Saying ‘No’ To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

Thrifty Car RentalI’m a rental car company’s worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, “no thanks” when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn’t want to pre-pay for my fuel or “upgrade” to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

“Do you have proof?” he repeated.”What, you mean a photocopy of my insurance coverage?” I asked, confused.

Indeed that was what he wanted, and I told him that in 20 years of renting cars no one had ever asked me for it.

“But this is California,” he protested. “If you get pulled over, you’re going to need proof. You’ll get a ticket.”

I told him I’d take my chances and he moved on to his final sales pitch: a toll pass.

“You’ll need a toll pass,” he insisted.

I actually thought about getting one, but when he told me they cost $9.95 a day or $39.95 per week plus whatever toll charges one accrues, I told him I’d pass.

“But are you going across the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I admitted, “probably.”

“Well,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “You’ll need the toll pass then because there’s no one there to collect money any more.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I later looked it up and found out that he was right – sort of. As of late March, cash is not accepted at the iconic bridge, built in 1937, heading into San Francisco (it’s free heading north bound), so you have to call a telephone number (1-877-Bay-toll during bankers hours only, Monday-Saturday) and pay the fee before crossing the bridge. (Those who used the bridge often can buy a digital transponder that deducts money from a prepaid account or credit card.)

I told him I’d take my chances and, after I asked about how to cross the bridge, he handed me a flyer detailing the above procedure. Feeling exhausted from all the sales pitches, I asked him what kind of cars he had available.

“You don’t get a choice,” he said.

The last time I rented from Thrifty was in Costa Rica and that experience was less than positive as well, as they quoted me a price and then doubled it (unstated mandatory insurance) when I got to the counter. I’ve had two strikes with Thrifty in 2013 after numerous positive experiences in the past, but to be fair to them, I think these heavy handed sales tactics are becoming common for all the major car rental companies, as they seek new revenue streams.

Thrifty and some of the other discount chains advertise low prices so to make up for that they have to try to sell you add-ons. And their agents no doubt have goals and incentives to try to up-sell as many clients as possible.

What’s the take away here? First, if you’re visiting San Francisco, be aware of the situation at the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t think you have to necessarily buy a toll pass. With respect to the insurance, it probably is a good idea to travel with a copy of whatever policy you’ll be using. And as for all the other add-ons, GPS, car seats, upgrades, prepaying fuel and the rest, well, buyer beware.

[Photo credit: Birdie Holsclaw on Flickr]

Mandatory Car Rental Insurance: Watch Out For Bait-And-Switch Pricing

scamMandatory insurance. Those are two words that I hate to hear when I’m renting a car outside the U.S. On Thursday night, I spent an hour and a half in a Thrifty Rent a Car location near the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to understand how an eight-day rental that I expected to pay $394 for was somehow going to cost me either $786 or $946. I’m an experienced traveler and I should have known better. Here’s how I got scammed and how you can avoid the same fate.

I spent a huge amount of time shopping around for a deal on a rental car for an eight-day trip to Costa Rica and the best price I found was through Thrifty, which quoted me a price of $394 for an automatic transmission SUV. By American standards, this was no bargain, but in Costa Rica during the high season it was the best deal I could find.

I received a confirmation email from Thrifty that listed my estimated “mandatory charges” (base rental price, one-way drop off surcharge, vehicle license fee) plus optional charges (booster seat for child), and then the “estimated grand total” price. Two days before we arrived in country, the local branch also confirmed the reservation and the price via email. Even in the fine print of both emails there is no mention of any additional charges or mandatory insurance costs.We arrived at the Thrifty location near the San Jose airport on Thursday night and, despite the fact that there was only one person in front of us in line, we waited 40 minutes to find out that our $394 rental car was actually going to cost $786 if we opted for the lowest possible level of insurance or $946 if we chose the more comprehensive coverage. We spent nearly another hour unsuccessfully trying to untangle the mess and it quickly became clear why we’d waited so long to get to the counter in the first place: everyone was arguing with them about the same issue as they were shocked to find double the rates they expected.

I thought it was a scam because the agent was jotting down all these prices on a scrap of paper as though he was making it up as he went along. I’ve been hit up for mandatory insurance in other countries before but those costs were more an annoyance than the budget buster this was. So I walked out and tried two other rental car places, both of which quoted similar rates.

Rather than pay nearly $100 per day to rent the car, we took a cab to our hotel and I studied the confirmation email from Thrifty. Even in the fine print and “terms and conditions” of the confirmation email there was no mention of the mandatory insurance. I called Thrifty to complain and all they could manage was their contention that my rate was only an “estimated grand total” and not an “actual grand total.”

I went back to Thrifty’s website and tried to make a new reservation, this time studying all the fine print in the terms and conditions section and still couldn’t find any mention of the huge mandatory insurance cost.

I also checked the section on car rentals in my guidebook (Frommer’s) and there is no explicit warning about the exorbitant mandatory insurance, only a boilerplate sentence about checking to see if your existing insurance in the U.S. will cover you in Costa Rica.

I’m sure that Thrifty isn’t the only company guilty of this sort of bait-and-switch pricing, and as an experienced traveler, who has rented cars in a variety of countries, I should have clarified that their “grand total” estimate really was going to be the grand total. But I took the term “grand total” at face value. Next time I’ll know better and you should too. In the meantime, which way to the San Jose bus station?

[Photo credit: jepoirrier on 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]

4 car rental scams you should be aware of

Travel columnist Christopher Elliott is always full of great tips and useful information. We covered his Lessons Learned from Summer 2007 in September as well as his thoughts on airport security. And now I have some more information from him: four new scams from car rental companies.

The first, according to Elliott, involves companies strictly enforcing rules that they were perhaps less strict about in the past. If you return your car early, for example, you might get slapped with a 10-dollar “early return fee.” Elliott concedes that the only way to beat this game is to know the rules and conditions of your rental agreement — it’s time to read the small print.

In the second scam, the rental company charges you a fee if you return the car with the gas gauge needle at less than 100% full. Even if it’s 98% full, you might be fined. Elliott reports stories of returns where customers were charged even if the tank was at 100%. Stop at the gas station immediately before returning the car, and keep all your receipts.

Thirdly, car rental companies have been caught charging customers for damaged vehicles, sometimes billing different customers for the same dent or ding. Elliott recommends taking photos of the car when you pick it up and when you return it, in case you need to prove that specific damage did or did not exist. If you notice any preexisting damage, make sure it’s noted on the rental form.

Finally, Elliott advises to be alert for new and clever fees. Rental companies are finding ways to cover the car’s registration (“vehicle license recoupment fee”) and the removal of old tires (“tire disposal fee”). Check your rate quote and make sure the fee is disclosed — if it’s not, you should argue to have it removed from your bill.

Use your common sense, read your agreement, and don’t be afraid to question a charge. It’s still possible to get a good deal on a car rental — you just need to be as creative as the rental companies!