You know the routine. After a frenzied flight, you scurry to the car rental counter eager to claim your ride and get on the road to summer vacation. "Initial here, sign there," the clerk tells you, as other customers wait impatiently behind you.
But before you take up the pen, here's a heads-up: Tack-on fees, together with taxes, can boost your car's quoted rate by as much as 50 percent.
Such fees are revealed deep in the fine print of the contract, which many renters don't read during the check-in process. And those who try to spot them in advance on the company's website discover that they're not exactly easy to find.
"It used to be that car rental companies made it as easy as possible to get you signed up and on the road. These days, consumers need to slow things down and be more guarded to make sure they don't pay more than necessary," notes Jeff Blyskal, senior editor of Consumer Reports, which along with sister publication ShopSmart recently examined rental agency practices.
To keep your bill down, keep your eyes peeled for these forms of rental highway robbery:
1. Unexpected Add-Ons
Beware of features that you may assume are free. Satellite radio can cost an extra $5 a day. A GPS navigation system runs about $50 a week. A company-provided electronic toll payment device costs extra — sometimes with a second surcharge for "processing" your toll charges. A recently filed class action lawsuit alleges that one rental company charged a "service fee" amounting to 16 times more than the tolls run up by renters.
Your defense: When making a reservation — and again at the pickup counter — ask about every possible cost. In addition to equipment, this includes late charges (fees typically apply 30 minutes after your car is due back), mileage limits and roadside assistance, which was once free but now costs extra.
Using your own toll device is usually fine, provided it works on the highways you'll be driving. But to be totally safe, call your provider's office once you get your rental and give the car's license plate number.
2. The Insurance Hard Sell
Expect to be pressured to buy a loss damage waiver to limit your liability. But at $60 to $250 a week, is it necessary?
"Consumers may already be covered on their own auto insurance policy if it includes collision and/or comprehensive coverage," notes Consumer Reports. "Some credit cards also provide protection. Just make sure the personal policy covers rentals and business travel and that it pays the 'full value' of a loss, administrative fees, towing and 'loss of use.' "
Your defense: Call your insurance and credit card company ahead of time to see whether you can avoid an unnecessary purchase. If you're not covered already, get the rental add-on policy.
Also beware of rental companies asking for huge deposits if you decline the insurance, or threatening to not rent to you at all — that's illegal in many states. If you get these threats, speak to a manager.
3. Who Made That Dent?
After turning in a car and going on your way, you may learn you've been charged for dings and dents you didn't cause. But if at pickup you signed a form saying there was no damage, you're going to have trouble making an "it wasn't me" protest.
Your defense: Take photos or video with a digital or camera phone when you first get the car — and again when you return it. Be sure to get close-ups of all existing blemishes, dings and scratches. Pay close attention to bumpers, windshield and undercarriage.
4. Fuelish Omissions
Recent surveys revealed that car rental companies at 13 airports were charging up to $9.29 per gallon, more than twice the rate at the pump, to fill the tanks of cars whose renters had promised to return them full. And some agencies tack on an additional surcharge for the "service" of filling the tank.
Your defense: Find out where there's a gas station near the rental agency and always, always fill up the tank on the way in.
And think twice about any "fuel option" by which the rental company charges you a market-based price for the tankful of gas that comes with the car, and then lets you return less than full with no charge.
The catch: The agency gets any leftover gas and you get no credit on your bill. To make this system pay, you've basically got to be running on fumes when you turn the car in. And who wants to risk coasting to a stop a mile from the lot?
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.