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The Rental Car Protocol

Background: After traveling for over four straight years, I've learned a thing or two about renting cars. 

1. I used Expedia (50%), Kayak (45%), and (5%).

-Make sure you know whether your reservation is Free Cancellation (Pay now or pay later) or Pay now (non-cancelable). You can sometimes save a couple bucks by Pay now (non-cancelable), but you give up a valuable option (what if your plane is delayed, you cancel your trip, etc.). If the savings are significant, it may be worth it, but "Let's be careful out there".   

2. They all use bait and switch pricing. You enter the dates and click search. You notice a car you like for $30/day, since you will be renting it for three days you would expect to be charged . . .. $90 and . . . you would be wrong. When you click "Book", the price is now magically $205.72 due to concession fee recovery, vehicle license cost recovery, customer facility charge, tax, VAT, SOL, etc.   

3. One option is to book a Free Cancelation rental car and then scour the internet for a better deal.  

4. Additional drivers: Almost all rental car companies make you pay for an additional driver who is not your spouse. Some rental car companies will charge you an additional driver fee for your spouse. In some states, it is against the law (CA has a very additional driver-friendly law), in others the additional driver fee is capped. Who knew it could be so complicated? Click here for comprehensive guidance. If this is a concern, do your homework beforehand and confirm at the rental counter.      

5. Beware the Manager's Special: When renting through Expedia or the like, you may see a listing that contains the image of a car with a sheet over it (under which is the Manager's Special; basically any car in inventory that the "manager" wants to move). It generally will be the first listing on the webpage as it will offer significant savings over all other listings. Be very careful for two reasons:

a. You very well may end up with an SUV, van, mini-van, pickup truck, Porsche, Jaguar, or other high-end vehicle. Which depending on your driving ability, driving location and personal style may be problematic.

b. If the vehicle you are assigned is anything other than a normal car, your credit card (or auto insurance) may not provide coverage. If you go this route, make sure you fully understand your insurance coverage. 

The Story: Rented a car in GRR and went the Manager's Special route to save a fair amount of money (@$250). Was assigned a Ram 1500 pickup truck. A few days later, after snaring the rear bumper on a utility pole guy wire (don't ask), I checked the coverage provided by my Capital One Venture Visa Signature Credit Card and noticed that "vehicles that have an open cargo bed" are specifically not covered. Uh, ohhhh!! Well the wife took the truck to get the bumper fixed and because the body shop could not perfectly repair the bumper, she wasn't charged!!! When she returned it, the rental car company didn't mind the minor imperfection (a win-win?).

Note: since I did not own a car at the time, I did not have collision/comprehensive  insurance (which would have included a deductible).    

6. Tolls: When picking up your car, most rental car companies will offer you some kind of toll transponder. They may charge a daily rate that covers all tolls (@$20/day), it may be a one-time fee (@$25 + tolls tolled) or some other scheme. 

a. If you are concerned, do a little research on the area in which you will be driving. In some cases a transponder is almost a necessity (NYC/NJ), other places it is a nice to have (Southern F.L.A.), and in others not required at all (LA/SD is transponder-less, as tolls are paid online via tag number).

b. If the rental car company charges your credit card for tolls (generally two to four weeks after returning the car). You have two options:

i. If the charge seems reasonable, then do nothing.

ii. if the charge seems unreasonable then just dispute the credit card charge. There are ways to find out details about the charge/tolls (online, call the company, etc.), but quite simply why is this now my responsibility? If the rental car company wants to charge you then the least than can do is provide an invoice (after all they have your email address).

c. In general, just avoid tolls if possible, and avoid the hassle. 

The Story: Rented a car at EWR, to visit my dear 95-year-old Mother. Despite my best efforts wound up transiting an unmanned toll plaza. Over a month later I noticed a credit card charge of $25 from the rental car company. As this seemed a little steep, I disputed the charge and won.

Note: I have disputed every unreasonable credit card toll charge and have never lost.         

7. Document existing damage to the car and take photos/video of the car prior to leaving the rental car lot. This can be invaluable when returning the car and having to prove you did not cause the damage.

Note: Also immediately take a photo of your Rental Contract (in case you forget to take it out of the glove box when you return the car).

-The Story: Rented a car in Marrakesh and returned it in Rabat. When I returned it, the "agent" claimed the left front blinker was damaged. Fortunately, I had a photo showing the damage was pre-existing, otherwise, this could have been problematic (it didn't help that he didn't parle anglais and I didn't parler français ou arabe).     

8. Take a photo of the gas gauge after returning the car (and when picking it up, if the tank is not full*). 

The Story: Rented a U-Haul van to move all the worldly possessions of my dear 92-year-old Mother. Dropped the van off in Herndon, VA, and took a photo of the gas gauge. As it was after hours I slipped the keys and paperwork through the after-hours slot. A few weeks later I was charged $30 for not returning the van with the same amount of gas the van had when I rented it (@ 3/4 tank). Showed them the before and after photos and the charge was reversed. 

Note: U-Haul seems to have issues reading gas gauges.  

* U-Haul does not rent their vans with a full tank (and it's quite obvious why). 

9. Rental Car Insurance: The collision/comprehensive coverage on your existing auto insurance will generally provide collision/comprehensive insurance for your rental car. And your liability insurance coverage will provide liability insurance for you when you drive your rental car. But what if you don't own a car? It may be worth it to get rental car liability insurance that specifically provides liability insurance in the U.S. I obtained some through USAA for $131.34 for six months (@2018).  

Note: You should always carry a copy of your Auto ID Card on your phone (or in your wallet old-timer). Some rental car companies will force you to purchase liability insurance if you cannot prove you have auto insurance (this specifically happened to me in Puerto Rico).  

10. Compare the price you were quoted online vs. the Rental Contract you are being asked to sign at the rental car counter. Ensure you understand all additional charges (CDW, toll transponder, GPS, upgrades, etc.). If you need to dispute additional credit card charges, this is your golden ticket.

11. Compare the Rental Contract price vs. the amount your credit card is charged (which should be the same as the final invoice that is printed/emailed from the "gizmo" when you return the car). If there is a difference, investigate and try to understand why. If you do not completely agree with the final credit card amount then dispute the credit card charge. I have never lost a dispute. 

-Don't waste too much time arguing with the rental return "agent", just dispute the credit card charge. 

The Story: I returned a car at ORD 22 hours late and therefore was expecting to pay an additional $50. The "gizmo" was not functioning, so the "agent" informed me that the final invoice would be emailed to me over the next few days (it never was). Two weeks later my credit card was charged $422.72 more than the Rental Contact price. I disputed the entire additional $422.72, USAA (my credit card company) initially denied my claim. I disputed it again providing a copy of the rental car contract (which I had taken a photo of when picking up the car. See 7. above). Round two: Dispute settled in my favor for the entire $422.72.

Note: Next time I should probably get some sort of receipt documenting when I returned the car and that there were no issues. 

12. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW): As Rick Danko would have said, "Don't do it". You are more than adequately covered via your auto insurance and credit card Auto Rental CDW.

-The "agent" at the rental counter may try and sell you on CDW, by implying/lying that your credit card Auto Rental CDW and auto insurance will not provide coverage.         

Note: Many credit cards specifically do not provide Auto Rental CDW in Israel, Jamaica, the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland. If you are renting a car in one of these countries, then review your card benefits and specifically get a document from your credit card issuer verifying coverage (USAA provided me with an email). You may need to show this documentation during pick-up, otherwise, you may be forced to purchase CDW.

Note: Overseas, liability insurance is usually included in the price of the rental car.

Note: Credit cards will generally only provide coverage for "vehicle rental periods that neither exceed nor are intended to exceed fifteen (15) consecutive days within your country of residence or thirty-one (31) consecutive days outside your country of residence". Check your credit card benefits to confirm. 

Note: If you have Collision/Comprehensive insurance for your own car then your credit card Auto CDW will cover the deductible for any rental car damage. If you do not have Collision/Comprehensive for your own car, then your credit card Auto CDW will cover all the rental car damage.   

Note: see blog post on my experience filing a credit card Auto Rental CDW claim.

13. Automatic vs. Manual Transmission: In the US, this is not an issue, but overseas renting an automatic transmission could be quite costly. If you can drive a manual, you can drive a manual overseas (even in U.K./Ireland, as the pedals are in the same position). I rented a car with a manual transmission in Ireland and in the U.K. and managed just fine, "What one man can do, another can do!"

Note: when backing up in Ireland, remember to look over the "other" shoulder. 

The Story: Mere hours after renting a car at SNN, I looked over my right shoulder when backing up and hit a car. Thankfully no damage was done to either car (thank you Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), but the wife was quite upset at my lack of attention. Well . . . a few days later, she looked the wrong way and backed into a car. My first thought wasn't about injury/damage, it was . . .  

14. The Costco Rental Car Program can be an economical option with a bonus of no additional driver fee.  

15. may also be a good resource. Never used it myself, but it sounds like a damn good idea. 


-Sans Plomb means without lead. Trust me, this could be useful in France. 

-If you need to change a flat along the way, youtube may be very useful.

-The Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie is very efficient at setting up speed traps in the countryside. If you get caught, be prepared to pay in cash (in this case dirham), as the Gendarmes take speeding very seriously, but do not take American Express. Keep about 500 dirhams in reserve for just this issue.    

-There is no free public parking in France. If you think there is, you will return to a ticketed car and the rental car company will charge your credit card accordingly. Though if the rental car company doesn't provide you with an invoice/documentation, then just dispute the credit card charge and you will most likely win (this is hypothetical of course).  

Hey! After all the above, don't be scared of renting a car overseas. Being forewarned is being forearmed, so don't let it stop you from missing out on the romance of a foreign road trip: I personally would have missed out on:

-Morocco: viewing Barbary macaques only meters from the car, a very interesting conversation with a gendarme, exploring Aït Benhaddou (the set of Game of Thrones), an overnight at a Berber Saharan Camp (via camel), partaking in a rural mountain village wedding ceremony.  

-Croatia: a first rate highway system that takes you to first rate wine country.

-Ireland (x2): the only way to explore the Irish countryside. See my blog.

-Scotland: an Edinburgh to Glasgow roadtrip via the Isle of Sky.

-Stonehenge: nuff said. 

-Puerto Rico (x2): if you've ever been there you know it's not really in the U.S. 

-France: the only way to explore Normandy on your own. See my blog

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