Monday, January 14, 2008

Travelers should look on the bright side of 2007 - Sure, fuel and hotel costs soared, airline service deteriorated and we used less vacation time...

Catharine Hammer writes for the Los Angeles Times:

• Road trips got easier. By Christmas, the price of GPS devices was dropping like real estate.This means more of us can have them and more rental cars may too. This puts the power back where it belongs: in the hands of people who can't read (or see, for that matter) maps.

• The dollar got us out of our "Europe again" rut. Don't get me wrong. I love Europe, and so do the rest of Americans, who didn't stop going there just because the dollar is as weak as a kitten against the pit bull euro. But I resisted the siren call of the Continent, focusing instead on destinations closer to home (Arizona and Texas) or finding variations on familiar destinations. [Can you really say you've lived until you've tasted applesauce custard pie (better than the famous 10-layer cake) on Smith Island, Md., about three hours and a boat ride from Washington, D.C.?]

• Despite everything, we still believed that seeing the world is important. Sometimes it's just for a mental health break; sometimes it's a bridge to understanding. Whatever our motivation, we've realized, as a country, that being on the move is not just a privilege reserved for the rich. Whether you take the Megabus to San Francisco for a buck or the new Queen Victoria through the Canary Islands for several grand, you can expand your horizons and see the world from a new perspective

Rental Car Fees

From Tribune Media Services:

Is there a fee we haven't thought of? The search for new fees continues. For example, car rental companies used to give their best customers big breaks when they rented from them. Warren Atwood used to rent from Hertz in Los Angeles County and return his vehicle to Orange County. Technically, he would have incurred a drop-off fee, but because he was a frequent renter, that fee used to be waived. Not anymore.

''Now I have to pay (a drop-off fee),'' he says. ``I guess I don't rent from them enough.''

Maybe. But maybe Hertz, like many other car rental companies, is just looking to make the most money from its cars.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But, when it comes to these clever fees, I have a feeling the car rental industry is just getting its second wind. In the past, they've found ways of passing along the cost of everything from their car registration (vehicle license recoupment fee) to getting rid of old tires (tire disposal fee).

The only way to avoid these surcharges is to check your rate quote to make sure the fee is disclosed. If it isn't, you can -- and should -- argue to have it removed from your bill.

Dented Rental Car

From Tribune Media Services:

Someone dented our car, and you're gonna pay: For several years, car rental customers have complained about bills for damage to a rental car for which they weren't responsible. A few car rental companies were even caught invoicing customers twice for the same damage.

The industry at first seemed to back down, pursuing only the renters they were sure about. But it turns out that move was only temporary. Instead of leaving well enough alone, there's evidence that car rental companies were just quietly retooling their internal systems, adding technology that makes it easier to successfully pursue a claim.

Some of the applications -- for example, there's technology that automatically photographs a car when it leaves the lot and returns, allowing the company to monitor damage -- are helpful. Others, which have streamlined and automated the claims process -- whether the customer is responsible or not -- aren't.

In order to make sure you don't get stuck with a bill for damage someone else inflicted on your rental car, take pictures of the vehicle before you pick up the car and when you return it. If you see damage when you're handed the keys to your car, be sure it's noted on the rental form. Otherwise, you'll probably be asked to pay up later.

Rental Car Tips

From Tribune Media Services:

Your needle isn't quite on ''F'': Car rental companies have offered a ``pre-pay'' fuel option for almost as long as there have been car rental companies. But their definition of a ''full'' tank has apparently not always been the same.

Reader Penny McLain wrote to me recently about two recent car rental experiences. ''Both times, the attendants had supposedly checked the gas gauge -- we saw them do it,'' she wrote. ``And although we knew the tank was full, we were issued a receipt that reflected a big charge for gas.''

After I covered the gas gauge scam in my blog, I decided to do a little research of my own. I returned a car I'd recently refueled (but hadn't topped off, which you're not supposed to do anyway). The needle was just below the ''F'' mark. Wouldn't you know it, they tried to charge me, too? I returned to the gas station and topped off the tank, as ordered.

But some car rental companies will even bill you if the needle is on full. Several readers reported that when they drove less than 75 miles, they were subjected to a $10 surcharge from Avis or Budget. The fee was waived if they could prove they filled the tank before returning the vehicle.

To get around this scam, fill your tank immediately before bringing the car back and keep all of your gas receipts. Otherwise, you might find an unwelcome surcharge on your bill.

Car rental companies have always relied on fees and surcharges, but they are doing so now with more creativity and zeal

From Tribune Media Services:

Never underestimate a car rental company's drive to make an extra buck. Amy Villa did when she rented a car from Alamo in Columbus, Ohio, recently, and she ended up paying twice as much as she expected.

Villa's flight was delayed, so she phoned Alamo to let the company know about the holdup. A representative assured Villa that her reservation and rate would be honored, ''because I would be arriving within 24 hours of my original reservation,'' she says.

When she finally touched down in Columbus, an Alamo agent handed her the paperwork. ''The contract and the price was essentially double what I was quoted, going from $268 to more than $400. And that's for one day less,'' says Villa. ``Alamo never told me that the rate would go up.''

Welcome to the tricky new world of rental cars. Unable to raise their rates or impose significant cancellation penalties on their customers, rental companies have always relied on fees and surcharges to eke out a profit. But they are doing so now with more creativity and zeal, leaving customers like Villa swearing they'll never rent again.

It doesn't have to be that way. Here are four of the latest car-rental scams -- and how to avoid them:

Rules are meant to be enforced: The biggest car rental scam is technically no scam at all. Car rental companies are just enforcing existing rules more strictly than ever. In Villa's case, what Alamo did was perfectly legal -- and at the same time, completely wrong.

Clearing car-rental insurance confusion

Marshall Loeb writes:

It's a question many of us wrestle with every time we reach the counter of a car-rental agency: Do I really need rental insurance? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. For some, rental insurance is a waste of money; for others, it can mean the difference between paying out thousands of dollars for repairs and walking away free of any obligation.

If you're confused about the level of coverage you need when renting a car, take the time to review these six tips from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners:

Review your policies

Rental agencies typically offer four types of insurance: collision damage waivers (also known as loss damage waivers), liability insurance, personal accident insurance and personal effects coverage. Drivers who have comprehensive and collision coverage on their cars can usually forgo collision damage waivers.

Buy a low-fee insurance rider

If you find that your auto insurance policy does not provide rental-car coverage, you could save money by requesting an "insurance rider" from your insurance company rather than purchasing additional coverage through a rental agency, according to the NAIC.

Check your credit-card coverage

Many credit cards now offer some level of collision and theft protection. But don't assume that means you won't need additional insurance. In most cases, the coverage provided by credit cards is "secondary" or supplemental, meaning it only kicks in after your auto insurance or car-rental insurance has been used up. The NAIC recommends calling your credit-card provider to determine your level of coverage.

Beware when traveling for business

It's important to keep in mind that you're personal auto insurance policy may not apply if you're traveling on business. To ensure that you have the level of coverage you need, talk to your employer.

Recognize that the rules for long-term rentals are different

Customers less satisfied with rental cars

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. -- Customer satisfaction with airport car rentals has declined, according to an annual survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

Now in its 12th year, the study measures overall customer satisfaction with renting cars at airports by examining costs and fees, pick-up process, the rental car itself, return process, reservation process and shuttle bus or van.

The survey uses a 1,000-point scale, and found that overall satisfaction dropped from 767 points in 2006 to 750 points in 2007.

Jim Gaz, senior director of travel and entertainment at J.D. Power, said in a statement that "the decline in customer satisfaction with rental cars is indicative of a general decline in performance throughout the travel industry in 2007 from airports to airlines to hotels."

He noted that in addition to rising fuel prices and decreased availability of new rental vehicles, "customer satisfaction may also be influenced by the snowball effect from frustrations consumers are facing with the entire travel experience."

The survey brought good news for one rental car company, however. Enterprise ranked highest in customer satisfaction among rental car companies for a fourth consecutive year, followed by Hertz and National.

As commutes worsen, drivers seek solutions


By using only as much vehicle as is necessary for each stage of the trip, drivers use the least amount of fuel possible, he added. “The big thing is managing the energy — how much [of it] do I need to get me a certain distance?”

The Flexstreme is also interesting for having found a genuinely useful application for the much-hyped Segway scooter, Nesbitt said. “The Segway is a fascinating invention, but it is a technology looking for a market, almost.”

Another commuting alternative is the idea of ditching a second car and using a shared vehicle to get to and from work. The benefit here is that with multiple drivers using the same car at different times, fewer cars need to find parking spaces in the city during the day.

Today we have FlexCar and Zip Car as car sharing services. Unlike rental cars, there is no long time standing in line at the rental counter every time you want a car. Once signed up for the service you just pick a car up at a designated spot and return it to that spot when you’re finished with it.

Debunking the Secret World of Rental Cars: Author Reveals Easy-to-Follow Tips to Save Time, Money and Frustration on Car Rentals

 MILWAUKEE, Jan. 3 /PRNewswire/ -- Renting a car can be an overwhelming
experience. Knowing the right questions to ask can make the process run
much smoother. From nine years experience working as an agency operator for
one of the largest car rental companies in the world, Bob Minelli reveals
money- saving techniques and strategies for renters in his new book "How To
Save Big Money on Car Rentals: Uncovering the Secrets They Don't Want You
To Know" (published by AuthorHouse -

Written for the average person as well as corporations, "How To Save
Big Money on Car Rentals" demonstrates that saving money is only the
beginning. Readers will find themselves in control of the car rental
process because they will know just what to expect every time they need to
rent a car. They will learn that "If you don't ask, you don't get," along
with tips on what to ask for to save from getting charged for things that
should be free, and how to get money off of every rental.

Minelli exposes the truth about car rental insurance in an easy-to-
understand text, explaining exactly what coverage it entails and why or why
not users should consider adding this service. He shows how to take
advantage of the "Gas Service Option," and reveals how to get free upgrades
every rental:

This book is simple and easy to read and use. Whenever you find yourself
in the need to rent a vehicle anywhere in the world, this book will save
you not only money, but also save you from a lot of hassle when dealing
with the car rental companies. Its appeal for you will be when you
implement the information and find yourself saving money right away! 'It
would make me so proud when my customers would come back from a car
rental that took place in some other state, and tell me how much they
appreciated my "tips" that saved them a lot of money. And I look forward
to hearing soon how this book has helped you!'

"How To Save Big Money on Car Rentals" uncovers the best secrets of the
industry in order to offer renters leverage and power throughout the car
rental process. Minelli created a system of operating that worked for both
himself and his company, and now he shares that behind-the-scenes knowledge
with readers.

Throughout his experience in the car rental industry, Bob Minelli has
helped thousands of people get the best out of car rentals. "How To Save
Big Money on Car Rentals," his first book, showcases his expertise for
renters and teaches them how to receive huge savings and a stress-free
experience every time. For more information, please visit and

Saving Money on Rental Cars

Ellen Creager writes:

When you book a rental car, don't just compare companies. Look at the total rate, including all taxes and fees.

If a company isn't up front about total prices, go elsewhere. For instance, Budget and Avis show the car's base rental price on the first page of their Web sites, but you have to select the car to find out the true price that includes taxes. It's deceptive.

Use coupons if you have them. Know in advance total cost of perks like GPS or satellite radio.

You might not be able to do anything about car rental price hikes this year, but you should still cut the best deal.

Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or

Try harder to save on rental cars

Ellen Creager writes:

Bad news on the car rental front.

The eight major brands you see at the counter are now owned by just four companies.

Enterprise bought National and Alamo this fall. Avis owns Budget. Dollar and Thrifty are really the same company. Only Hertz stands alone.

As usual, consolidation likely means higher prices. Rates will jump 5%-7% this year, predicts the National Association of Business Travelers.

In addition, there's an explosion in strange taxes tacked onto your bill for things like stadiums and sewage plants.

An estimated 42 states levy more than 100 different taxes on car rentals, costing consumers $6 billion a year, according to a coalition trying to get Congress to ban the practice. (So far, a bill introduced in June went nowhere.)

Anyone who rents a car in Wayne County, for example, pays a 2% tax to repay bonds for Detroit's two new stadiums.

Bottom line for the consumer? Shop around. Prices are swinging like a see-saw.

Gas Prices & Rental Cars

From the Wall Street Journal:

Consumers who prepay for their gas with the rental company usually have to pay about a quarter more than the typical price at the pump. But those who waive that option can be charged $5 to $7 a gallon if the company says the tank isn't full enough.

The problem with having to refuel so near the return site, consumers say, is some gas stations use their proximity to rental-car drop-off areas as an excuse to gouge customers. "That does go on," says Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for AAA, the automobile association. Smith, the National renter, says that is why he filled up 15 miles away from O'Hare.

Some new car-rental policies are hitting the companies' most loyal customers. Hertz has become a bit less generous with its loyalty program and has added some new fees. The company -- which Ford Motor Co. sold two years ago to a group of investors (the Carlyle Group, Clayton Dubilier & Rice and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity) -- recently announced that, in many cases, the cost of redemptions in its 1 Awards program will rise starting March 1. The cost of a nonpeak free rental day certificate, for example, will increase to 600 points from 500. (Generally, members get one point per dollar spent.)

In addition, Hertz last February instituted new charges for after-hours returns. Hertz customers who return their car after the rental location has closed now incur charges until the location reopens. The company says it made that change because of an increased number of disputes over both vehicle damage and the exact time when cars are returned.

Rental Car Qualities

From the Wall Street Journal:

Higher gasoline prices also may be spurring some companies to be a bit more stringent about refueling. Before Jason Smith returned his rental car at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in August, he filled up at a gas station 15 miles away. It never occurred to him he might be charged for having less than a full tank. But the needle had nudged just below "F." The attendant at the National Car Rental site charged him for an eighth of a tank, Smith says, which works out to nearly $17. "I showed them the receipt, but they were like, 'Sorry, you'll have to take that up with corporate,' " he says.

National stands by that decision. "We're not giving away gasoline," says Charles Pulley, a spokesman for Vanguard.

It's clear that rental companies have to be careful about gas. Because gas prices are high and profit margins on rentals are slim -- the typical margin on a $50 rental is around $5, which is not much more than the price of a gallon of gas -- companies need to be stingy, industry experts say. "This is an area where profits can literally leak out of the fuel tank," says Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group Inc., a car rental consultancy.

Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc. says its policy is that renters need to fill up within 10 miles of the return location and be prepared to show their receipt. If they don't, they can be charged for refueling, which generally includes a per-gallon charge and a service fee. Enterprise, Hertz and Avis Budget Group Inc. say they do not mandate where renters refuel. Vanguard says so as well, but Steve Clark, who rented a car from Alamo in Orlando in April, says he was told by the rental agent that he had to refuel within a three-mile radius of the return site. Pulley, the Vanguard spokesman, says that is not the policy of either the company or the individual rental location. "There obviously was some misunderstanding," he says.

Rental Cars

From the Wall Street Journal:

But while customers and car-rental companies debate whether the quality of rental cars is sliding, the rental companies are indeed implementing stingier policies as they look to cut costs. Vanguard Car Rental, which operates National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car, says there are about 2,000 more miles on its vehicles on average fleet-wide now compared with a year ago. Hertz is being less generous with its loyalty program and after-hours drop-offs. And some customers say rental-car companies are being more nitpicky about where they refuel, with some renters being slapped with fuel fees if they fill up more than a few miles from the airport.

Rental-car companies have been pinched because automakers, desperate to get their own finances under control, are curtailing the practice of selling less-profitable "program" cars to fleets. Program cars are vehicles that rental companies buy at a reduced cost, then resell at prearranged prices through auction lots, usually after around nine months. The automakers used that avenue to rid themselves of excess production. So rental companies are now filling their fleets with a larger share of "risk" cars -- cars they ultimately have to sell themselves, possibly at a loss.

Companies say consumers shouldn't notice a difference in their rental cars -- even if they have more mileage. Vanguard, which Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co. recently bought, says the additional 2,000 miles on its cars is nothing dramatic. Also, the cars are maintained by manufacturer-certified mechanics and generally disposed of before they reach 20,000 miles. Industry observers agree. "The cars are maintained fairly well," says Chris Brown, managing editor of the trade publication Auto Rental News.

Cost-cutting trickles down to rental cars

From the Wall Street Journal:

Michael Klatt misses the days when rental cars were shiny and new.

In June, he rented a Ford Taurus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that had loose steering and stained seats. "I was literally touching it to see if it was wet," he says. The car, which had 20,000 miles on it, also had brakes that were a little wonky -- he had to push down hard on the pedal to make them work.

"Before you didn't get a car with 20,000 to 25,000 miles," the New Hill, N.C., resident and longtime Hertz customer says. "You can tell: They ride rough; they have a shimmy going down the road; the seats have stains on them. It's like rent-a-wreck."

Paula Rivera, a Hertz spokeswoman, says the company's fleet age -- typically eight to 12 months and 16,000 to 20,000 miles -- hasn't changed, and that its cars are maintained in accordance with manufacturer guidelines.