Can’t Drive A Stick Shift? Need A One-Way Car Rental? Confronting Common Car Rental Issues

beat up old abandoned carHere’s a killer idea for a venture capitalist with a few bucks to burn: start a rental car company that doesn’t soak customers who want to return the car at a different location. Time and time again, I find myself needing to revise my travel plans because I can’t find a reasonable rate on a rental car to match an open-jaw air itinerary.

In January, I planned to visit the national parks in Utah and wanted to fly into Durango and out of Las Vegas. The airfares looked attractive but the rental car prices were outrageous. A five-day compact car rental picking up and dropping off in Durango was about $150, but dropping off in Las Vegas sent the price soaring to nearly $600.

Overseas, I’ve found that dropping off in a different location is often less problematic, but in most of Europe and Latin America, car rental prices tend to be higher than in the U.S. And picking a car up in one country and dropping it off in another is usually either impossible or very, very costly. I’m flying into San Jose, Costa Rica, and out of Managua, Nicaragua, later this month and it’s impossible to rent a car in one capital and drop it off in the other. Below you’ll find some tips on how to get the best deal on a rental car, including suggestions on how to tackle three common car rental problems.One-way rentals

In the U.S., if I’m renting and dropping off in the same city, I almost always bid for rental cars on Priceline. The bidding system allows you to keep trying if you change the car category, so I usually start by bidding on larger cars at about $12 or $13 per day. With a little persistence, I can almost always get a car for $20 or less per day (plus their fees and taxes) and in most cases, the total is closer to $15 per day.

Priceline used to have no one-way rental car bidding function but these days they pretend like they do. But I’ve entered all kinds of one-way scenarios, like Chicago-O’Hare to St. Louis, Des Moines and Milwaukee, and New York LaGuardia to Philadelphia, Dulles and Boston and it won’t accept any of them. After you try to bid, the system informs you that it can’t accept the scenario and then presents you with the same expensive results you can find on Travelocity, Hotwire, Kayak and any number of other sites. So unfortunately, Priceline offers nothing more than the illusion of allowing one-way rentals.

Because many car rental operations in the U.S. are franchises, they simply do not want to facilitate one-way car rentals. There are companies that will drive the car back to your original location for a fee but their prices are geared to big spenders more than frugal travelers. Obviously, you want to shop around online and it doesn’t hurt to make phone calls, but in most cases, you’ll have to resign yourself to the fact that prices are higher for one-way rentals.

The best advice I can give about one-way rentals is to hold off on booking an open-jaw airline ticket until you’ve resolved how you’re going to get around. There’s nothing worse than booking a non-refundable ticket and then finding out that you need a rental car but can’t afford one. In some cases, you’ll decide that the open-jaw ticket isn’t worth it. For my Utah trip, for example, I decided to fly into and out of Durango, and I had to skip Zion and Bryce National Parks, which are closer to Las Vegas.

But if you’re determined to go open-jaw, take a closer look at your travel plans and see if you absolutely need a car for every day of your trip. Given the high price of one-way rentals, you might be better off renting for only a portion of your trip or not at all.

International Rentals – Can You Drive a Stick?

One of my biggest pet peeves about travel in Latin America and Europe is that I rarely get a great deal on rental cars. Part of the problem is that you can’t use Priceline to bid in most places but my biggest issue is that I’ve never learned to drive a stick.

My New Year’s resolution for this year is to learn to drive a stick because in most countries outside the U.S. you will save money, sometimes a lot, if you can drive a manual transmission car. One tip I can share for those who don’t drive a stick, though, is to bargain in person for an automatic transmission car. In many places, the primary reason they are more expensive is that a location may have only a few of them in stock. But I’ve found that if you show up in person and haggle a bit, you can get a deal if they have what you want.

In the U.S., I tend to rely almost exclusively on finding deals online, but I’ve found that in countries like Mexico, Italy, Greece and others, the best deals aren’t always on the Internet. It’s time consuming, but often times rental car places are clustered in the same area, so take the time to go in person and haggle.

The Old Tank is Empty Trick

In the U.S., we take it for granted that a rental car will have a full tank of gas but this is not a given in other countries. A common scam I’ve encountered, even at U.S.-based chains overseas, is that they’ll give you the car with almost no gas in it. They’re hoping that you’ll return it with more gas than it came with. And it’s a good bet, because it takes some careful planning to return a car with only 1/4 or an 1/8 of a tank of gas in it, but it’s very easy to return a car with a full tank of gas.

When I’m renting a car outside the U.S., I make it known in advance that I want to have a full tank of gas in the car when I pick it up. If they balk, I’ll rent from another company.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara ]
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