Renting a car? Read the fine print

Strategies

June 25, 2006|By SUSAN STELLIN | SUSAN STELLIN,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Travel inevitably involves surprises -- good and bad -- but the ones that come up at the car rental counter usually fall into the second category. Clearer pricing on the Internet has helped address surcharge sticker shock (now you are more likely to learn about these fees in advance), but there are still some surprises you might encounter if you don't scrutinize the fine print.

Below are a few areas where consumers may want to be aware before they hit the road:

Age restrictions: If you are between the ages of 25 and 70, you can skip ahead to the next section, since car rental companies have no problem letting you drive. But if you are outside of that age range, your birth date may cause problems when you try to rent a car.

That probably doesn't come as a surprise to younger drivers, since many companies have long refused to rent to anyone younger than 25. But there's actually good news on that front: Avis, Budget and Hertz have all lowered their minimum driving age to 21 since last summer, while Dollar, Enterprise and Thrifty have had that policy for a while.

Now for the bad news: Most companies still charge an extra daily fee for renters age 21 to 24 -- typically about $25 a day. Although, depending on the company and location, it can be much higher. For instance, New York and Michigan have state laws requiring companies to rent to anyone 18 and older, but in New York, the younger-than-25 surcharge can be more than $100 a day.

If you are traveling abroad, that's when upper age limits might come as a surprise. Although usually not an issue if you are renting in the United States, many American and foreign car rental companies do have maximum-age rules abroad, generally, because of local insurance policies. There's no consistency about what age suddenly puts you in the passenger seat, but if you have celebrated your 70th birthday, it's an issue you should ask about -- and don't count on the rental agency to bring it up.

"We wouldn't in a normal script or process ask the customer their age," said Charles Pulley, a spokesman for Vanguard Car Rental, which operates Alamo and National. "There are cues that might raise it, but the onus is on the driver to find out if they're qualified."

Countries where upper age limits can be an issue include Ireland, Italy, Israel, Britain, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Egypt and Morocco. But that's not an exhaustive list, and policies can vary by company. For instance, Alamo's maximum age for renters in Ireland is 74, and for Hertz it's 75, but Enterprise doesn't have maximum age limits in Ireland -- or in any other country.

You may find more flexible age restrictions with an independent agency, which you can find listed in guidebooks or on a Web site called CarRentalExpress.com.

Background checks: Another surprise you may discover at the rental counter is that many companies check your driving record before giving you the keys to a car. You might not find out this is happening when you hand over your driver's license, but most agencies disclose it somewhere on their Web site. Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz and Thrifty all check their customers' driving records through Department of Motor Vehicles databases -- at least some of the time.

"I'm not sure that it's done every single time, but enough that it warrants being included in our policies," said Jason Logan, a spokesman for Dollar and Thrifty. Among the major car rental companies, Enterprise is an exception to this trend. "We do not run a DMV check on drivers," said Christy Conrad, an Enterprise spokeswoman. "We inspect the driver's license to check that it's 'facially valid.'"

Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, which works with the car rental industry, said that some companies began doing these checks more than a decade ago, and that over time the technology linking Department of Motor Vehicles records has improved -- and gotten more affordable.

If you have had any convictions for driving violations within the past three years, you can check whether your record might prevent you from renting a car by calling a company that provides this service to the car rental industry, TML (800-388-9099). TML charges $9.95 to run a driver background check, though some states do not allow this, including California and Pennsylvania. Additional drivers: If you are planning to have more than one person drive a rental car, it may come as a surprise to find out that most companies charge $8 to $12 extra per day for each additional driver. Usually, anyone driving a rental car has to show a valid driver's license (and sometimes a credit card), and may also be subject to a background check.

But here's a tip about how you can avoid that extra fee the next time you plan to share the driving when renting a car: Some companies, including Avis, Budget and Enterprise, waive this fee if the additional driver is your spouse or domestic partner; Alamo, Hertz and National do as well, if you join their frequent-renter program.

But Avis and Budget have the most flexible policies, waiving the fee if the additional driver (regardless of sex) is the renter's "spouse, mate, life companion, significant other" or domestic life partner. If you are renting a car for a week, that savings can help you defray another source of sticker shock that is tougher to avoid these days: high gas prices when you fill up.

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