The COVID-19 pandemic has driven up the price of rental cars. According to a March report by CNN, the onset of the pandemic forced some rental car companies to sell off large portions of their fleet. This has created a massive shortage of available vehicles as travel has rebounded, particularly during this year’s spring break — driving prices into the hundreds of dollars per day for entry-level compact cars.

Consumers frequently contact Better Business Bureau with complaints about billing and customer service by rental car companies. Nationally, BBB received more than 7,000 complaints about auto renting and leasing businesses last year.

A St. Louis man told BBB in April 2020 that a rental car company in Florida forced him to either use the company’s insurance at additional cost or have a $2,000 deposit added to his bill, even though his personal auto insurance provided sufficient coverage for rental vehicles.

A St. Charles woman told BBB in January 2020 that after she rented a car in October 2019, the company charged her credit card twice for additional amounts without any communication.

It’s critical that consumers shop around and read rental agreements carefully before paying any money to rent a vehicle. Unexpected expenses can sour a fun vacation.

Tips for renting a car:

• Do your homework. Before finalizing your selection, check out the company’s BBB Business Profile at bbb.org. Try to find the exact location rather than the headquarters, as complaints and customer reviews specific to a location and its management can be telling.

• Read the fine print. Before you initial and sign the contract, read it and make sure you understand the terms. Check that the final price reflects what you understood the fees to be based on and note any additional fees or charges that you can incur.

• Shop around. Car rental rates can vary depending on the company or the amount of lead time, so it pays to compare prices. You may get a better rate through a motor club, credit card or other membership organization, or by bundling your car rental with your airfare or lodging arrangements. Consider mileage charges as well. Is the rate quoted for unlimited mileage or for a certain number of miles a day?

• Understand insurance. Before you leave home, check with your insurance agent or carrier to see if your existing policy covers damage to a rental vehicle or your liability as a driver. If so, you can skip buying insurance from the rental car company. If you are traveling for business, you may be covered by an employer’s policy.

• Consider location. Renting from an airport-based rental facility may be more expensive than an off-airport location. Also, many rentals have an extra drop-off fee if you are returning the vehicle to a different location than where you picked it up.

• Ask about late or early return fees. Some renters have been surprised at big late fees for returning a car late or even early.

• Get the company’s policy and fees on tolls. More and more cashless toll roads are popping up. Most companies charge a daily convenience fee for use of their electronic toll systems. Many charge a daily fee even if toll roads are not traveled.

• Think about extras. It is standard for rental companies to charge a fee for additional drivers or for underage drivers. Additional “upsell” offers may include a GPS device, collision damage waiver, roadside assistance and vehicle upgrades. Decide before you get to the counter what you need and what you don’t.

• Inspect the vehicle. Thoroughly inspect your rental car before you drive away. If you see any damage or defect, make the company representative aware of it immediately so that it’s noted on the car condition form.

• Returning the vehicle. Before leaving the vehicle, be sure an attendant inspects the car’s body in your presence and that you agree about any damage. Get a final printout of the charges that will be made on your credit card. Whenever possible, avoid dropping off your vehicle off-hours and leaving the keys in a drop box.

• Keep receipts and watch your credit card bill. Look for unexpected charges, such as damage to the vehicle, third-party toll bills, cleaning charges alleging you smoked in the car, etc. If you opt to return your rental with a full tank of gas, keep your receipt and record the mileage at the time of the fill.

Stephanie Garland is director of the Better Business Bureau in Springfield. Among those counties served by BBB Springfield are Jasper, Newton, McDonald, Lawrence and Barton counties. Emails may be sent to sgarland@springfieldbbb.org.

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