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Ed Perkins on Travel: Road trip car rental gotchas

Ed Perkins on Travel: Road trip car rental gotchas

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Car rental sign.

Right now, given the limits on foreign travel, domestic road trips are more popular than ever. If you plan to rent your road trip car, however, be on the lookout for the several perennial gotchas the rental companies throw at you to extract a few more of your dollars than necessary. Fortunately, you can avoid them knowing the gotchas before you put down your credit card.

1. Insurance has always been the main money pit of renting a car. Rental agents try to get you to buy some you already have, some you can buy elsewhere at a lower price, and some you don’t need at all.

— Collision insurance covers damage to, or loss of, the car you rent. Clearly, when you drive someone else's vehicle worth up to $50,000, you need to insure yourself if it is damaged when in your possession. Rental companies try to sell you a waiver (CDW) that eliminates your risk but roughly doubles the daily cost of the rental. Your own auto insurance may cover you in a rented car, at least in the U.S.; your credit card may cover what your regular insurance doesn't — most travel-oriented cards do — or you can buy separate coverage from a third-party source for about one-third of what the rental company asks. But there's one big change this year: most cards issued by Citi no longer include rental car coverage.

— Liability insurance covers you for any damage you may do to other people or property. But you need liability coverage whenever you drive any car, rental or otherwise, and it's likely your own automobile, homeowner, umbrella, or other policy already covers you, so you don't need extra. But if it doesn't, then you have to pay.

— Personal Accident and personal property are the same as liability: If you need it, you need it all the time, not just when renting a car.

2. Gasoline charges can be a gouge. The best rental contracts start you with a full tank, and if you return the car full, you do not face a refueling charge — so long as you refuel near the return office spot and get a receipt. If you let the rental company refuel, it will hit you with a gouge price. And if you "buy" a full tank when you rent, you donate what you leave in the tank to the rental company — probably not your favorite charity. Another gouge: Some rental companies charge a flat rate for short-term rentals where you drive only a few miles — a rate that's much higher than what you'd pay for just the gas you used.

3. Going off-contract is potentially a major gotcha. Most rental contracts say you can't drive on unpaved roads, let anyone else drive who hasn't signed on — and maybe paid — as an extra driver, drive recklessly, or drive outside a contractually limited region. Although rental companies may never know if you go off-contract, if you do — and the rental company finds out — you're in big trouble: Your insurance becomes void and your rental cost may revert to a very high daily rate plus a stiff per-mile charge. And rental companies know more than you think: Most rental cars have GPS, and even if you don't use or pay for it, rental companies can track the vehicle.

4. Minor gouges are mostly avoidable by selecting the right rental company. A few, typically small, rental companies still limit the geographic region where you can take the car, and a few still impose mileage charges or daily mileage limits. If either poses a problem, you can avoid the gouge by renting from a different company.

5. Avoiding the gotchas is easy: Get the collision coverage you need through your own regular insurance, credit card, or third-party policy; don't rent on a contract that limits where you can drive; refuel before you return; avoid off-contract driving; and if you want someone else to share the driving, find a rental with no extra-driver charge.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at

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