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

Here’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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Travel activities at your destination gets twice the money of car rental business

What do you do when you get to your destination? Well, apparently you spend $27 billion. A recent report from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright says that’s how much was dropped on the travel activities, events, attractions and tour space in 2009. Yep, $27 billion sounds like a big number, and doubtless, it is. But, did you know that it’s almost twice the size of the car rental market in the United States?

Several factors are responsible for the growth of this sector of the travel business, including “a growing aggregator network and advancements in technology and commercial models will power significant growth in advance bookings and online distribution,” says PhoCusWright.

And, it’s going to keep going.

Look for double-digit growth for travel activity bookings via online channels through 2012.

“The challenges of connecting to myriad small providers with limited technical capability and a low average transaction value have inhibited online distribution of travel-related activities,” notes Douglas Quinby, senior director, research at PhoCusWright. He adds that “while the market remains highly fragmented, key activity aggregators and a flood of innovation related to local search, social media and mobile devices are creating unprecedented opportunities.”

[photo by Richard Hsu via Flickr]

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]

Car rental tactics that will cost you money

There’s nothing like hitting the open road in summer, but before you get that rental car, there are a few things you should know. National Geographic Traveler ombudsman Christopher Elliot tells all in a recent CNN piece that reveals sneaky ploys rental agencies use to jack up the price-after you’ve signed on the dotted line.

According to Elliot, there are six hidden costs you may find yourself paying for, if you’re not careful. Additional driver add-ons, under 25 premiums, redefinitions in vehicle sizes, and extra charges for returning a car early are some of the things to watch out for. Most of us who have rented cars have failed to find a gas station en route to the airport drop-off at one time or another, and paid the price. Elliot says that you can now get socked with an “under 75 miles” refueling fee, as well.

With all that crude still gushing into the Gulf, it’s touching that rental agencies are punishing drivers for not burning more petroleum. Watch your credit card (and before you plunk down extra dollars on insurance, check your card policy; many provide full rental car coverage), and safe motoring.

[Photo: Flickr | Stuck in Customs]

Eight rules for renting a car in a foreign country

Renting a car can be a great way to see a foreign country. Having your own wheels allows you the freedom to take your time, to stop for long lunches in the countryside, to turn down that little lane that looks interesting, and to go where public transportation won’t take you. But, renting a car comes with its own set of challenges and dangers. Here are eight road rules to remember when renting a car on your travels.

If you can’t drive a manual, now is not the time to learn.

Outside of the US, many, if not most, cars have manual transmissions. Finding an automatic rental can be difficult, and the cost will be significantly higher. You may be tempted to save money by taking the manual and if you’re fairly comfortable driving one, that’s fine. But if you’ve never driven one before, took a crash course just before your trip, or haven’t had to step on a clutch in over a decade, get the automatic. You’ll be concentrating hard enough on trying to figure out where to go, decipher all the crazy foreign road sides, and possibly drive on the “wrong” side of the road, that you really don’t want to add learning how to shift into the mix. And if you screw up the car’s transmission while you try to learn how to drive a manual, you could be held liable for the damage.

Always spring for the insurance.
$10-$20 a day for insurance can add up, and it’s easy to figure that, hey, nothing will go wrong, so why not skimp a little on the full coverage. Don’t do it (unless your credit card offers some coverage). On the off chance that something does happen, even if it isn’t your fault, you’ll be kicking yourself when you are stuck with a hefty bill. In some countries it is common to be offered an additional coverage on your tires and windshield. If you’ll be driving on gravel roads, definitely take this option. It’s usually just a few bucks more over the course of your rental and well worth the cost.

Let your hosts know when to expect you.
When you head out for the day with your car, always let your hosts know where you expect to go and when you’ll most likely be back. If you are going from place to place, let the proprietors of your next accommodation know when you’ll be arriving and what route you will be taking. If you do get horribly lost or get stranded along the road, at least you’ll know that one person has noticed that you’ve gone missing and they will have somewhat of an idea of where to start looking for you.

Make sure you have a spare.
In the US, it’s easier to get help if you get a flat tire. Chances are you’ve got your cell phone on you and you may even be a AAA member, making it easy to arrange a tow. At the very least, you can call the rental company and ask for assistance. If you are traveling in another country without a cell, getting help is a bit more difficult. Always check to make sure your rental car has a spare tire, and before you set out on your trip, make sure you know how to change it.

Don’t forget a map.
If you’ve got the cash and the option is available, get the GPS, but also bring a hard copy map with you as well. As we’ve seen, sometimes there’s no substitute for an actual old-fashioned paper map. If GPS isn’t an option, don’t rely on vague directions, be sure to pick up a comprehensive map in case you decide to wander a bit or in the event that the directions you were given turn out to be less than accurate.

Know the rules of the road.
Stop at stop signs, don’t speed, watch out for children and livestock. These are rules we know and which tend to be consistent across continents. Other rules of the road are more localized and often unwritten. Not following them may not get you a ticket, but they may not earn you any friends along the way either. Always research the road culture in a place you will be driving and learn customs that are followed there. For instance, when I was driving in South Africa, I was glad my friends had told me that on two-lane roads I should move over to the far left so that faster drivers could pass me. Had I not known, I probably would have made some other drivers very angry as they tried to pass me while I drove in the middle of my lane.

Don’t make yourself a target.
If you are driving from place to place, you’ll be traveling with your luggage and you may have a GPS unit mounted on your window or a map spread across the backseat. All of this screams “I’m a tourist, come pillage the car!” Always put your luggage in the trunk and stow the GPS and maps in the glovebox. Lock your doors when you aren’t in the car and don’t give anyone a reason to break in.

Read the fine print.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your rental company’s rules. Some don’t allow rentals with debit cards, and a few countries require than the driver have not just a driver’s license from their home country, but an international driving permit as well. If you’re told something different in person than what you’ve read, be sure to ask for clarification. A couple I talked to in South Africa thought they needed to sign a special form to take their rental out of the country, but the rental agent said it wasn’t necessary. When they hit a cow and totaled the car in Botswana, they were told that because they didn’t sign the form before crossing the border, they could be liable for the cost of the car – about $7000US! Always read the fine print and know the rental rules.