By Jason Alderman
I'm usually a pretty savvy traveler, but a recent car rental mishap reminded me that even when you take every precaution, things still can go awry.
While planning a family vacation to Panama, I searched online for rental cars. One lower-cost rental car agency I'd never used before offered a significantly lower rate than the others. Ignoring the little voice in my head, I decided to try them.
Long story short: Although our flight was only one hour late, when I arrived bleary-eyed at the counter I was told that my car had already been given away - but I could upgrade to the next level for twice the price. After getting the runaround from the company's U.S.-based customer service department and learning that everyone else's rates had climbed equally high, I was basically stuck.
That experience taught me three lessons: A reservation isn't necessarily a guarantee; when traveling abroad, use trusted vendors - especially if it sounds too good to be true; and do better due diligence by researching travel columnists and message boards for rental tips, possible pitfalls and customer complaints.
Several car rental methods are available:
Book directly from a rental agency (usually cheaper online than by phone).
Comparison shop at websites like Priceline, Orbitz or Hotwire (although, I'll now be wary of buying a "blind" rental where you don't learn the carrier's name until after you pay).
As part of a package including airfare and lodging.
I usually open several browser tabs to compare rentals side by side. Rates change constantly, so today's price may be much lower (or higher) than tomorrow's. Other tips:
Book the best deal you can now and check back for lower rates.
Incorporate additional fees and taxes into your comparison - sometimes they don't all show up until the "Total" page.
Look for discount codes from membership organizations like AAA, AARP and airline frequent flyer programs.
Consider picking up your car at a non-airport location where rates are usually - although not always - much lower.
Other decision-making factors include:
Airport shuttle convenience.
Fees for exceeding mileage allowances, alternate location return, late returns or additional drivers.
Fuel refilling charges - you may do better refilling the car yourself. Use a website/phone app like GasBuddy to find cheaper gas in the area.
Surcharge for drivers under 25.
Rental agencies offer their own collision, liability, theft and other insurance coverage. Conventional wisdom says to avoid this route if your own insurance plans - or benefits available from your credit card - provide similar coverage. However, before automatically rejecting agency coverage, ask your insurance company and credit card issuer whether you are fully covered. Consider factors that may exclude coverage such as:
Renting longer than 30 days.
Certain models are excluded.
Travel outside specified service areas.
Whether or not you carry comprehensive and collision coverage on your own car.
Violating rental agreement terms (reckless driving, unauthorized drivers, etc.).
Before you take possession, thoroughly inspect the car for any pre-existing damage and note it on your contract; otherwise you could receive a hefty bill for someone else's minor scratches and dents. And, conduct a thorough walkthrough when you return the car.
Bottom line: Don't gamble on finding the cheapest deal. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at PracticalMoney.