Hot Tips for Your Next Car Rental

By Armando S. Sarlat

Scenario: Your flight has landed a little early and all you've got is one carry on. Set your mind at ease. You won't have to waste any valuable time at the baggage claim area. Sexy Ray-Bans are perched on your forehead, and your compact bag glides at your side. People see you and think; "there goes one smart traveler." You stride on over to the rent a car agency to arrange for that perfect ride. But wait! You're renting a car from the airport? And you don't even have a reservation? Shame on you! Remove those sun glasses and listen up. You've already made your first two Car Rental errors -- mistakes which could cost you up to twice as much money.

Timing is everything. Unless you got a good last minute package deal that included airfare, hotel and car, it's best to reserve your car in advance. Remember the difference: airline tickets and hotel rooms are like theater tickets -- you can sometimes save by waiting till the last minute to get them. Car rentals, however, are best handled in advance. Reserve your car several days, if not weeks, ahead of your pick up date. What if you didn't have sufficient time to make your reservation off site? Know this.. Airport locations generally charge a higher premium than non-airport locations. Check the rates for pick up away from the airport, and factor in the cost of transportation from the airport. In some cases it may actually be more economical to take a short taxicab ride downtown, or to the closest rental agency away from the airport.

Do some online shopping. See which companies are offering deals that you could take advantage of. If you're too busy to shop online, have a reputable travel associate or agency check rates for you. You might end up saving even more through a travel associate, as they often offer deals that are not found online. But be careful as some travel associates will impose their surcharge for the transaction. Find one who doesn't, or ask them to waive the fee for you. If you have the time, first shop a little online and then contact a travel associate to determine where you fair off best.

Feeling better? Good. Let's get back to the scenario and make it right this time. Now you're standing at the counter and the cheery, young attendant offers you a deal for an upgrade. You know.. the bigger, fancier car with the futuristic bells and whistles. Well, George Jetson, what do you do? Consider this, larger cars burn lots more gas. That's more of your hard earned money down the drain, and those few extra dollars a day add up. Stick to your original choice. Don't upgrade unless you absolutely must.

Traveling with little kids? Sweet. If at all possible, bring your own car seats along. Again, you'll end up saving an extra $10 to $15 dollars a day.

Be careful not to return the car with less gas than when you got it. If the rental company fills it, you pay their premium. Many car rental gencies offer to fill up the tank for you at the outset of the rental. Don't go for it. The bottom line is that you want to avoid having them fuel the vehicle because you'll end up paying their per gallon rate. Right now, everybody's suffering at the pump. Don't make it even worse for yourself. Say thanks, but no thanks.

Let's look at insurance options. You absolutely have to have insurance. It doesn't matter if you want to use your private car insurance or a policy offered through your credit card. Make sure that you're covered for rentals before you get to the counter. If you are not, accept their collision damage waiver (sometimes called a loss damage waiver), which runs between $10 to $20 per day. It's a lot less expensive than paying for repairs out of your pocket should you have an accident.

Before you drive the car off, walk around the vehicle and look for dings, scratches, cracked mirrors/windshields, etc. Make sure that anything you find is noted on the contract. When you return, make sure you walk back with an employee and have them sign stating that the car was brought back in good condition.

Let's assume you end your trip ahead of time, and you decide to return the car a day early. Nice? No! You have just broken your contract by returning the vehicle before the specified time, and the car company can penalize you for that. It's better to book for a shorter length of time and extend days later if you find it necessary.

Thinking green applies to car rentals too. Find out if the rental agency offers any hybrid vehicles. Some agencies rent hybrids at a slightly higher rate, but consider it all evens out in your gasoline savings. Earth will be a little happier with you.

Consider car sharing. It's a trend that you'll be hearing more of in the near future. Zipcar allows you to rent by the hour, which could end up saving you if you only need a car for a portion of a day. Zipcar rents for as little as $10 to $15 an hour, which includes gas and insurance.

Hopefully these tips will help you. Now go get that ride and keep a few extra dollars in your wallet. By the way, those Ray-Banks look great in a convertable.

Armando is a Travel Writer and Partner/Owner-Tour Operator at iTravel.