer service agent gave me the inspection report to fill out while inspecting the car and he instructed me to return the inspection report to him prior to leaving. Before heading out to inspect the car in the garage, the agent informed me that the car was fairly new and there wasn't any recorded damage.


Even though it was a sunny afternoon, the parking garage was somewhat dark. I noticed that the car had numerous scratches and dents in the body and had been slightly wrecked around the rear passenger wheel well. It was obvious that someone had attempted to pop the dents out and also the rear tire rim at the same area had chunks missing from slamming into something.


Also the fuel tank wasn't full as indicated on the rental contract, the fuel level was slightly under 3/4 of a tank. After informing the agent about all of the damages and the actual fuel level, he acknowledged the damages, correct fuel level and signed off on my inspection report.


Had I rushed the inspection and left, It would have turned out to be a very expensive rental with me being responsible for damages caused by someone else. Always thoroughly inspect the vehicle in a well lit area of the car rental parking lot or garage. And I would also suggest taking pictures of the vehicle before you leave and pictures when you return the vehicle. Inspect the condition of the rental vehicle like you would inspect a vehicle that you were about to purchase.


Mar 26, 2014 5:53PM
I don't rent cars much, but when I do, I use Enterprise. I have had no issues with them. any additional fees are clearly explained and they insist you follow them around the car during the inspection. I have heard of issues with other agencies but Enterprise has treated me well. I do use a credit card and use the insurance provided by the card company. Most rental agencies will pick you up or drop you off at an airport or train station so there is no need to pay the high rates at the airport itself.
Mar 26, 2014 7:29PM

Sorry that your article makes it sound like car rental companies are trying to rip off the consumer.  As someone who works for a car rental company, I can tell you that our company is not that way.  Company policies are very strict about full disclosure of terms, rates, and conditions.  Consumers need to listen, and if they have questions, they need to ask.  We would rather take a few extra minutes to explain something than to have you angry when you return the car 2 days late and say we're ripping you off for charging the extra 2 days. 

Why some people seem to think they can just run in, we'll give them a $40,000 car, and can't understand why we won't just charge their debit card when they bring it back - here's a news flash.  We are a for profit business.  We need to protect our assets.  So, don't get mad at us when we won't let you rent a car and give it to your child to take their drivers test.  No, we're not going to rent a Mustang to a 19 year old - and no, we won't take daddy's credit card - so you can go out and do donuts in a parking lot during a snowstorm.

Mar 26, 2014 5:17PM
I've rented a car from Enterprise in Crossville, TN three times in the last year. I have never had any of these problems with them. The cost wasn't bad, the service was exceptional.
Mar 26, 2014 5:01PM

Hertz in KC is known for having billing issues.  Twice now I have rented vehicles per the term of the reservation only for Hertz to quadruple the billing after the car is turned in.  Each time they claimed they were unable to print a receipt when I turned it in.  They are quick to charge but it takes 3 weeks for them to reverse a charge.  They still cannot explain why the rate changes when you do exactly as the reservation shows.


Twice in the last 4 months I have rented a vehicle and been told within 24 hours that it needs an oil change.  They promise to reimburse me for the oil change, yet I have not seen reimbursement in the 4 months and I have spoken with the location manager 2 & corporate HQ 3 times.  I would not use Hertz but I am required to by my company.

Mar 26, 2014 10:02PM
I've worked for a rent-a-car company for 12 years in rental, risk management and as a vendor in different insurance companies. It's irresponsible reporting to lump all rent-a-car companies together. Each company is run differently. The writer is correct their are things you should research. Call your insurance and verify coverage. All insurance carriers get discounts with specific rental companies some with more than one. Ultimately your choice of companies is your choice. Check your car thoroughly for damages a few of the companies just send you straight to collections if you don't pay for damages in a timely manner. Request copies of repair estimates and make sure the companies repair discounts are applied. Airports always have added tax's that aren't required in off airport locations. You can thank our politicians for that. Know your rights, in CA, civil code 1936 specifically lays out the laws rental companies must follow. Making reservations online will allow you to find the best rates for your rental and make reserving cars easier.. Start with a medium size car and rent during the week, if you can,  this will increase your chances at free upgrades.
Mar 26, 2014 11:04PM
Add to it fraud. Turned in the car and later get a bill for damage that wasn't there. Happened to me in Munich.  Probably taking advantage of people from other countries.

Well thank god I took pictures before turning it in.
Mar 27, 2014 5:48AM
Mostly true, except. Insurance - wife rented car today and the insurance is $24.95 a day from Alamo, not in the $9 - $19 range. When vehicle returned, no agent looks at vehicle. None available at the Daytona Beach, FL airport. Only people working are on counter and they have one person doing two different car rentals companies - Alamo and National and they can't leave. I asked Alamo what happens if we park the vehicle and it is in perfect condition and someone runs into it after we leave - are we going to get charged for damage, answer was a blank stare, no response. This goes for all the rental companies at that airport, none are checked in.
Mar 26, 2014 4:45PM
If using a rental after an accident, insure the insurance company that is setting up the rental knows your location. I used one in WA. The original reservation had been made for AR (my policy mail address) because my insurance company did not use the city where the accident happened.
Mar 27, 2014 9:02AM

Most States have mandatory included Third Party (liability insurance) up to the value of $1 million

 included with every rental car contract  The sales clerk will try to tell you otherwise and get you to purchase extra liability insurance for up to $5 million. On top of this, and as separate insurance, is the Loss Waiver Premium which protects the renter from any damage to the vehicle. Some Credit Cards cover this and also some Insurance Companies cover it in your private car insurance policy.

My biggest "beef" with all Car Rental companies that I have dealt with over the years is that I NEVER get the vehicle I have ordered!

Mar 26, 2014 9:17PM
I also have rented from Enterprise from the airport when needed. Always have received decent rates and excellent service from this company. They also upgraded me at no charge when the vehicle I reserved was not available, this didn't happen to a friend I was with recently from one of the other big three, was told car wasn't available and bumped him up, at a higher price.
Mar 26, 2014 6:13PM
I'd never risk getting some huge bill for a scratch I likely didn't cause. Peace of mind is worth the cost of the waiver.
I use my Phone to take pictures on initial check out !,and if not alone have other traveler check vehicle before and after.
Mar 26, 2014 7:42PM
The car rental people always try to charge us double..  something about us drooling all over the inside of their cars..
Mar 27, 2014 12:45PM

What a stupid headline and article. With the possible exception of knowing what insurance you need or don't need to purchase, every other item listed is common sense. Offered an upgrade, of course you ask how much. Who really thinks you can smoke in the car? The 500 no-smoking stickers inside should tell you something. Drivers under 25 have ALWAYS paid more if they were even allowed to rent. Just what I want to do after a long hike, schlep luggage on to a bus or taxi to avoid the higher price at the airport.

Why would anybody think you can just drop off the car anywhere and not pay a fee? C'mon.

Mar 27, 2014 8:57AM
Some of the Car Rental companies in Florida offer "free shuttle" service back & forth to the Cruise Ports when you rent a car from them.  We usually fly down a day early when taking a cruise to avoid any problems or delays with planes and to be more relaxed by getting a full nights sleep in a local hotel.  You can pick the car up at the airport & when you drop it off the next day they will take you directly to the Cruise terminal & pick you up when the Cruise is over.  That is a savings of about $60-$70  round trip from most Florida airports to the Cruise terminal.
Mar 26, 2014 5:37PM
Basically thieves.  Greed abounds in this country.
Mar 27, 2014 11:08AM
I used Hertz a lot back in the 90's- they had a swap system where you picked up a RH drive car at Heathrow and when you crossed into France there was a station where you swapped for a LH drive.  A lot of times if they didn't have your class of car in France you would get a free upgrade. 
Funny story-
One time I was at Heathrow getting my rental and an obviously newly trained  young lady was doing the paperwork. She mentioned the extra insurance coverage, which I declined.  Repeating the training line, she said " Sir if there is an accident you will be responsible for the entire value of the vehicle! "
I responded by saying- " No problem, by the time I finish with this thing it won't have any value"

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