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Finding a Cheaper Car Rental

Sunday, January 29, 2006; P02

In the confusing world of car rentals, you can still find ways to save money -- if you know where to look. "You have to weigh a lot of things," says John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Here are some pointers to get you on the road across the country.

Rent what you need. Do you really have to have an intermediate-size car when you're traveling solo? That Chrysler Sebring will cost you 5 to 15 percent more per day than the Ford Focus; the difference is less if you rent by the week.

Go off the airport grounds. The lurching shuttle ride between airport and off-site rental office may be worth it if you have the time. Off-site rentals are as much as half off what you'll pay at the airport, where rental firms pay concession fees and sometimes higher taxes.

Rent on weekends if possible. Many companies offer lower rates Friday to Sunday, but when the car's due back, the clock starts ticking. E-Z Rent-A-Car, for instance, allows you an hour's grace period after the car is due. After that, it'll cost you $7.87 an hour for the next two hours or, after that, a full day. Also, rent ahead for holidays. You'll get competition among the car companies, before competition from other travelers drives up prices.

Rent only when necessary . Many airports are served by public transit that can take you downtown, where you'll find rental companies if you need a car for a day trip. Scan prices first, though: A check of six rental companies in San Francisco for a week in late February found that the difference in price between an airport and downtown rental ranged from $2 less per day downtown to $11 more.

Come insured. Insurance is by far the biggest add-on charge, but you may well be insured already. "You definitely have to insure their car," says Priscilla Myers, president of Executive Travel & Tours in McLean. And the airport rental counter is not the place to figure out whether you need all those options (collision damage, theft, liability, etc.) the clerk is dangling before you; the "peace of mind" they promise can double your cost, Myers says. Check your own policy; chances are it extends to your use of a rental car. Your credit card may also provide some coverage, and you may have towing coverage from your insurer or an auto club.

Watch for extra fees. Surcharges are common on anything outside the norm. Some rental companies impose a surcharge not only on one-way rentals but also to return the child seat to a different location. Many rental companies also charge to redeem frequent-flier miles -- from pennies to a couple of dollars per day, depending on which airline the miles came from.

Ask for discounts. Phone agents have surprising authority to knock down prices, especially if you have a competing company's special offer in hand.

Call a travel agent. Some agencies will handle rental car reservations without any other arrangements, for a fee. If they can save you enough money using the discounts they've negotiated with car companies (as high as 20 percent), it's worth the fee. Capital Travel Center in Annapolis, for instance, charges $15 to book a car, but with the agency's negotiated discount, "we're going to be saving anywhere from $7 to $20 a day," says Capital's John Frenaye.

Go online. The primary advantage of going online is information: You can get the 411 more quickly on car types and terms than by playing 20 questions with an agent. The rental companies' own Web sites vary widely, though, in how easy it is to find the cost of the collision damage waiver or how much you'll pay if you return the car late. Online options include:

{scheck} The Big Three -- Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia -- are good places to start. Travelocity provides the most thorough look at add-on costs. All three give both daily and total costs before the extra fees, which allows for realistic comparisons among companies and car types. Orbitz boils down the price quotes, skipping the decimal points but with the same ease of comparison. Expedia features "preferred vendors" first -- Payless, Enterprise, Budget and Hertz, for instance, in a search for a rental out of Orlando -- leaving you to look at others one by one.

{scheck} Hotwire, a hidden-provider site, almost always had the cheapest rates in price checks for the coming week and the next month. But because you don't know which company you're getting until you commit, you can't read the fine print on insurance and other fees. Priceline came up with pretty much the same rates as the Big Three, but allowed us to go cheaper by naming our own price.

{scheck} Aggregator sites Kayak ( http://www.kayak.com/ ), SideStep ( http://www.sidestep.com/ ) and Mobissimo ( http://www.mobissimo.com/ ) search numerous sites and can trim your workload. Travelzoo ( http://www.travelzoo.com/ ) looks only at deals; it listed 12 on a recent check.

{scheck} The Web sites of such companies as Avis ( http://www.avis.com/ ) and National ( http://www.nationalcar.com/ ) often have some of the more expensive rates, but they also offer deep discounts. Hertz's Web site ( http://www.hertz.com/ ), for instance, has a "last-minute special" rate of $188.99 -- $39 less than the lowest Hertz rate on Travelocity -- for a week out of Chicago's O'Hare airport if booked by Feb. 6.

Buy only the gas you'll need. Though the cost of prepaying for a full tank is competitive with local prices, there's no point in treating Avis to gas you didn't use. And you don't want to leave it to the rental company to fill up afterward (they tack on huge charges; we were quoted prices of $3.99, $4.99, even $6.99 a gallon).

Make a note of gas prices at the start of your drive, or check the airport Zip code for the cheapest gas at GasBuddy.com ( http://www.gasbuddy.com/ ), AAA's Fuel Price Finder ( http://www.aaamidatlantic.com/fuel_finder.asp ) or GasPriceWatch.com ( http://www.gaspricewatch.com/ ). Just don't count on bargains at the gas station nearest the airport.

Join the club. Rental car companies reward customer loyalty, just as airlines do. Between head-of-the-line treatment, free upgrades and discount coupons, "if you belong to an affinity program, that's the way to go," says Frenaye of Capital Travel Center. AAA and AARP members also get preferential treatment. At the very least, you have a solid bargaining position.

-- Margaret Roth

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