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Product Review

How to save money on car rentals

Advance planning will help you get a handle on insurance costs and fees

A rental car will cost more if you pick it up at an airport location.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

A rental car will cost more if you pick it up at an airport location.

How does a $69 car rental end up costing more than $200? Easy. The advertised rate is just the beginning.

Tod Marks, who covers shopping for Consumer Reports as “Tightwad Tod,” tried booking a Hertz economy car for two days in Charlotte, N.C. His best rate: $69. That jumped to $99 after four layers of taxes, concession and facility surcharges (imposed when renting at an airport), and a fee to recoup the cost of plates and registration.

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Next came a pitch for other extras: a waiver to relieve Marks of responsibility for damage, theft, and loss of vehicle use, $58 for two days; supplemental liability insurance, $28; personal accident insurance/effects coverage to pay some medical bills and replace stolen items, $14; and emergency roadside assistance, $10. The new total: $209.

How do you keep the bill from going through the sunroof? Consumer Reports asked experts for tips and invited its Facebook fans to share lessons from past rentals. The first rule: Plan ahead to avoid making decisions under pressure at the rental counter. Other advice:

Shop early. Compare rates at rental car websites and on Expedia, Hotwire, and TripAdvisor. Airlines may offer a fly-and-drive discount, though in Consumer Reports’ experience it’s not steep. AAA, AARP, and Costco dangle deals, too.

Contact your insurer. You may be adequately covered through your auto policy, says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. Check on collision and comprehensive coverage, and be sure you’re protected for the “full value” of a loss, plus “loss of use,” to offset revenue lost while a car is out of service. If there are coverage gaps, consider loss (or collision) coverage.

Check your credit card. Some cards automatically provide secondary coverage for collision damage, after you have paid the deductible. For $25 per rental of up to 42 days, American Express offers more extensive protection (theft, damage, medical, no deductibles), and the insurance is primary — you don’t need to notify your insurer.

Steer clear of airports. Marks’s cost rose by $16 because the site was on airport property, where there are additional mandatory fees.

Examine the car. “Inspect the car in a bright-light zone before leaving the lot and be as nitpicking as the rental company,” advised a Facebook fan who had to pay for a damaged wheel he failed to see before driving off a dark lot. Note damage on the contract, and have it signed before driving off. Take photos.

Avoid penalties. Facebook posters reported penalties for canceling a reservation without ample notice, for returning a car more than a half-hour late or a few hours early, and for returning it to a different site. If the car smells of tobacco smoke, you could face a $250 cleaning fee.

Skip accessories. Wolf German of Westbury, N.Y., was talked into taking a Sunpass transponder (like an E-ZPass) to avoid toll plaza bottlenecks when visiting Disney World. All told, he spent $4 on tolls and $34 on the transponder fees.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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