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Getaway cars

What you should know before you rent a car

Even if you own a reliable vehicle, there are times when your trusty set of wheels won’t get you where you want to go, namely when you’re flying to another city. That’s when a rental car can be your ticket to motoring freedom. But sometimes, convenience comes with a load of fine-print baggage that can put a dent in your budget.

The confusion can start from the moment you call to get a quote. Specify a type of vehicle and a time period and you’ll get a figure. Problem is, the actual “off the lot” cost may be boosted by taxes, second-driver fees, airport surcharges, drop-off fees, underage surcharges, excess mileage fees and insurance costs. Or a low advertised price may limit you to vehicles without automatic transmission or air conditioning. If you buy a vacation package that comes with a prepaid rental-car voucher, it may not cover all these fees. So, before you book a rental, request a written quote that includes all required costs.

Driving a vehicle without adequate insurance is plain reckless. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should give in to the rental staff’s dire warnings of financial ruin if you fail to buy their coverage. They push it because it’s profitable. I’ve even seen motorists hit with separate daily charges for car, tire and windshield coverage. Instead, call your auto insurance rep before you even step into the rental office and ask about having a rider put on your existing policy to cover rental cars. Find out your company’s limits for car value, liability and the deductible.

If you own a premium credit card, you may already be covered for car rentals, but there could be notable exclusions. There might be a limit, for example, on the amount covered or the type and number of drivers insured. The coverage may exclude full-size vans or sport utility vehicles. It might not be good outside North America. Get the full wording of the credit card policy and read it before relying on it.

When you pick up your vehicle, be alert. Don’t let jet lag or the excitement of your upcoming vacation distract you. Take a few minutes to read the agreement before signing it and ask about anything you’re not clear on. Find out exactly when and where you have to return the car and what your daily mileage limit is.

When you get your vehicle, make sure a rental agency staffer does a quick walkaround with you. Note any existing dings, dents, chips or scratches so you don’t get billed for them. Before driving away, familiarize yourself with the controls for the wipers, seat settings, heating and air conditioning and side mirrors. If the licence plate holder has the rental firm’s name on it, ask to have it removed. It makes tourists a more obvious target for thieves.

Be clear where you’re going before you leave the lot, so you don’t get lost en route.

When it comes time to return the vehicle, it’s best to avoid those handy after-hours drop-off boxes. If the vehicle is damaged after you park it, you’ll be hit with a bill and have little leverage to dispute it. Instead, insist that a staffer do a walkaround with you again to verify that there is no fresh damage. You might also want to point out the gas tank, which you wisely topped up to avoid being hosed with a steep refuelling surcharge. After the car is returned, keep all paperwork for six months in case any extra charges show up on your credit card. It’s worth the effort. Shopping around carefully and keeping a paper trail will ensure a relaxing holiday that won’t be foiled by the fine-print police.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.