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Rental-Car Companies Never Stop Trying to Gouge You

Car-rental companies just hate it when you don't buy their overpriced collision damage waiver "insurance." No matter that you have coverage through your credit card, as many do, or that you bought the much cheaper coverage your online travel agency offered; they want you to buy their stuff—and they may make it hard for you to avoid buying it. Fortunately, you can often find a work-around, but it may be more hassle then it should be.  

Case in point: For my current driving trip through Austria, I flew into Munich: It's about two hours from Innsbruck, my first stop, and rental-car rates are much lower in Germany than they are in Austria. I arranged a two-week rental through Priceline, with Dollar Rent-a-Car, for an all-up total of €326, including tax but with no insurance. When I arrived at the Dollar counter—thoroughly jet-lagged after 15 hours of flying—the very nice agent politely informed me that unless I rented with a MasterCard and had some printed confirmation of MasterCard coverage, he could not rent me a car without insurance. My choices: Pay about €550 for coverage with a 500-euro deductible or €650 for a full-value, no-deductible damage waiver. My choice was obvious: none of the above. Time for Plan B.

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I decided to go down the row of rental-car desks in the airport to see where I could do better. My first stop was Hertz, where a very helpful agent said that Hertz, too, required insurance on rentals arranged locally. But, she added, you might do better if you reserve through Hertz's U.S. website.

Talk about a time warp: Years ago, before anybody had even thought about the Internet, a standard "insider's tip" for travelers to Europe was that local rental rates in Europe were very high—so if you needed to arrange a rental car after you arrived in Europe, you should call the U.S. number of the rental company you preferred and book through the U.S. reservations office.

Apparently, that ancient system has migrated online. For some reason, my laptop couldn't log onto the airport's WiFi, so I went to the airport's service center, stuffed some coins into the slot and logged onto Hertz. Next problem: In Germany, Hertz.com automatically logs onto the German Hertz website, and even when you select "English" for language, you still get German prices. I couldn't coax the system to log me onto the U.S. website, but it did offer Canada, which I took. Final problem: Hertz said "no availability" for any of the car classes I wanted.

Now I was about down to Plan D, which was to log onto Priceline, where I was able to reach the U.S. website. Two-week compact rental in Munich, starting in one hour? No problem: Priceline quoted a rental from Auto Sixt for 20 euros less than my original Dollar quote. And when I asked the Sixt agent about credit card insurance, she said, "No problem with American Express cards." The whole thing took almost two hours—time I would really rather have spent taking a nap—but my bill was about $400 less than what I would have had to pay Dollar.

This exercise demonstrated three important conclusions about rental cars:

  • The rental companies' regular collision damage waiver is insanely overpriced—it's three times as much as the collision insurance you can buy from online agencies, to say nothing about the free coverage many credit cards provide. No wonder they try so hard to sell it; the profit has to be more than 90 percent.
  • Online agencies like Priceline don't give you the full story. Priceline should have noted which rentals accept AmEx, MasterCard, and Visa insurance and which don't.
  • A little perseverance and ingenuity can often cut your rental bills by a bundle.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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