Car-rental contracts can confuse unwary drivers

January 09, 1994|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,Newsday

Most travelers consider car-rental contracts about as intelligible as a textbook on brain surgery, so they just resignedly put their initials wherever the rental agent marks an X. But that can rack up extra charges as high as $15 or $20 a day for unneeded options.

Even if you have verbally declined all the extras, you should be certain the agent did not hear your "no" as "yes" -- invariably ensuring an extra fee for the rental company. Twice recently, I discovered that agents had circled the prepaid-gas option even though I'd said I didn't want it. When I pointed it out, they said, "Oh, OK -- just cross it out." Agents often present this option as better than the traditional rent-it-full, return-it-full method because you start with a full tank but don't have to worry about refilling it while hurrying back to the airport at the end of your trip. In reality, however, tourists seldom can coordinate their sight-seeing well enough to wheel back into the rental lot with the gas gauge on empty. More often than not, you leave the rental company half a tank or so. Better to start with a full tank and return it full.

The November issue of New York Motorist, published by the Automobile Club of New York, explains some additional charges most commonly affecting rent-a-car base rates. Here are some points covered.

* Surcharges. Some companies pass along a charge to travelers based on higher business costs at specific locations, which can make the price higher than the nationally advertised rate. Rates can also be higher during seasonal periods of high demand, like ski season in certain states, for example.

* Airport access fees. Some airports impose a fee on rent-a-car companies that are not located on the airport property but that get business from airline passengers. The fee generally is passed on to the car rental customer.

* Collision/loss damage waivers (CDW/LDW). Some companies use one term, others use the alternate. Travelers can purchase this option in most states so they will not be responsible for the value of the car if it is damaged or stolen.

But you may already be covered by your credit card or personal auto insurance. (Note that you will probably have to pay the same deductible you would if something happened to your own car, and your policy might not cover loss-of-use charges some car companies levy to make up for revenue they lose while the car is out of service. Check your coverages before you travel.)

* Supplemental liability insurance. This option protects the renter against property-damage or personal-injury claims over and above basic liability limits provided in the rental agreement -- usually the minimum required by state law. (In some states, the major auto rental firms are beginning to shift primary liability responsibility to renters who have personal insurance. That means without supplementary coverage you could be faced with financial disaster if you are sued.)

* Personal effects coverage. Provides limited reimbursement to the renter for loss of baggage and other personal property during the rental period.

* Personal accident insurance. Provides limited accidental death benefits for the renter and often passengers.

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