Stay at the Hard Rock San Diego hotel in December, get a free hybrid car rental

Travelers who stay at the Hard Rock San Diego from Dec. 1 to 30 will get a free hybrid car rental during their stay. Considering that the fees for renting a car can quickly add up, this affordable deal gives you more for less.

The “I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas” package starts at $149 per room per night. The one-day hybrid car rental (either a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Altima Hybrid from Enterprise-Rent-A-Car) is worth at least $70.

Perfect for families, the Hard Rock San Diego hotel is about a 10-minute drive from the San Diego Zoo, a 15-minute drive from SeaWorld, and a 40-minute drive from LEGOLAND in Carlsbad.

Details: Book at least 24 hours in advance. Mention promo code GREEN or check availability at Limit one 24-hour car rental per stay.

Test driving the Zipcar iPhone app

My brother got married last weekend in Los Angeles, which meant that I had to fly out Thursday night and back to New York City on Sunday. Rather than deal with getting off a long flight and renting a car from the airport — I didn’t think navigating an unfamiliar city at midnight when your body thinks it’s 3 a.m. was the best idea — I cabbed it to my hotel and retrieved a Zipcar the next morning.

I’d also been meaning to test out the Zipcar iPhone app, which lets you unlock your rental straight from the phone. This seemed like the perfect time to give it a whirl.

Here’s what I learned:

Make sure you still bring your Zipcar membership card. Once you activate the app, you need to unlock the car first with your membership card by waving it over the designated area on the windshield. Next, you have to enter your membership number into your phone. Don’t know your number? It’s on your membership card. Though these preliminary steps seem to defeat the purpose of ditching the membership card, your iPhone is now all set to start unlocking and locking your car.

Using the iPhone app to unlock the car isn’t always the most efficient. There were a few times when it took longer to unlock the car with the iPhone — as in, it was much faster for me to open my bag, dig out my wallet, and wave the key over the windshield. Once the novelty wore off, I ended up using the keycard about half the time and the iPhone app for the other half.

Zipcar isn’t necessarily the cheapest option, but it can be more convenient.
My two-day rental cost about $180, including gas and insurance. And unlike major car rental agencies where you reserve a certain vehicle class, Zipcar lets you call dibs on a specific make and model, so I knew exactly what I was getting. The last time I was in L.A., I used Zipcar to rent a Mini Cooper. Unfortunately no Minis were available on this trip, so I settled for the Toyota Prius.

Zipcar requires a $50 membership, which I auto-renew each year. Unfortunately, I’ve only used my membership once so far this year, so I haven’t yet maximized the value. If I factor in the membership cost, the two-day $180 rental increases to $230 — pricey. Tack in the $50 cab ride to and from the airport, and you’re looking at $330. But I’ve long believed that traveling on a budget isn’t always about finding the cheapest price — it’s also picking the smartest option to reduce your stress level. And since I was traveling to my brother’s wedding, I figured it was worth paying a little extra money to preserve my sanity.

The Bottom Line: Consider the Zipcar app as an alternative to your keycard, not a total replacement. I will say the app is good for at least one thing — making sure that I didn’t leave my cell phone in the car (or lose it).

[Photo by Amy Chen]

Ask Gadling: Car rental scams, overcharges and paying for damages you didn’t cause

When it comes to rental cars, you can’t really live with them, and you can’t live without them. Despite weird pricing methods, overpriced gas charges and shady insurance tactics, sooner or later you’ll show up somewhere in need of a vehicle.

Thankfully, most rentals will make it from start to finish without any problems, but eventually, you are going to find yourself face to face with a rental company that claims you damaged their car, kept it longer than agreed upon or forgot to fill up the tank.

So, here are tips on how to deal with rental car company deals and scams – and what you can do to prevent and resolve issues.
Always pay attention to the contract

Logical tip, right? Rental car companies are extremely punctual. When you enter your rental information online, you’ll be asked for the exact times you need the vehicle. This is where they’ll get you – show up early, and they’ll add a few hours to the rental, show up late, and they may even charge you an extra day. The funny thing is that if you add extra hours when you place the rental order, the cost almost never goes up.

So – make sure to add a few hours to the front and end of your rental to allow for flight delays or early arrivals. Always print your online rental agreement and bring it with you. If you used a discount code when making the reservation, be sure to bring the coupon or page showing you are entitled to the discount.

When you arrive at the rental desk, take a close look at the contract, and compare it with what you printed at home. Do not let the rental company change the contract without discussing it with you. If you are offered an upgrade, make sure that any overages are charged at the original rate – you wouldn’t be the first to get a free upgrade, but be charged the upgraded rate for returning it an hour late.

If you are using an elite desk to pick up your vehicle, you’ll usually bypass the desk and drive straight to the gate – but even here, you’ll be given a rental agreement before driving off, so take a minute to go over the fine print here, and be sure to mention to the agent any damage you noticed on the vehicle (more on that in a moment.)

When asked whether you need insurance, you’ll usually be offered several different policies – most of which are already included in your own auto insurance policy or credit card. Be sure to check this before you arrive at the airport. Don’t pay for any insurance already covered by your own policy or card.

When renting a car, your credit card is your best friend

If you have a major credit card, chances are it’ll come with a variety of insurance protections built in. If not, consider upgrading to a card that does. When I was faced with a $2900 bill for a quarter inch scratch on a Mercedes I rented in Europe, American Express took care of the whole thing, and all I had to do was sign one piece of paper. Without the card, I would have been on the hook for the entire bill.

Always do a walk-around inspection before accepting your vehicle

What takes 30 seconds, and can save you $3000 on your insurance? (Hint: it does not involve calling Geico.) It is the rental car walk-around. Before driving off the lot, always do a close inspection of the entire care. Renting at night? Pull out your flashlight. Make sure you report every single ding, dent, scratch, scrape or missing body panel to a car rental agent. Then, get them to note it on your rental agreement and make a note of the name of the agent that witnessed the damage.

Never, ever accept their word that it is “ok” – when you return the car with damage that was not your fault, claiming someone said it would be “ok” won’t be enough to get charges waived.

I know how much of a waste of time this is, and I’m sure you just want to get the hell away from the airport and check into your hotel, but damage to rental cars is big business -and if you can’t prove you did not damage the car, you will be charged to get it fixed.

The gas pricing scam

Isn’t it convenient that gas stations around the airport charge up to 20% more than the same brand away from the airport?

I know of one major international airport where the gas station is owned by the largest rental operator – making for a perfectly legal racket. When you rent your vehicle, you’ll be asked how you plan to fill its tank – you’ll either fill it up yourself, have the rental firm fill it up for you upon return (pre-arranged) or just ignore the whole issue and pay $7/gallon when they realize the tank is half empty. Pre-paid gas is a scam because no matter how much you use, you’ll pay for a full tank of gas. The only way to make this work is if you know in advance that you’ll arrive at the airport running on fumes.

Whatever you do – don’t just return the car with an empty tank. Of course, if you are running really late for the last flight of the day, you don’t have a choice, but if you let the rental company take care of filling up the car, they’ll fill it with special Unicorn juice that costs three times the current gas price at the local station.

One word of advise: always keep your gas receipts, and make sure you use a local station no more than 2-4 miles away. I’ve experienced a firm that claimed the gas station I used was too far away to let the car qualify as “full” – so they charged me $15 for what they claimed was two gallons.

Upon returning the car, the rental firm claims you damaged it

Funny how the rental company lets you drive off the lot without checking their car, but insists on checking every corner of it when you bring it back. Even if they don’t do an immediate inspection upon return, rest assured that they will check it out, and charge you for any damage that was not reported on the rental agreement. And don’t think that they’ll ignore a single thing – even the smallest scratch is enough for them to charge you.

If you return a car and the inspection uncovers damage, always check against the rental agreement to see whether the damage was already reported. If the damage is new, and you had not seen it when you inspected it yourself, you are out of luck – and will have to pay for it. If possible, make photos of the damage from all angles and write a clear description of the damage the rental company claims you caused. This will prevent them from adding other damage to the repair bill that was not caused by you.

In some cases, they may not even contact you, they’ll just charge your card for the entire amount they feel is fair. Talk about a nasty surprise when you get your statement.

And get this – they’ll also charge you the full non-discounted rental price for every day the vehicle is out of commission while someone repairs said scratch. This means that the kind of damage you can get fixed at the local body shop for $200, could cost the rental firm $2000 to fix. Rental car damage is big business – and you could end up being the one that funds it.

Now, there are of course incidents where the damage is not only your fault, but also quite evident. In those cases, you’ll want to contact the rental firm before returning the car and contact your own insurance firm or credit card company. If the vehicle is no longer drivable, ask them to bring a replacement.

When returning your car, always ask for a receipt

This is where it pays to give yourself some extra time at the airport. When you return the vehicle, wait for an agent to do their inspection, hand them your gas receipt (unless you want them to fill it up) and ask for a final rental receipt. Yes – in many cases you can just drop it off, leave the keys in the ignition and walk away, but if they overcharge you, you’ll have a hard time fighting this. Like with rental car damage, they’ll simply charge your card without contact you about overages.

[Photos: Hertz rental: Flickr/Alex-S, Car crash: Flickr/Daveeynin, Gas station: Flickr/Fortyseven]

Update: How the Toyota recall impacts your next car rental

Though Toyota announced a fix for its problematic accelerator pedals on Monday, some car-rental companies are still trying to remove the cars from its fleets.

Enterprise Holdings, which owns the Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent A Car, and National Car Rental brands, said Tuesday that it has successfully removed 83 percent of the estimated 35,000 recalled vehicles from its rental pool. This overall number is about 4 percent of its North American fleet. The Enterprise brand also has the benefit of having both airport and suburban locations, which means its inventory can be shifted around fairly quickly depending on demand.

Avis has said that if you wind up with a non-recalled Toyota rental and you prefer to drive another brand, they’ll switch you to another vehicle. This gesture of good will is naturally based on availability. With Presidents’ Day weekend falling at the same time as Valentine’s Day, it’ll be interesting to see if the car-rental companies can anticipate the demand of the holiday weekend.

If you are planning to rent a car over the long weekend, please let us know if you encounter any problems–or any unexpected perks.

Tip: Sometimes you may be upgraded at no extra cost if the rental category you reserved is no longer available. When I was in Oahu a few years back, my friend and I reserved an economy-class car through Enterprise. We were bumped up to a SUV when the rental location ran out of economy cars. As I said, this was a few years ago–before driving gas guzzlers became passé and before you had to worry about an accelerator pedal getting stuck.

Update: Automotive Traveler reports the following short-term price hikes of rentals from Hertz, Enterprise Holdings, Avis Budget and Dollar Thrifty: “Daily rates for both mid-size and full-size cars have increased an average of 46 percent at New York’s JFK airport across all four of the companies and their respective brands mentioned above. Yet prices at LAX for the same rental period and vehicle classes remained almost unchanged. At the Miami and Denver airport locations, results have been mixed depending on the vehicle class. Mid-size cars at MIA saw only a 3-percent increase, while full-size cars rose 10 percent. Data from DEN showed a 23-percent increase for mid-size cars and a 16-percent increase for full-size.”

[Thanks, Automotive Traveler]

Will the Toyota recall affect your next car rental?

Toyota‘s massive recall due to faulty accelerator pedals is trickling down into car-rental companies. How does the recall affect your next rental?

I checked in with some of the major players to see how they’re handling the recall, now estimated at more than 9 million worldwide.

Avis Budget: About 20,000 cars have been grounded due to the recall. “Our fleet is 7 percent smaller today, but we are receiving weekly deliveries of new vehicles from the purchase agreements we made months ago with our suppliers,” Avis Budget spokesperson John Barrows told me via e-mail. “So we expect to be able to fulfill all demand for any rental occasion while we await guidance from Toyota regarding the handling of the recalled vehicles.”

Dollar Thrifty: The recall represents less than 1.5 percent of the overall Dollar Thrifty fleet. “We have currently grounded the vehicles and are working with Toyota on inspection of the vehicles and a proper resolution of the issue. We do not have any significant Toyotas on order,” Scott Thompson, president and CEO of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, said in a written statement.

Zipcar: Toyota’s recall affects about 5 percent of the Zipcar fleet. The car-sharing company isn’t taking new reservations on any recalled vehicles, which include the 2009 and 2010 Toyota Matrix. If you already have a reservation on a Toyota Matrix, Zipcar will move you to a different car and compensate you for any rate difference. If you’d rather bail, any cancellation fees will be waived. For questions about upcoming reservations, call Member Services at 866/494-7227.

The silver lining: Many car-rental companies, such as Avis, Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty, only let you reserve a certain vehicle class (compact/economy, mid-size, full-size). Since you weren’t able to specify a make/model to begin with, at least you won’t have to deal with re-booking because the car you wanted is suddenly unavailable.

In general, car-rental companies had already been shrinking its fleets, which was resulting in higher prices. We’ll keep an eye on how this will affect pricing now that the supply is even smaller. I’ll also update once I hear back from Hertz, Enterprise, Alamo, and National.