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So you think you know how to rent a car. Make your reservation, show up at the office, collect your keys, right? Unfortunately, it's usually when we're at the counter that questions pop up and many of us wish we had thought ahead. Do you want the extra insurance? Will there be another driver? Did you know about the extra fees? So if you want to rent a car and do it right, here's the way to go:

  • Shop around — Rates are all over the map, and bargain hunters can slice their costs in half. Don't forget to mention your AAA membership, which will get you a discount at Hertz and elsewhere. And check the Internet: Online specials can save you a bundle.

  • Ask about taxes and fees — You think you're paying for a modest subcompact; you may also be contributing taxes to build a local sports stadium. Tacked-on charges can make your rental costs balloon. Unfortunately, most fees can't be avoided—the best you can do is budget for them.

  • Check your insurance — Don't let uniformed clerks bully you into buying expensive coverage you don't need. Here's the scoop:

    • Collision damage waivers ($9 to $25 per day) cover accidental damage to the car. But you're probably already covered by personal auto insurance or your credit card. Find out.
    • Partial damage waivers are less expensive and usually cover the first $3,000 of damage. Consider this if your personal auto insurance has a high deductible.
    • Supplemental liability insurance (typically $10 per day) covers damage you cause to other people or property. It's often already included in a personal auto insurance policy. Credit card protection, however, may be inadequate.
    • Personal accident insurance covers accidental death or injury to you or your passengers. (It's often sold bundled with personal effects coverage, which covers loss from theft of valuables inside the car.) Here, you may already be covered by your health insurance or your homeowners policy, so check those out first.

  • Know your (age) limits — Drivers under 25 can often face stiff surcharges ($20 to $97 per day)—if they can rent at all—from major rental car companies. Some international destinations also restrict older drivers. Travelers as young as 65 can't rent from Hertz in Morocco, for example, and in Ireland you won't get a car from National if you're over 70.

  • Don't gamble on an upgrade — Crafty types often request the smallest economy car and hope the company will be overbooked for that size. Voilà, a free upgrade. But the industry's planning tools have become more sophisticated, and chances are that the tiny car you asked for will be right there waiting for you. If it's a free upgrade you're after, scan your frequent flier or frequent renter program mailings, the Internet, and AAA offerings for deals.

  • Don't cheat on second-driver charges — Paying as much as $25 extra for an added driver is a pain, but don't cut corners here. If an unauthorized driver has an accident, your insurance coverage is void and you'll be responsible for all damages. In some states, the unauthorized driver may even face legal action. On the plus side, in California and Nevada spouses can drive without an extra fee, and some firms (Avis, Enterprise, and Thrifty) waive fees for spouses nationwide. Hertz waives the second-driver fee for AAA members who hold a credit card.

  • Don't fuel corporate profits — Rental cars come with a full tank, and you'd best return them that way or you'll be charged up to $4 a gallon. Smart spenders also avoid the fuel prepurchase option—prepaying for an entire tank at competitive local rates. There's no refund for unused gas.

It's all more complicated than it ought to be. Planning ahead will ease the confusion, save you money, and give you extra time for happier decisions—like hardtop or convertible?

Illustration by Melinda Beck

This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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