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Why Do Car Rental Companies Charge for Spouses?

Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Dear Carl,

Why do car rental companies charge a fee for an additional driver when that driver is your spouse? I can understand if it is friends renting or even family members when all the information, ie: last name, insurance cards, address, credit cards, etc. [is different]. But when it is a spouse, all the information is the same except for first names. It is such a price increase, especially for a weekly rental. If we don't lose our shirts by the airlines we lose them to the rental car companies or both.

Sharon

Sharon,

Unfortunately, questions like this are becoming a bit too common these days, as travel-related fees accumulate across the board, from airlines to hotels and, yes, car rental companies. But whereas airlines can justify fees by citing rising fuel costs (well, not so much anymore) and a sluggish economy, and hotels can point to declining business travel, car rental companies exist in a sort of grey area: Sure, demand is down, but rates are going up. Our own Sarah Pascarella warned travelers to budget more for a rental car this fall.

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Regardless of all these economic factors, the important thing to understand is that rental cars make a lot of their profit off fees and insurance, the latter of which tends to be a real gouge. And so the short and admittedly cynical (and, I'm sorry to say, unsatisfying) answer to your question is: Because they need the money, and people will pay it. I put in a query at several agencies to get answers on your specific fee, because it seems especially illogical to charge extra for a spouse, but haven't heard anything yet. I'll post answers if and when I receive them.

The good news is that some car rental companies don't charge the additional driver fee for spouses or domestic partners. Budget and Avis both explicitly exempt spouses from the charge. National, Hertz, and Alamo leave the matter unclear, so call each agency's rental office in your destination to find out if they charge. Spouses may be exempt in some places but not in others. Budget and Avis, however, are a sure thing.

Lastly, your agency may waive the fee if you're a member of AAA or AARP.

Dear Carl,

I want to use frequent flyer miles to travel to Australia in November 2010. It appears that I can't make reservations until November 2009 (one year away). Seats are limited using miles. Do you have any suggestions/recommendations to help me secure a reservation?

Lee

Lee,

Most legacy lines (American, United, Delta) post their schedules 330 days before the travel date, so you can't really book before then. For your purposes, traveling in November 2010, you'll have to wait until late November or possibly December to book, depending on when you want to travel.

At this point, a very clear problem emerges: Your departing flight will be available before your return flight, meaning you'll have to wait until your return flight becomes available if you want to book the itinerary together. Since you're traveling to Australia, we're talking about a gap of several weeks, which likely means your return flight won't be available until late December or even early January.

What to do? For starters, you could simply wait for your return flight to become available and then book the best itinerary you can. You may find less availability for your preferred departure, but it's not like availability is the hallmark of frequent-flyer programs. If you're a mileage-collector, you already know that flexibility is key, especially with popular, long-haul routes.

You could also book an itinerary with your preferred departure and a false return, then pay the change fee to book your preferred return when it becomes available. To do this, you'd have to wait a day or two after your departing flight comes online, then book your departure (which you'll keep) and a return (which you'll discard when you book your actual return). The caveat here is the cost (change fees can run in excess of $100 per ticket) and the possibility that your return flight won't have award seats available.

Airlines do allow you to place a hold on departing flights, which lets you claim a departing flight, hold it until your return is available, and book them together. But no airlines allow you to hold flights for more than a few days.

Readers, do you have any suggestions for this week's batch of questions? Perhaps you can share some personal experience with either issue? Any questions for future entries? Leave a comment below, and thanks!

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