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Tips for Hassle-Free Car Rental

Whether you're traveling on business or with the family, getting a rental car need not be a hassle. If you're prepared, that is. We compiled this quick guide for renters with the help of Laura Rebello of Event Vehicles, a specialty division of Budget Rent-a-Car in Beverly Hills, Calif.

1. Make a reservation at least one week in advance. "It tends to be the earlier the better — just like with the airlines," Rebello explained. "As the booking pace increases, the rates can go up...." While booking earlier doesn't always guarantee a price break (during peak travel seasons, for instance), you're more likely to come out ahead. Additionally, some rental car companies will offer a discount if you make your reservation online.

Find out about the company's cancellation policy when you make your reservation. Specifically, you want to know whether there is a cancellation charge and how much advance notice is required to avoid heavy penalties.

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2. Choose a company based on rates, vehicle availability and service. If you're a frequent traveler, you know that the major rental car companies have special programs that qualify repeat customers for discounts, greater choice of vehicles and faster service. For those who travel only occasionally, however, it's a good idea to compare rates based on the type of car you want (mid-size, full-size, SUV and the like) and the location and dates of your trip. Although the major companies have largely homogeneous rental car fleets, if you want a specific model (a Ford Taurus rather than a Saturn L-Series, for example), check on its availability before you make a reservation. And if you're seeking an exotic car or anything more luxurious than a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac DeVille, you'll need to call around well in advance.

Keep in mind that vehicles rented at airports typically incur an airport tax or surcharge (they're in your contract). While you can avoid this surcharge by renting your vehicle from a non-airport location, you will usually have to arrange your own transportation to the rental office.

Service is another consideration: If you previously had a pleasant experience with a company because of their efficient service or willingness to get you into a specific vehicle, use them again. Smaller, independently owned companies might be appealing because of their ultra-low rates or the availability of hard-to-find, exotic vehicles. You should, however, research these companies thoroughly before handing over your credit card. Find out what kind of roadside assistance the company offers — if the rental vehicle breaks down, you don't want to be in the position of having to pay for towing out your own pocket. In addition, make sure that you plan around the company's operating hours. "Some [smaller companies] are not open 24 hours, so if you have a late flight, you might not be able to pick up the car when you want it," Rebello said.

3. Should you buy the rental company's insurance policies? Rental car companies have a menu of insurance policies that they would like to sell you. While in theory, each policy could be of some benefit under the right circumstances, you should review each plan (and all of its provisions, limitations and exclusions) before making a purchase. You'll need to request this information over the phone or at the rental office, as the major companies only provide a summary on their Web sites.

Rental car companies generally offer liability coverage in two parts — a supplemental liability policy protects against claims from others and a Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) covers the rental car. LDW isn't insurance per se; rather, it's a company's agreement not to hold a consumer liable for loss from all or part of any damage to merchandise (though it's an agreement that you must buy). The advantage in both cases, of course, is that your own insurer never has to know about any incident that might involve you and your rental car (provided the damage doesn't exceed the limits of the rental company's policy).

"If you're renting for a couple of days as a business traveler or a few days to a week as a vacationer, it's a good idea," Rebello said. If you have a long-term rental, however, you'll probably find that the rental company's coverage becomes too expensive.

In most cases, your own auto insurance policy applies to rental cars, as well. That is, you should still have protection against bodily injury and property damage claims from others while you are driving a rental car — and should the rental car be damaged, vandalized or stolen, that would be covered, as well. We say most, because it's important to consult your policy and/or your insurance agent to verify coverage. This is especially important if you're going to rent a high-end car that exceeds the value of your insured vehicle.

Assuming that your insurance is in order (and leaves no assets exposed), there should be no need to purchase additional liability coverage since you're already paying a hefty premium every six months. However, if you've had a recent string of unfortunate vehicular mishaps and/or you know that you can't afford a premium hike (or worse), it could make sense to purchase extra coverage from a rental car company for peace of mind.

4. Put all additional drivers in the rental contract. Whenever you let someone not included in the rental contract drive the vehicle, you risk voiding the contract. And Rebello warned, "Claims against the company's insurance coverage — and even your own personal insurance coverage — may be compromised."

So swallow the added fees and put everyone in the contract. Most companies won't charge extra for your spouse, but you should ensure that his or her driving privileges are provided for in the contract.

5. Pre-pay or refuel it yourself? Rental companies generally offer you the option of either paying for a tank of gas in advance (at a self-serve rate) and bringing the vehicle back empty or refueling it yourself. While the pre-pay option is certainly cheaper than returning the vehicle empty and paying the higher surcharge amount in the contract (per gallon), there is no guarantee that it will always be cheaper than refueling the car on your own. So, plan accordingly — if you know that you won't be using a full tank (250-300 miles), don't use the pre-pay option.

6. Inspect the vehicle thoroughly before you leave the lot. Since you could be held responsible for any damage to a rental car (beyond "normal wear-and-tear"), you should take a walk-around with the sales agent before driving off. Inspect the vehicle for existing dents, scratches and other damage, and make sure that anything you find is noted in the contract.

7. Stick to the contract's terms. If there are mileage restrictions in your contract (and there often are), stay within them in order to avoid post-rental penalties. Further, you should steer clear of any restricted activities — putting snow chains on the tires, towing a trailer, off-roading, transporting people or property for hire, driving in Mexico (if the vehicle was rented in the U.S. or Canada) and the like — as they could jeopardize insurance coverage for any damage sustained by the rental vehicle. This applies specifically to insurance purchased from the rental company, but failure to adhere to the company's rules could complicate dealings with your own insurer, as well.

8. What if the vehicle breaks down? Major companies usually provide roadside assistance. Look at your contract — it should include instructions and a toll-free number.

9. What if the vehicle is damaged? If your rental car is involved in an accident, most companies will require you to come to the rental office to file an accident report. Read your contract — you're usually required to file a report within a certain amount of time. Many companies will want a police report, as well, particularly if it was a major accident. Check your contract to see when this is required (if you're confident that you weren't at fault, it's definitely to your advantage to get a police report). All of this applies as well if your rental vehicle is vandalized or stolen.

If your vehicle is damaged while in the care of a hotel's (or restaurant's) valet parking attendants, you'll need to work things out with the hotel before filing a report with the rental company. A cool head and a police report should get you through these situations with minimal aggravation.

10. Return your rental car on time. Since car rental rates run on a 24-hour clock, you will incur extra charges even if you're only an hour late in returning a vehicle. The hourly rental rate is usually one-third of the daily rate, so if you're three to four hours late, you've tacked on another day's charges to the total bill.


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