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How to Survive the Car Rental Rate Game
February 5, 1996 -- When my father needed to book a rental car for his annual winter jaunt in south Florida, I was glad to help--then was promptly sorry I ever got involved in a process as confusing as renting a car.

After calling six companies, the best rate I could arrange was $179.99 a week, a price I thought high. Then, I remembered my father was a member of the American Automobile Association, and that entitled him to a special discount from Hertz. The discount reduced the price to about $150 a week.

"It's much higher that I paid last year," my father complained. Adopting my best Travel Expert air of omniscience, I gave my dad the bad news: "Car rental prices have been going up recently. I'm sure that's the lowest price you're gonna get."

A few days later, my father called. He had seen a newspaper ad from a major firm offering Florida rentals for $99 a week. "Call Hertz right away and ask them to match the rate," I said. "Then prepay so they won't raise the price before you go to Florida."

He called, Hertz matched, he prepaid--and, as I predicted, prices did rise. Several weeks later, newspapers ads were promoting Florida rentals for $129 a week.

This tale of erratic price changes should alert enlightened travelers to several enduring truths: 1--On the philosophical plane, sons should never give advice to their father. 2--More practically, it's wise to assume there is no such thing as the "lowest" price for a rental car. 3--Most importantly, smart travelers should never believe an advertised price or a special discount represents the best deal available.

So how do travelers get the most favorable price on a rental car? Here are some tips worth considering.

KEEP CHECKING THE RATE
Since rental rates rise and fall rapidly without apparent rhyme or reason, your best bet for securing the best rate is to go with the flow. Make sure you ask the specific bottom-line question--"Are you sure this is the lowest price available?"--before making a reservation. But don't stop there. Keep checking before your departure to see if prices have declined. Ask if there are any special deals--corporate rates, club-membership discounts, or even room-and-car packages--that could lower your rental costs. The day before you leave on your trip, call again and ask if rates have declined. When you reach the car-rental counter at your destination, ask the agent to check the computer one more time to see if a cheaper rate is available.

WATCH THE GEOGRAPHY
Car-rental rates vary from city to city, and the differences are startling. My informal survey recently found the basic daily rental rate for a mid-sized car differs by more than $35 a day, from a low of $29.95 in Seattle to a high of $65.99 in New York. Generally speaking, assume rental rates will be highest in the big Eastern and Midwestern cities. (That's where the cost of maintaining a rental fleet is adversely affected by high real estate costs, high car-theft rates, poor roads, and frequent accidents.) Rates are also high in remote locations where demand is light. Rates are usually the lowest in popular tourist destinations such as Florida and California, where competition for business is most ferocious.

DON'T ACCEPT MILEAGE RATES
Almost all domestic rental-car rates include unlimited free mileage, but rental firms occasionally try to raise prices by imposing limits on the number of free miles you may drive. Last year, for instance, several firms tested daily rates that included just 100 free miles and assessed travelers about 20 cents for each additional mile they drove. However, travelers usually will save money if they only book rates that include unlimited free miles.

JUST SAY NO TO OPTIONAL INSURANCE
Competition in the car-rental industry has kept most rental rates far too low for far too long. One example: in 1974, Dollar Rent A Car charged $64 a week for a subcompact car in Orlando. In January, 1996, Dollar's weekly rate there was just $99. That $1.59-per-year price hike hardly covers the costs of running a modern rental-car business. To offset their overhead, rental firms resort to selling a panoply of overpriced "optional" insurance products. With confusing acronyms like CDW, LDW, SLI, and ESP, these plans can sell for as much as $15 a day. Yet most of these options do little more than duplicate coverage average Americans already carry as part of their automobile and home insurance. Before renting, ask your insurance agent about your personal policies. In the vast majority of cases, travelers will find they can safely say "no" to any costly optional insurance plans.

BEWARE OF FEES AND EXTRA CHARGES
Another method rental firms use to bump up their profits is to impose a maddening series of extra fees and surcharges. Depending on the rental firm, you may pay a fee additional drivers or a surcharge if any driver is under 25 years of age. And all rental firms charge inflated prices for the gasoline they sell to refuel the car when you return it. To keep these extras under control, make sure you ask about any unexpected fees before you make the reservation. And never buy gasoline from rental firms. Always refuel your rental at a gas station just before you return the car.

DON'T PAY FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF RENTING
The latest twist in the ups-and-extras game is the "cancellation fee." This may be imposed either by the rental firm or a credit card company as a penalty for not honoring your reservation or for not canceling by a pre-arranged time. The penalty can be severe: as high as the price of one day's rental. The fee is experimental and highly controversial and you shouldn't pay it. If a car rental firm suggests a rate encumbered by a cancellation fee, take your business elsewhere.

FOLLOW THE RENTAL RULES
In general, weekly rates are among the best bargains in the car rental business. One example: Avis recently quoted a daily rate in Boston of $53.98 for a midsize car and a weekly rate of just $208.99, a savings of about 45 percent. But beware: multiple-day rates usually have rules that must be met or the price will revert to the higher daily rate. Whenever you rent on a multiple-day rate, be sure to ask about two restrictions: the "minimum keep," which specifies the minimum number of days you must keep the car for the rate to apply; and the maximum number of days you may rent the car at the multiple-day rate.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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