Hidden Car Rental Fees: What to Look For

My problems are with adding, as extras, fees that are really part of a rental company's cost of doing business. That includes various licensing fees, "facility recovery" fees, and fees to cover the cost of airport shuttles. Those, too, keep climbing.

I've found, however, that the big online agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity are pretty good at allowing you to compare rental rates on an all-in basis that really does cover all the mandatory charges. And even the rental companies are generally open about showing those fees before you commit to a rental.

Issue 4: Collision Damage Coverage

"I rented a car in San Francisco, using a credit card with accident coverage. I had my first-ever accident, very minor, in which I was not at fault, but the rental company pegged the damage at $1,000. The credit card company initially agreed to pay, but I found out that a New York state regulation (I live in New York) requires that insurers not shirk their responsibilities by passing claims along to credit card companies. As a result, the charge fell to my regular auto insurance, with the result that I'll have much larger insurance payments for the next three years—payments that will far exceed the amount of the damage."

The only part of this report that surprises me is that the credit card company agreed to pay for the damage in the first place. Most credit card collision coverage is secondary, which means that you have to use up any other insurance you may have before you can collect form the card. That's why I've concluded that you should get primary insurance whenever you can—insurance that pays out regardless of whatever other coverage you may have. You can get primary collision coverage at no extra charge on all Diners Club and a few corporate or top-of-the-line MasterCard and Visa cards, and you can convert nominally secondary coverage on American Express cards to primary by adding an extra charge. Where you can't get primary coverage, you have to figure that if you have an accident, your own insurance will get hit first—with the unhappy consequence of a big damage claim on your record.

Issue 5: Fuel Charges

"Another scam is the requirement that you buy a full tank of gas when you start the rental and return it with whatever is left in the tank, with no credit. The rental company of course charges far more for the fuel than it is worth, and it's hard to arrange your driving to return to the rental office on fumes. In Europe, this scam cost us more than 100 euros."

The last time I looked, most rental companies still offer you the option to rent the car with a full tank and return it with a full tank, with no fuel payment to the rental company. That's what I always choose, even though it sometime means allowing enough extra time to find a gas station close to the return office. I've heard, however, that rental companies sometimes don't offer this option on some rentals booked through third-party agencies.

Most companies also offer the option of refilling the tank for you after you return it, but they typically charge two to three times what you'd pay at the pump. That's for emergencies when you don't have time to fill the tank yourself.

In most cases, the "buy the tank" option is the worst. Rental companies are my least favorite charity.

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