Steal may be a harsh word, but rental car companies make millions by abusing the average consumer’s lack of knowledge, interest, and assertiveness. Rental car fees can kill your budget, and they’re usually pretty ridiculous (and avoidable!).
My mother recently called me to report an unhappy incident during a business trip to Hawaii. She got to the Hertz Rental car counter and had the ‘nicest gentleman’ helping her. ‘As we got to the final part of the transaction…’ she began. I interrupted her (an old habit). ‘You made sure to decline the insurance, right??’ She had, she said, but then–
I interrupted again. Sorry, mom. But I know how this story goes: the customer declines the Hertz insurance (about $30). The helpful and kind employee suddenly turns argumentative, firing off questions about deductibles, paperwork, secondary/primary designations, etc. The customer gets flustered, unable to answer quickly or accurately. The agent uses this confusion to again offer the $30 insurance as the simple, perfect, inexpensive solution to all of the above problems.
If at this point the customer knows better than to accept the insurance, the agent turns hostile. More salesmanship may ensue, becoming more heated, until ultimately you leave with the car, no extra insurance, and a bad taste in your mouth. Is this what happened to mom? Yep. I’ve been in that situation in three states, with maybe six different agents. I’ve even had agents add insurance to my bill without my knowledge, wait for me to sign the paper, and then refuse to take the insurance off!
And why should you be declining the insurance? Mostly because if you rent a car more than twice per year, a high-value travel rewards credit card will offer you rental car insurance at no extra cost. The favorite card in my wallet right now is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which carries a net $140/year fee, but the cheaper, $95/year Preferred version also has the rental car benefit. Furthermore, car owners often have AAA or basic car insurance that also cover rental cars. It’s not ideal to use your primary insurance, though, as claims can increase the following years’ premiums.
Not only do credit cards save you money on insurance, their agreements often stipulate that you’re only insured if you decline insurance at the rental car counter. You’ll also have the opportunity to enjoy other perks, like earning points, accessing luxury airport lounges, purchase protection, fraud protection, and much more. If you don’t have a credit card at all, you should be building a credit score! And this is a great way to do so.
This is an easier one to understand: we’ll use Hertz again as an example. They offer several options for paying for gas and refueling the tank. For one, you can buy the fuel in the tank when you rent the car at competitive rates (surprisingly, the prices are great). But you aren’t reimbursed for any gas left in the tank when you return it. It needs to be perfectly empty to be a great deal.
They’ll also refuel the car for you: at a rate of $9.99 per gallon. No f**king way. Beware airport locations: as one outgoing Hertz agent once warned, once you’ve driven into their lot, you typically can’t leave again! This is mostly true at larger airports with extra levels of security at rental car lots. Don’t get caught paying $10/gallon because you remembered to fill the tank only after pulling up to the Hertz building.
Finally, you can fill up the car yourself within about 20 miles of the return location and the tank will appear perfectly full to the agent on duty. If pressed to provide evidence, though, the station will need to be 5 miles away. That’s unusual and only happens when the tank’s fullness is in dispute. This gives you the best deal and even a marginal amount of free gas.
Hertz, among many other major agencies, offers ‘PlatePass.’ This is a little metal device that sticks to the top of the windshield. It allows you to access EZ Pass lanes in the Northeast and breeze through the member-only lanes in every major toll system. Sensors above the road read the plate instantly, notify Hertz, and the renter is charged automatically. There is a cap of about $25, as well as a convenience fee.
This is a great option if you’re spending a lot of time in the Northeast and know that the prices work out (the EZ Pass lane can sometimes cut hours off of your journey in the worst of traffic). However, this charge has a knack for showing up at the maximum amount ($25) if you’ve passed through even a single toll booth. Furthermore, I’ve now had the PlatePass charge show up mysteriously on a trip during which I didn’t pass a single toll. That is particularly frustrating.
I’ve found that it’s cheaper to pay tolls yourself. Hertz is also unresponsive and unhelpful with PlatePass issues (it’s a separate company). I’ve now reported the charge as fraud on a credit card twice and let the card-provider sort it out. That works like a charm and is necessary, as Hertz will blatantly ignore a customer with a complaint.
I’ll mention for younger readers that Hertz is one of the agencies that rent to individuals younger than 25. But they tack on a $27/day surcharge, as we’re demographically worse drivers. You can skirt this if your employer or university has a negotiated rate. I use a code offered by my university, check the box for ‘official travel’ and have saved several hundred dollars in total.
The car rental industry is heavily consolidated, functioning as an oligopoly. That makes it extremely difficult to comparison shop, as there isn’t sufficient competition and aggregate price sites, like Kayak, can’t take into account personal discounts or rewards numbers. So, take the time to run searches on each individual car-rental site and tweak your criteria until a fair price shows up.
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