6 Ways Rental Car Companies Are Quietly Ripping You Off

Several weeks ago, one of the ATTN: editors said someone should write about rental car service rip-offs. I forgot about the pitch until my boyfriend and I flew to the Pacific Northwest for a wedding and needed a vehicle for the weekend. While waiting in line at the rental car service, I told him about the idea and expressed skepticism that rental car services were really that predatory. When we got to the front desk, however, I almost immediately regretted thinking we'd leave the rental car location unscathed. Once again, my editor was right.

Our service agent was a woman who asked all about our vacation plans before setting us up with a car. My boyfriend had ordered the cheapest option in his online reservation, but the agent swayed him into something larger.

"You have two pieces of luggage and two computer bags?" she said. "I'd recommend a four-door Nissan Altima."

Our luggage was small, as it was only a three-day trip, but we went with her suggestion anyway to be safe. Then she asked what type of insurance we intended to purchase with the vehicle. Though we both have personal car insurance that covers rentals, she spoke as if we were required to pay for some form of rental insurance, so I asked for the cheapest option.

Next thing we knew, the agent handed us a $159 bill for the vehicle switch and insurance. We were confused, as we thought we'd already paid for the car reservation online, but she explained the upgrade to a four-door would cost more. Of course, she'd said nothing about a price difference before we agreed to her recommendation. After doing some digging online, I learned the rental car insurance had been a waste of money as well, as we weren't actually required to purchase any since we already had personal insurance. Just before we left, she asked if we wanted the rental service to refill our tank for us at the end of our stay --- for nearly $4.00 a gallon. We declined and fled, kicking ourselves for failing to ask important questions when speaking with the agent.

A rental car service is a business, and businesses have to maximize their earnings. Rental car services are catering to travelers who are likely exhausted and ready to start their trips. As my fellow and I learned the expensive way, rental car services capitalize on this vulnerability and ignorance by discreetly getting you to spend more money. Here's how to avoid rental car scams.

1. If possible, decline the upgrade

During my trip, it was probably unnecessary to upgrade to a four-door because I was only traveling with one other person and we didn't have tons of stuff. If you're traveling with a large group, you might need a bigger car to accommodate everybody, but ask for the price differences for your cars of interest.

2. Try not to add more than one driver if you can

On our vacation, my boyfriend and I paid $13 extra per day to put both of our names on the driver's list. We did this in the event of an emergency, but I didn't end up driving the entire trip, so we blew nearly $40 on that service. If you'd rather have peace of mind, add more people to the driver's list, but know going into it that it could be a big waste of money.

"It becomes more expensive when you add everyone in the car," travel agent Natasha Lee Martin told ATTN:. "[Car rental services] intimidate you into adding things in the paperwork by giving you the impression that 'Oh if something happened, you'd be liable.' What are the chances [the other person in your car] is going to drive?"

3. Know your insurance options

If you have car insurance, that should cover a rental car. Prior to your trip, educate yourself on the rental car service and your car insurance policies so you don't end up paying for a plan you don't need.

"If you already have your own car insurance coverage, you don't want to bother with the rental car insurances," Martin told ATTN:. "They're really a rip-off. They try to add all kinds of extra coverage on there that you really don't need because you're covered by liability ... you're covered if you're driving a rental car. So that's one thing off the bat that they try to catch you with."

Martin, who books a lot of trips in Europe, says it's important to know ahead of time that certain areas have different insurance plans.

"Just ask [the rental car service], 'What kind of insurance are you offering?' and then compare it with your own," she said. "Because oftentimes it's just a quick phone call to your insurance company to ask, 'I'm going to Rome and I'm going to be driving. What's my coverage there if something were to occur?' Nine times out of ten, you'll find you're covered. You don't need all these extra bells and whistles. Because that can tack on so much more money. It's basically like you're paying for two coverages for no reason."

4. Fill up the tank yourself

At the end of your trip, drive to the nearest gas station and fill up the tank yourself. Some car rental services will refill the tank for you, but they charge a premium for this, so when you're getting ready to fly home, budget some extra time to find a gas station and refill your tank before heading to the car return area.

5. Look into vacation packages

Martin told ATTN: that you might be able to snag the best deals by reserving your rental car, flight, and hotel in a package deal online.

"Try to find out your options in terms of a vacation package first," she said. "I know people are intimidated by that and think, 'Well, I don't necessarily need a flight, hotel, and rental yet. I'm not sure, I'm just looking' .... find out anyway what your options are in terms of a vacation package. A lot of times, if you book the rental car with the hotel and flight, it immediately becomes tens times cheaper. The rate drops immensely as soon as you book it with something else. If you know you're going to need a flight or hotel anyway, go ahead and book that with the rental car and see how much the rate drops. I just booked someone for a trip in Scotland and London, two places [where it's] really expensive to drive around, and their rental car was absurdly cheap ... A lot of times that's the case if you bundle it. A lot of people are very intimidated by the vacation package, but then they look at it and go, 'Oh my God, this is so much cheaper if I do it like this.'"

6. Consider the time of year

Martin says to remember busy travel seasons mean more expensive rental cars.

"If you look at rental cars around the week of spring break for colleges, what a difference," she said. "Because they know these young people are flying to these hot spots. They're going to jack the rates up because they know that."