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5 Dealer Tricks to Avoid for Car Rentals – Best Cheap Rental Car Deals

Last week I had to rent a car for a long trip. And if I hadn’t done my research beforehand, the car rental clerk would have scammed and sweet-talked me into spending a lot more than I needed to.

In fact, she was using such hard-sell tactics that, at times, I felt like I was buying the darn thing.

Car rental companies frequently advertise rock-bottom rates on sites like Expedia and Hotwire. But when you go in to pick up your car and finalize your reservation, they have a whole magic bag of tricks they use to scare you, and lull you, into spending more.

Here are 5 tricks to watch out for:

1. Upselling the Car Model
When you walk in, chances are the car rental clerk is going to try to get you into a more expensive vehicle. And they’ll try several different tactics to get you there.

My own clerk said this: “I see you’re driving from Michigan to Louisiana. That’s a long way. I think the Nissan Versa would make your journey a lot more comfortable. There’s more room for you and your luggage, and it gets better gas mileage than the Focus you have reserved. Do you want to upgrade for an additional $3 per day?”

The Ford Focus I’d already rented got 40 mpg; I later researched that the Versa only got 34 mpg. Plus, the two cars were almost identical in size. But the Versa was $3 extra per day for a slightly “nicer ride.” Doesn’t sound like a lot of extra money, but considering I was renting for 22 days, that would have added up to $66 plus the extra gas.

They might also try to tell you that your car “isn’t powerful enough” to go over mountains (if that’s where you’re going) or on long journeys, and therefore you’ll need a car with a bigger engine. Most of the time, any of their cars will do just fine. The only instance where you might need a bigger car is for driving in the snow.

So, do your homework before you go. Don’t let them scare you into renting a bigger or more expensive car. And, don’t let them tell you how “uncomfortable” your current rental is. Really, what car is uncomfortable these days? And if it’s so bad, why do they carry that model in the first place?

And watch out for trigger words designed to lull you in. My own clerk used the words “uncomfortable,” “stretch out,” “more room,” and “more fun” when talking to me. These words spark an emotional reaction in us. Don’t let them snag you with these trigger words!

Tip: Learn how to get a cheap discount rental car for more ways to save money on your rental. And don’t forget, take advantage of your AAA membership discounts to get additional savings!

2. Upselling You Insurance
Car rental companies always try to sell you their rental car insurance coverage. And this stuff is expensive: usually $30-$40 per day.


Do you need it? Probably not.

First, call your current insurance company and see what your policy covers. And, look at your credit cards; many will cover damages to your car if you use that particular card to pay for it.

Additionally, make sure you and the clerk both go over the car with a fine-toothed comb before you drive it off the lot. Any dents or scratches are your responsibility once you’re gone if not noted ahead of time.

3. Know Your Taxes
By the time they add all those taxes and surcharges onto your bill, it ends up being way more expensive than you originally thought.

My own bill last week was almost 25% higher than what I thought it was going to be, thanks in large part to the airport surcharge I didn’t even know existed.

It’s important to compare prices. Airport car rentals are usually cheaper because they handle a much greater volume, but then airports tack on a hefty surcharge, which is usually 10% or more, to your bill. And some airports charge much more than this, so call the rental company beforehand to know what you’ll be paying.

4. Fill It Up Yourself
Car rental companies charge you an arm and a leg for gas if you bring it back with anything less than a full tank.

How much? One rental car company I did business with this summer charged you $10 per gallon for fill-ups. The one I rented from last week charged $4 per gallon, plus a “convenience charge.”

Your car’s gas tank gauge needs to be right on the “F.” A hair less than that, and they can sock you with refilling fees. Fill it up right before you drop it off, and make sure you keep your receipt.

5. Know Your Rates
Car rental companies are so tricky when it comes to your rate.

For instance, say you decide to come home two days early from your trip. You show up with your car, expecting to pay for 2 days less than what you’d planned for. Makes total sense, right?

Nope. The car rental company can actually charge you more for this. By turning it in early, they say, you changed your “rate code.” Sometimes, this little tactic can add hundreds of dollars to your bill.

Yeah, this happened to me once. I was livid!

Apparently, though, this is not against the law. But it’s something you have to watch out for. If your flight is delayed, or you decide to come home early, call the car rental company to find out what this might do to your rental rate.

Last Word

Have any of you ever been scammed or “taken” by a car rental agency? I’d love to hear your story! I’m sure the more we bring these issues to light, the more people we can help avoid them in the future.

(Photo Credit: Stuart Axe)

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.