In The Suitcase: Car rentals

It’s actually been an entire year since I’ve been back to my beloved Los Angeles, and even longer for Jon.  Now when I go back, I like being super touristy and renting a convertible to cruise around in, even though I was fairly anti-convertible when I lived there. Mostly because my HR told me stories about strange men following her in her open Miada down the I-405, and also because after a while, your face can only take so much whipping from your hair, and then you get lazy about waiting for the top to open up, and then the novelty of the convertible goes away.

Last two times in LA, I found a great deal on a PT Cruiser convertible with Deluxe Rent-a-Car, which is a small LA-based company that has slow, but very good, customer service, even post-rental. It was ridiculously, self-consciously fun for all. Jon stayed in LA longer once and refused to drive it by himself, so he traded it in for a regular car with a sturdy roof.

This time, we’re going to be practical and rent a standard economy car. Whatever car we end up with will not rise us high in LA society (and not that the PT Cruiser did, either), but it will get us around. A quick search on any travel engine leads me to find great low deals: $15 a day! $18 a day! However, renting a car can get about as complex as buying a house.

Like the airlines, the companies get you with their sneaky extras, particularly in the insurance sector. Then there’s equipment: GPS, ski rack, bike rack, baby seat, etc. Then there’s the option of pre-paying your gas for a nice lower price than what’s on the market or you fill it up – but they charge you for an entire tank. Last, but not least, there’s taxes. Here’s how to catch these extra costs and put them back in your pocket.

1. Insurance. Check your own car insurance policy for coverage. If rental cars are included, you’re in good shape. Liability and Personal Accident is usually covered by your current car or health insurance. Personal Effects coverage is another option at the counter, covering whatever might get stolen out of your car. But read the fine print: lost items may not be covered if it’s your fault. Also, your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance would cover that. Then there’s Collision Waiver damage, which transfers responsibility for damage from you to the car rental company – unless you drove illegally or on unpaved roads. In cities like LA where it’s not an ordinary commute without rubbernecking to see at least one accident – it might be a good idea to pay for this portion.

Always bring a copy of your insurance policy, as I’ve witnessed many a fight go down at the rental counter. Some credit cards, like Capital One, may also cover insurance on car rentals. Bring a copy of that as well.

Note about foreign rentals. Many will include insurance automatically in the price of the car rental. This can be undone. Check that your coverage extends overseas. Again, some credit cards list which countries they cover. Bring phone numbers. You can save yourself a few hundred bucks that way.

2. Equipment. This can be difficult to negotiate, since the reason you need the equipment is because you couldn’t bring your own. Just budget it into your price ahead of time. If you own a stand-alone GPS, bring it! But if you’re traveling overseas, it’s not really worth spending $100 to download new maps… just rent one. Check that everything works before you leave the lot.

3. Gas. So there’s this new thing going around where the friendly person behind the counter says, “you can pre-pay your gas with us and it will be less per gallon than on the street.” Well, doesn’t that sound nice? But if you’ve only used 1/4 tank, which would have cost maybe $10 at the gas station, you’ll receive a second bill for about $40 after returning your car because they’ve charged you for an entire tank.

It’s about as good as people who can’t find a gas station near the rental place and return the car half-full, and the company charges them $7 a gallon to refuel.

My tip: just re-gas it yourself. It’s okay if you drive another 15 miles afterwards. Make sure the little needle stays near the “Full” mark and you’ll save yourself a bundle.

4. Tickets. I didn’t mention this before, but just because you got a parking ticket on a rental car does not mean you will get away with it. The car rental company knows who rented the car when the ticket arrived. Usually the company will pay it, and then contact you about it and charge it to your credit card. I learned this when I once got a ticket, but didn’t actually know about it because it fell off my windshield or something – and then the company called me up.

5. Extra driver. I was supposed to be the only driver in Costa Rica because Jon couldn’t drive stick. But then we were upgraded to an automatic car, and then Jon ended up driving the entire time with an exception of one hour that I drove. Still, it cost us another $10 a day. Don’t be high-maintenanced: just stick with one driver. Or else be really careful if the other person is driving.

Happy cruising!

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