Vacation essentials: What you need to know when renting a car

Consumer Forum

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 08, 2014, at 1:42 p.m.

With school vacation week fast approaching, many families are thinking about getting away. For some, that might mean renting a car. Here are some factors consumers should consider.

Rental car companies are joining the “fee-ing frenzy” and adding fees onto the damages you have to pay if you damage their vehicle in an accident. They’ll likely press you to buy collision damage waiver insurance. Your auto insurance policy may cover the rental car as if it were your own, and paying with a credit card may fill any gaps.

So, the question is, should you take out extra insurance when you rent a car or truck? The answer is, it depends. As with many consumer issues, easy answers are hard to come by. That’s true, even when you call and ask directly.

Major credit cards offer some protection for customers who rent vehicles. Let’s say you call with a question about coverage; a customer service representative assures you that, if you pay the full cost of the rental with their card, you’re all set. However, the fine print in the card contract might say otherwise.

While their damaged vehicle is being repaired, rental companies typically charge loss-of-use fees and administrative fees. A case that went to the Colorado Supreme Court in 2012 upheld companies’ rights to charge such fees. That ruling applies only in Colorado, and many insurers and credit card companies refuse to pay the fees.

Some consumer advocates say car rental companies should be forced to turn over “fleet utilization logs,” to prove they had no other cars available to rent and were therefore entitled to loss-of-use fees. The rental companies generally disagree; one company spokesman called those logs “proprietary and confidential.” Without seeing those logs, it’s hard for consumers to dispute a rental company’s claim of lost use.

Then there are the diminution-in-value charges. A car that’s been damaged in an accident will have a lower resale value, and rental companies may seek to have someone else pay the tab. That might be your insurance company, or it might be you.

Visit the website, and search “car rental insurance” for the ins and outs of buying added protection. The site offers a side-by-side comparison chart for coverage offered by the major credit cards.

Before signing your rental agreement, find out how tolls are paid. Some rental vehicles are equipped to have tolls paid electronically, and companies might charge a few dollars per day for the convenience of not having to fish around for change at toll booths. However, some companies may apply the charge every day, whether the car is in use or not. Find out before you sign.

Rental companies offer the option of prepaying for gas; this saves you the hassle of heading for a gas station when you’re anxious to begin your drive. It may be convenient, but you may end up paying for gas you haven’t used. You might also find a better deal yourself than the rental company employee who filled the tank.

You might also be charged for a GPS device, satellite radio and child safety seats. If you think you’ve been charged a fee that wasn’t disclosed, fight it. Paying with a credit card gives you time to do that.

Check out a top ten list of car rental tips at

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit or email

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