Sunday, November 29, 2015

Rental Cars: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

A short time ago [early summer 2008], I went postal. Well, not the way most people use that phrase today ... but I lost my temper and vented in a loud and inappropriate manner. And I know better than that; I really do. But that's putting the ox before the wagon, so to speak. Here's what happened, minus the inappropriate rant.

I rented a car in Tampa [Fla.], and the car rental clerk asked me if I wanted to prepay for a full tank of gas at $4.09 a gallon. Otherwise, he says, it will cost more.

He might even have said an amount, but I have tuned him out. I'm in a hurry to get the traveling done ... and after all, I know it will cost more and it is a consumer rip-off.

OK, don't ask yourself how they can do this because it doesn't hold up logically—or even from a business perspective. If I return it half full, three-quarters full, or empty, they have to put gas in the car before renting it out again whether I prepay or not. So if they have to fill it up if you prepay, why is it going to cost them any more money to fill it up if you don't prepay? Where's the real cost here? It can't be an opportunity cost—either way, someone from the car rental place has to physically fill up the tank. Of course, I have 20-20 hindsight and prepaying $4.09 isn't so bad. In fact, it's about what I've had to recently swallow in the hinterlands of Wisconsin.

But I digress. Back to the story.

Ha, I know what I am doing here, I tell myself. He'll charge me now for a full tank when I likely will not use anywhere near that amount. I'll just fill up right before I return the rental to the airport. Sweet. That car rental guy's not putting one over on me. I may be from Wisconsin, but we do have paved roads there!

Five days later ... I'm 15 minutes from the airport and I see an exit for a gas station. You know the sign. The ones that say: gas, food, lodging. I remind myself to stop, but being the clever consumer I am, I decide I will get even closer to the airport so there won't be any question the gas tank is full.

OK, you're getting ahead of me, here, I can sense it.

Yup, there's a glitch to my plan. Traffic is stopped shortly after I drive on to the mile-long Tampa Bay Bridge that leads to the airport. We're inching forward and I don't know if I will have time to search for a gas station, let alone make my flight. And besides, I don't know the area or have one of those fancy talking GPS voices in my rental. I do have my darling wife and co-pilot. She got the job because my daughter is 25 years old now and no longer travels with us. Now she could read a map!

Oh, there I go, digressing again.

Back to the bridge. And the traffic. Did I mention it was rush hour? Yup.

How much are you going to clip me for? I ask.

Anyway, I'm sure you can see it. Traffic moves at a snail's pace, I turn up the air, and my wife tightens her jacket. Oh boy, there's construction ahead. Funny how I missed that driving away from the airport, in the dark, five nights earlier.

Pshaw, or something like that, I mutter to my co-pilot. I'm going to get clipped at the airport. Why didn't I just agree to fill it up and focus on running the car down to empty before returning it? (Do you see how the mind plays tricks on you, here? Yes, let's run the car out of gas in an unfamiliar community just to prove a point.)

OK, I'm making a short story long. You would think I get paid by the word. Anyway, in what seems like an eternity but is more like 20 minutes later, we've parked the rental and I am getting the bad news from the rental cabaña boy.

I know, I'll take it like a man, I say to myself. Good thing I rented an economy car. "How much are you going to clip me for?" I ask.


"No, I mean, how much is the gas."

$100, he says again.

"How much is that a gallon?" I demand to know.

$8.69 comes his steady reply.

I go berserk. Well, nearly so. I mean, I expected a buck or so surcharge, but more than double the price AND for a full tank when there's half a tank left!

I give the young man a very measured adult response.

"That's highway robbery," I shout, and a few other not so well thought out words.

"$8.69 a gallon. You are a consumer's nightmare." And again I appeal to his compassionate side as some more not so well thought out phrases come from my normally reserved Norwegian self.

I demand to see his superior, time, of course, no longer as important as it was just a few seconds earlier. I am pointed in the general direction of the office, straight ahead, in case I could still see through my now unblinking deer-in-the-headlight eyes.

"What can I do for you sir," the superior asks, politely.

"$8.69 a gallon; that's stealing," I shout in not so measured tones. I told you this was bad.

"My competitor charges $9.69," comes the not so sympathetic and, to him, rational response.

"That's %#@ ridiculous," I sputter. I'm pretty articulate when I get angry. "I'll never rent from you again." Wow, I mean business. Why I think he even looked up from his paperwork at least once while I was in there. And I know he's feeling the walls of his business about to crumble from the loss of my $340 commitment.

I decide I will get even closer to the airport so there won't be any question the gas tank is full.

As luck would have it, we did make our flight ... though I continued to stew, as some Norwegians are prone to do. What's the moral of my story? I think there are two, actually:

  • Let the buyer beware; and, I say this rather sheepishly

  • Two wrongs don't make a right.

Jim Hanson is vice president of Credit Union National Association's center for personal finance and an avid business (and personal) traveler.

Be Smart When it Comes to Car Rental

  • Think twice about insurance. You don't want to be in a car accident without insurance—what the rental company will call collision damage waiver—but it's likely your normal auto insurance plan already covers insurance for your U.S. rental. Check with your provider to see what's covered under your plan. Some major credit card companies also offer rental car insurance as a perk to cardholders.

  • Be aware of fees. Although your auto policy likely reimburses most or all claim value in an accident, they may not cover added costs—diminished value, loss of use, or administrative fees—rental companies can tack on. Check with the rental company and your insurer for coverage details.

  • Research your rates. Car rental companies are pretty competitive, so shop around online to find the best deals. Keep in mind that rates vary greatly between weekends and weekdays. Be sure to check out weekly rates too; they often can be a better deal.

  • Avoid the airport. Picking up your rental at the airport can be significantly more expensive. According to a 2006/2007 study by, taxes at off-airport car rental locations averaged 14% less than taxes at airports.

  • Watch out for upgrades to larger vehicles. Although the rental car company may offer you an upgrade to a larger car for free, keep in mind you will be paying for it—in extra fuel costs.

  • Pay attention to details. Read the rental agreement before you sign it to make sure you know exactly what you're paying for and understand when extra fees will be charged. Inspect the car for any visible damage and record the correct mileage information.

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