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Avoid exorbitant fees when renting cars

May 27, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's not just airlines that are tacking on extra fees these days. Car rental companies are too. Extras plus taxes can actually push the rental rate up 30 to 40 percent, according to the car-rental research firm Abrams Consulting Group. Here's how to avoid nasty surprises.

There are nine big rental car companies and all of them charge extra fees depending on your needs. But be careful who you do business with because sometimes the company will sock you with a huge fee you weren't planning on having to pay.

Paying for a rental car is just the start. A child safety seat costs extra. So does satellite radio, emergency roadside assistance, even the privilege of using "easy passes" to pay tolls.

Consumer Reports ShopSmart checked the fees at the nine big rental companies, including Enterprise, Hertz, Avis and Dollar.

"Car rental companies don't make it easy to find the charges on their websites. But they certainly do a great job of loading on the fees when you return the car," said Consumer Reports ShopSmart Editor-in-Chief Lisa Lee Freeman.

For instance, to add a driver costs another $13 to $30 per day. If the second driver is under 25, the fee can jump to more than $100 per day. Lose the key, and that can cost you $375. And be especially careful about picking up the car in one place and dropping it off in another.

"The lowest drop-off charge we found was $50," said Freeman. "But believe it or not, in some cases Avis charges as much as $1,000 to drop off a car in another location."

And at Avis if you return a car even 30 minutes late, you'll be charged for nearly a full day.

With any car rental, be sure to fill up before you drop off to avoid paying extra-high prices for gas. Then you'll avoid another possible fee for refueling. At Budget it's $14.

Before you leave home, be sure to check your auto-insurance policy and credit-card protection so you'll know whether you need to sign up for car-rental insurance. And it's always a good idea to pay with a credit card. That way you can dispute inaccurate charges.

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