Renting a car? Know the rules of the road


Having booked their flights and secured their hotels, travelers often consider rental cars among the last of their pre-trip tasks, making the unprepared more vulnerable to the nickel-and-diming of industry fees. 

“Our number one advice for renters is to do their homework,” said David Solomito, vice president of marketing for North America at Kayak. “For most people, rental cars are the least-considered part of trip.”  

As technology has changed travel — consider toll roads, which often do not have manned tollbooths any longer — so it has the rules of the road when it comes to renting cars.  

“It’s not dramatic in terms of what companies are charging in fees, it’s just that there’s more of them,” said Rick Garlick, who leads the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power, which conducts consumer surveys, including an annual survey on car rental satisfaction (for the third year running, Enterprise has ranked highest). “Ancillary fees, as with airlines, are how the companies retain profitability,” he said.  

There are a number of ways to save money on rental cars, including renting from a location that’s not at an airport, which Kayak says will save you an average of 11 percent. But there are several charges that tend to nip renters’ wallets after they return their cars that can be avoided or reduced with a little forethought.  

— Refueling  

Assuming you haven’t purchased any refueling options when you signed the contract, rental car agencies require renters to return the car with the same amount of gas as when they departed, which usually means full. But the mileage range between topping off the tank and reaching the return facility is a gray area.  

“At Hertz, we do not have a mileage restriction. We simply ask that customers refuel to the same level they started with,” wrote Lauren Luster, communications manager with Hertz, in an email.  

This lack of definition is open to exploitation both from drivers who refuel miles away and from agencies. I recently returned a car to Avis in Miami after refueling a block from the airport return terminal, only to find a “fuel service” charge of $16.07 on my bill. An Avis employee redacted it when I objected.   

A spokeswoman for Avis said the company has about 40,000 “connected” cars, which measure fuel levels when exiting and re-entering the rental facility. “We carefully monitor the system and work closely with car manufacturers, so the likelihood that the technology in the vehicle malfunctioned is slim,” wrote Alice Pereira, an Avis spokeswoman, in an email.  

Industry experts advise making a mental note of the closest gas station when you drive away from the rental facility.  

“Cars aren’t getting smarter, we need to be,” said Lauren Fix, an author and automotive writer also known as the Car Coach. “If you have a receipt to prove you refilled, they will usually refund the fee. Any pushback, I ask for a manager.”  

— Tolls  

Drivers are responsible for paying their own tolls, but a shift to electronic tolling has made it harder for renters to avoid the fees charged by agencies as manned booths have disappeared from many routes.  

Most agencies provide electronic transponders that allow convenient access to toll roads. But once they are triggered by a tollgate, the devices initiate a daily rental fee, often regardless of whether it is used each day. These fees are in addition to the actual tolls, so that while you may only incur a few dollars in tolls driving from Miami to Key West, you will pay somewhere between $2.95 a day for the device at Payless Car Rental to $4.95 a day with Hertz. These fees are usually capped. Avis charges a maximum of $19.75 per rental month; Hertz charges $24.75 maximum per rental agreement; and Payless charges $14.75 maximum for each rental period.  

Enterprise, National and Alamo car rentals offer the use of automatic tolling for $3.95 per day it is used, with a maximum charge of $19.75 for the rental term.  

Car rental companies stress that drivers can pay cash (when the option exists), avoid toll roads or bring their own electronic transponders from home.  

— Early and Late Returns  

Many consumers assume that an early rental return will spare them the fee remaining for the balance of the contract. That doesn’t take into account the lost revenue that the rental car company incurs.  

“It messes with their inventory and planning,” said Solomito of Kayak. “Returning a car early is considered breaking the contract.”  

How early is early depends on the company, but generally anything less than 24 hours before the return date requires payment of the full amount. If earlier, Dollar Rent A Car, for example, will only charge for the days used and add a $25 charge, according to the company website, “to compensate us in part for our inability to rent your vehicle during the remaining time we have reserved for your use.”  

Late returns generally trigger fees. And like airline rebooking, any changes may result in a different rate than the one originally agreed to. Hertz encourages customers to call its Rental Extensions department. They may be subject to a $10 return-change fee, through renters can avoid the fee if they change a return date when they pick up the car. If they don’t call, however, they can be subject to a fee of $12 a day, up to a maximum of $60, in addition to daily rental charges.  

— Traffic and Parking Violations  

Parking or traffic tickets are the driver’s responsibility. But if ever there were a financial incentive to driving carefully, it’s in a rental car, where ticket fees may come with a service charge from the rental company.  

These penalties are usually detailed in the terms and conditions of the rental contract. Avis’ contract says offenses will be charged back to the renter’s credit card, and the company may impose a $30 administration fee to cover the cost of notifying the renter of the infraction by sending copies of the notices. Payless charges a $50 fee per violation.  

“What the big print giveth, the little print taketh away,” Fix said. “You have to be aware.”


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