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Comparing prices online can save you a bundle when you rent a car. Learn how to compare the total cost — not just the advertised price. Fees and options can increase the base price dramatically.

Choosing a Rental Car

When you’re choosing a rental car:

  • Size matters — The size of your rental can affect the price you pay. The meaning of terms like “compact,” “mid-size,” and “luxury” vary across rental car companies.
  • Comparison shop — Check out a few websites for the kind of rental you want. Check rates at individual rental companies and price comparison websites. Double-check that the prices you compare include taxes and fees.
  • Special deals — You may find deals if you book in advance, or in combination with a flight or hotel stay. Check the fine print for limitations, including blackout dates when a sale price may not be available.
  • Check the cancellation policies — You may need to cancel in advance (sometimes as much as a week ahead) to avoid cancellation fees. And if you paid ahead of time for the rental sometimes called a “prepaid reservation” there may be fees no matter when you cancel.
  • Your driving record — Ask the rental car company if they check customers’ driving records. Many do. If you have recent driving violations, they might not let you rent the car, even if you have a confirmed reservation.

Connected Cars and Privacy

Many newer rental cars have so-called “infotainment” tech that lets you connect your phone to the car directly. Your connected phone lets you make hands-free calls, send hands-free texts, use your phone’s navigation, and stream music. But a rental car with these features might keep your personal information long after you’ve returned the car. This information might include locations you put into your GPS — like where you work or live, your phone number, call and message logs, or even contacts and text messages. Unless you delete that data before you return the car, future renters or rental car employees may be able to see it.

If you decide to rent a connected car, here are some steps to take to protect your personal information:

  • Avoid connecting your phone or device to the infotainment system just for charging. To simply charge your device, it’s safer to use a cigarette lighter adapter, instead of the car’s USB port. Why? In some cases, the USB connection may transfer data automatically.  
  • Check your permissions. If you do connect your device to the car, the system may show a screen that lets you specify which types of information you want the system to access. Grant access only to the information you think is necessary. If you just want to play music, for example, you don’t need to okay access to your contacts.
  • Delete your data from the system before you return the car. Go into the system’s settings menu to find the list of devices that have been paired with the system. Locate your device and follow the prompts to delete it. If you have trouble, the owner’s manual and the rental car company may have more information about how to delete your data.

Fees and Charges

The advertised rates for rental cars may not give you a true picture of the final price you’ll pay. Factor in other possible fees and charges, such as

Early returns — Some companies may charge a fee if you return the car more than 24 hours before your reservation ends. If you have to return the car early, call the company to talk to an agent.

Late returns — Many companies won’t charge you extra if you’re late returning a car by less than 30 minutes. But you still may have to pay a full day’s charge for optional items, like liability coverage. If you’re running late, find out if it’s cheaper to pay the late charges or extend your reservation.

Airport surcharges — Renting a car at the airport can be expensive. Surcharges can apply even when a rental company shuttles you to their off-site lot.

Gas — Most companies require you to return your rental with a full tank of gas. If you don’t, you’ll be charged the rental company’s price for gas, which is usually more expensive than what you’d pay at a local gas station. Some companies may offer to let you prepay for a full tank of gas so you don’t need to stop for gas before you return the car. It might be convenient, but it could be a lot more expensive than filling up yourself.

Mileage — Most companies offer unlimited miles, but not all of them do. Some may have limits depending on the type of car you rent (for example, some SUVs or high-performance cars). It helps to estimate how far you plan to drive and choose the company that offers the best mileage terms.

Taxes — Before you make a reservation, review your quote carefully to confirm that any required state, city, or county taxes and other fees, like a “vehicle licensing fee” or an “energy recovery fee,” are included to avoid surprises later. If you don’t see taxes or fees listed, you may want to ask the rental company if they charge them.

Tolls — Most companies offer ways to pay tolls automatically, but that convenience comes at a cost. The company might

  • charge you a service fee for every day of your rental — even for the days you don’t drive on toll roads. There’s usually a maximum dollar amount for the rental period.
  • charge you a one-time service fee for the entire rental period, which covers all tolls you pass through. But that means you’ll pay even if you don’t go through any tolls.
  • charge you a service fee each time you pay a toll with the device, which means you’ll pay the toll and an additional fee.

Roadside assistance — Sometimes, this service is included in the base price of your rental car. Ask if you’ll have to pay extra. If there’s a fee, find out what it covers — for example, if you have a flat tire, dead battery, or lock the keys in the car. If you belong to an auto club, your membership might include free or low-cost roadside assistance, so you might not need to pay the rental company’s fee. Or, you might have roadside coverage through your credit card (assuming you’ll use it to pay for the rental) or your personal auto insurance policy.

Other fees you might see:

  • Out-of-state charges — Most companies will let you take your rental out of state, but some may charge extra.
  • Drop-off fees — It may be expensive to return your rental to a different place than you picked it up.
  • Equipment rentals — If you want extra items, like a car seat, or ski or bike racks, it will cost you. Reserve them in advance to make sure they’ll be available.
  • Additional drivers — Some companies charge to add another driver to your contract.
  • Underage drivers — The minimum age to rent a car is 25. However, most major car rental companies allow younger people to drive a rental for a fee.

Coverage Options

Insurance — Rental car companies usually offer insurance coverage options for a fee. But you may already be covered by your car or homeowner’s insurance. Check your policies and call your insurance company if you’re not sure about your coverage. If you’re traveling on business, you may be covered by your employer’s insurance. Some credit card companies and auto clubs include free rental protection when you use their cards to pay for rentals.

Waivers — Rental companies also may try to sell you a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), sometimes known as a Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) that guarantees the rental company will pay for damages to your rental car. But a waiver won’t pay for any injuries to you or damage to your personal property.

Many credit cards also offer a CDW when you use them to pay for the rental but you’ll need to decline the rental car’s coverage to be eligible.

If you don’t buy a CDW or aren’t covered by your personal car insurance, you’re responsible for any damages to the rental — sometimes the full value.

If you buy CDW, your coverage could be canceled if you damage the car while driving recklessly or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The coverage also could be canceled if you let an unauthorized person drive the rental.

Debit and Credit Card Blocking

Most rental companies place a hold — or a block — on your debit or credit card for more than the agreed-on rental cost. Companies want to make sure there’s enough money or credit available to cover your final bill — including extra charges that may come up. They won’t process the blocked amount if you return the car as promised in your rental contract. If you’re near your credit limit or you have a low balance in your bank account when a block is placed, your card could be declined for additional purchases.

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