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Ask Chuck: Avoid rental car rip-offs

Ask Chuck your money question

Dear Chuck,

My car rental company did not have a vehicle available, even though I made a reservation weeks in advance. With a shortage at the airport, the agency with a car tried to rip me off on the price. The entire experience left me frustrated and wanting to learn how to avoid problems in the future. What advice do you have?

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Rental Car Frustrations

Dear Rental Car Frustrations,

Unsplash/ Obi - @pixel6propix
Unsplash/ Obi - @pixel6propix

I was just with a friend for a meeting over coffee who told me a similar story of a nightmare at our local airport trying to rent a car. This exact problem has happened to me twice in Atlanta. Friends attending our Crown conference this week were frustrated in the Charlotte airport. Many had to stand in long lines due to overbooking, and some had no vehicles, even though the reservations were made long ago.

Watch out for these!

Making a reservation to pick up a car at the airport normally works well, except in situations like these: 

  • Many weather-related canceled flights. In a massive hub like Atlanta, when flights are canceled, many choose to rent a car to get to their destination. It creates a mad rush for any available vehicles.
  • Major events like football games, concerts or conventions may be in the area at the same time, which can overwhelm the rental agencies. Always check to see what else is happening in the destination where you are traveling.
  • Seasonal visitors. Hundreds of thousands of tourists travel to watch the leaves change colors, migrate toward warmer Florida weather, or hit the slopes and ski in the winter. You may be caught unexpectedly by the peak season of tourism.

Since your car reservation is not guaranteed by a non-refundable deposit, the rental agencies prefer to have the guaranteed customer who is standing at the desk vs. the one who may or may not arrive.

General tips for renting cars

Assuming cars are available, other factors will impact what you pay: the type of vehicle, the location, and the age of the driver. Rent from a trusted company. Zipcar, a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group, was recently fined $300,000 for renting out vehicles with unrepaired recall issues.

Check out this source for rankings of rental companies.

Common rip-offs, as seen below, can be avoided by spending a little extra time in preparation.

Prepaying at booking

If you have to cancel, you can get stuck with some major costs — book when you know your schedule and have done some research. If you have some flexibility, you can potentially save a lot of money. For example, booking a different time and location for pick-up can offer major savings.

Different locations

Changing the drop-off location from the pick-up location can add extra charges.


If you want the convenience of driving through a toll booth, you will pay for it. Otherwise, skip the add-on fee, and pay for tolls on your own. Car seats, additional drivers, and GPS cost more.

Check before signing and driving

Always inspect the rented vehicle carefully before signing any paperwork. Walk around the vehicle, take photos, and document the condition upon pick up. Bend down to see things below eye level. How are the tires? Save photos and videos for several months to avoid any future claims. Does it have a full tank of gas? Knowing the VIN (vehicle identification number) will reveal any special features and recalls. If you have problems while driving the rental, a recall could indicate that it is not your fault. Always save your paperwork in case there is a claim filed against you.

Car rental insurance

Millions of dollars are made off customers who decide to pay for insurance at the rental counter.

  • Your primary auto insurance policy should cover rental cars. Verify the coverage.
  • Your credit card may provide some rental car insurance. Study your policy. Does it offer a collision damage waiver, the kind of vehicle you plan to rent, and the country in which you will be driving?
  • A 3rd party provider may cost less than what a rental car company will charge.

Pre-paid gas

Customers get ripped off thinking they get a normal per-gallon rate. However, the price is for an entire tank. If not returned empty, you overpay, along with high rental-car taxes, which can add 30% to the cost.

If you decline to pre-pay, just refill the tank before returning. Keep the receipt in case the company tries to charge you later. If you forget or run out of time to refill, you will be charged up to three times the local price for every gallon needed to fill the rental. So, make sure you allow time to fill up before returning. Plus, you will get the credit card rewards!

Late fees

Most companies offer a grace period of around 30 minutes. After that, extra fees kick in. After 90 minutes, a full-day's charge and taxes may apply.

Price changes

Demand, availability, and promotions can cause prices to fluctuate. Flexibility with travel dates can yield savings. There’s more info here.

Check for private options

A friend of mine loves to use Although I have never used it, he reports that he has had no issues whatsoever after more than 25 rental experiences. 

Driving your own car has a depreciation cost. A road trip with lots of miles could accelerate your need to replace tires or make future repairs. If you decide to drive your own car, have a trusted mechanic check it out. A friend recently had to spend an extra week on a trip out of state waiting for a part for his older model vehicle.

Christian Credit Counselors is a trusted source of help for a debt management plan out of credit card debt. Contact them if you need help getting on the road to financial freedom.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, a global Christian ministry, founded by the late Larry Burkett. He is the host of a daily radio broadcast, My MoneyLife, featured on more than 1,000 Christian Music and Talk stations in the U.S., and author of his most recent book, Economic Evidence for God?. Be sure to follow Crown on Facebook.

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