I used to be able to game the car-rental system. How? I’d reserve a compact; because they’re the least expensive cars, agencies would run out of them first. Result: I’d get a free upgrade to a bigger car.
Times have changed. Now not only does that tactic fail, but car rental rates are going through the sunroof. On an assignment in Atlanta this summer, I ended up in a claustrophobic Ford Focus that cost me more than $80 a day.
The main reason for the rising costs? Smaller rental fleets. And fewer available cars means higher prices. The average rate for a weeklong rental of a compact car at an airport location last year was $335.05, up a whopping 51 percent from 2008, according to a report by the Abrams Consulting Group.
Adding insult to injury are the numerous ways rental agencies dig even deeper into your pockets. Take insurance, for instance. And notice that car rental companies don’t use the word “insurance” but instead refer to Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW). That’s because CDW and LDW don’t insure anything, but simply stipulate that the rental company will waive its right to come after you for damages to the vehicle.
You can also buy supplemental liability protection, personal accident insurance, and personal effects coverage in case of theft. Typical cost for full coverage? Figure as much as $35 a day. The fact is, though, your own personal car insurance and/or credit card perks very well may cover you.
Another issue? Car rental taxes and surcharges have skyrocketed. That’s because municipalities know most car renters are out-of-towners, so they have no political voice to complain about outlandish local taxes—a form of taxation without representation. It would be one thing if those taxes went to pay for improved rental facilities, airport upgrades, and the like, but in fact they go to pay for such things as sports stadiums, convention centers, and other local projects that the renter probably will never use.
So what can a smart consumer do? First, read the fine print. Know what taxes you can expect to pay. Demand that you be given the type of car you asked for or be given a free upgrade. Avoid useless add-ons like prepaid gas.
And finally, think whether you really need to rent a car at all. When you consider the extras involved, like parking fees, fuel, and valet gratuities, you might just opt for public transportation instead.