Shop around for a deal when renting a car

Renting a car? Don't make the mistake of thinking one rental car company is the same as any other. Depending on the vehicle — and where you pick up your rental — you could save a bundle by shopping around. • So how much difference is there between rental car companies? A recent visit to Tulsa, Okla., gave me the chance to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the cheapest vehicle offered for a 48-hour period.

I checked prices using the websites for the eight agencies doing business in Tulsa.

The bottom line: By shopping around, you could save as much as $34.68 on the same car, same time period.

The problem is you can't assume what's cheap in Tulsa is the cheapest anywhere else. Many of the rental agencies are franchises, and they can offer local specials depending on the competition.

And those locations can differ dramatically. The Aveo that Enterprise, for instance, offered in Tulsa for $72.12 would cost $83.84 at the airport in Charlotte, N.C.; $152.78 at the San Francisco airport; and a whopping $268.02 at LaGuardia airport in New York City.

A startling amount of the money we spend on rental cars typically goes to taxes and fees. Of $70.50 Hertz would have charged at Tulsa, only $47.18 was for the car. The rest went to sales tax, rental car tax, an airport concession fee and a "customer facility charge." Most rental car websites will explain those fees. Hertz also charged $1.03 for an "energy surcharge," because "the cost of energy needed to support our business" has risen.

Also, all the prices quoted here do not include any optional add-ons, such as insurance or navigation systems. My auto insurance policy covers rental cars, and yours might, too. Some agencies tell you that such insurance doesn't cover the lost income to the rental agency while a wrecked car is being repaired, so whether you want to opt for that insurance is up to you. Those options can really add up: Take every option National offered at Tulsa, and the $100.65 Chevrolet Aveo skyrocketed to $326.52.

It doesn't hurt to check prices on travel websites such as expedia.com, or on airline websites, but I always go online directly to the rental agency site first. Some groups, such as AAA and the AARP, also allow members to book rental cars online.

Top tips for renting a car

A few tips for when you are shopping for a good deal on a rental car:

• Book the smallest, cheapest car, and ask to be upgraded for free. Most agencies stock only a handful of small vehicles, such as Chevrolet Aveos or Hyundai Accents.

• If you are renting a car at an airport, check the airport website. Usually, that site will list the rental agencies that do business at the airport, and tell you how to find their counters.

• Need a portable navigation system? With prices as low as $100 for a good navigation system, consider buying one and taking it with you. Renting one for a week would likely cost you at least $100.

• Refill the tank yourself, instead of opting to pay the rental agency the premium charged for gas. Some rental companies are offering good prices on a refill, but it's a deal only if you plan on returning the car with the gas tank close to empty, because you have to buy a full tank's worth of gas, whether the car needs that much gas or not.

• Before you book a rental car, check with your insurance agent and see whether you are covered under your regular policy for rentals, and if so, for how much. By buying insurance from the rental agency, you could be duplicating coverage you already have.

• Most all agencies offer unlimited miles on regular rentals, but it doesn't hurt to make sure, so you don't get hit with excess mileage fees.

Shop around for a deal when renting a car 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 5:30am]

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