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Tips from travel pros to avoid being a chump.

The playlist is the first hard decision you need to make before you take off for a long weekend. Is this a Tom Petty road trip or an Outkast road trip? Be real: You are going to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion on repeat the entire time.

Once you’ve settled on some jams, you’re going to need a way to get around. Renting a car means making a series of choices that are tricky by design (and sometimes pricey, too). Comparing costs, buying insurance, even fueling up can seem like ordinary tasks repackaged as hellish traps for unwary consumers.

"The art of the game is putting the right number of cars with the right number of customers at the right place at the right time," says Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group.

Game is the right word for it. You can’t afford to approach it like an art. Rent a car like a scientist. Understanding the rules of the rental-car game—and how those rules are changing, thanks to everything from ride-sharing technology and car-booking apps to new standards for safety and recalls—is the only strategy for winning. Consider this a cheat-sheet for everything you need to know about before you get behind the rented wheel.

Three Companies Control 95 Percent of Your Options

Remember that episode from The Simpsons, “Marge Gets a Job”? Homer needs to get an estimate for some work to repair the foundation underneath their house. Surly Joe of Surly Joe’s Foundation Repair gives him a nasty quote: $8,500. Homer's outraged: “Forget it! You’re not the only foundation guy in town!”

Renting a car can feel like picking a foundation guy from the phonebook in Springfield, Oregon. There are many brands, but only three major companies, and they work the same way. Enterprise owns both National and Alamo. Avis owns Budget and Payless (and now, Zipcar). Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty. Together, these three companies account for 95 percent of the domestic car rental industry, according to Abrams.

“Consolidation in the industry has certainly, from a strategic standpoint, changed the landscape,” Abrams says. “Where you had eight independent brands at one time, all fighting for terrain, now each of these three rental companies have brands in each of the pricing tiers: high, middle, and low.”

Ultimately, the greater cost efficiencies afforded to larger companies, mainly in acquiring and holding automobiles, benefits the consumer. Yet on price, the 5-percenters—privately held rental-car companies such as Ace and Fox or franchises such as Payless—may save renters money.

“There are many brands that aren’t household names,” Abrams says. “They’re good companies, and valued companies, that have the same cars at every different price point. They may suffer a little bit on service and convenience, but you can save a lot of money.”

In fact, consumers get just as much satisfaction from small rental-car companies as they do from the big ones, according to the J.D. Power 2014 North American Rental Car Satisfaction Study. That survey asks 12,000 respondents to rate their experiences, including the reservation process, pickup and return, and cost and fees.

“There’s not a lot of data for us to slice and dice,” says Jennifer Corwin, client services supervisor for J.D. Power. She says that the study doesn’t compare the large and small companies directly. Still, satisfaction with small rental-car brands is “consistent with what we see across the rest of the industry.”

(Jared Zimmerman/Flickr)

Look Beyond the Airport

You don’t necessarily need or want to rent a car at the terminal. Lots of people flying into your destination are also looking to rent a car at the airport, meaning longer waits and more opportunities for things to go wrong. Rates can be higher when you rent from the airport, partly due to tacked-on fees—facility charges and so on—and in part because that’s just where they get you.

“If you rent off airport, you stand to save a lot of money,” Abrams says. “Same company, same car, same rental period.”

That depends on the city and the date, of course. You might not find a better deal outside of the labyrinthine airport lots, but it’s worth crunching the numbers. Check out how close your Airbnb is to a rental-car outlet, for example. You may escape the sometimes-harrying drive out of the airport (and save money to boot) by taking a ride to pick up your car.

Pick up the Phone

Sometimes an airport rental isn’t actually located at the airport. Sometimes reserving a car doesn’t actually secure you a car. And believe it or not, sometimes car-rental agencies are not exactly the picture of excellence in customer service.

I’ll spare you my own outraged one-star-review from the experience that forever scarred me. But the lesson I learned is to call ahead. Picking a car rental through a travel search engine (like Kayak, Expedia, or Travelocity) means looking at mostly identical entries, differentiated solely by price and pick-up location.

At a bare minimum, check review sites like Yelp or Google to learn about the common pitfalls at the pick-up spot before you click yes to anything. Many airport rental locations are off-airport or even nowhere-near-airport. (My own nightmare started with an airport pick-up that was in fact located a whole subway stop away.)

But go further: Call. Especially on busy holiday weekends, or times when your happiness hangs on everything going smoothly (like weddings). Ask a clerk what steps they recommend taking to guarantee that you actually get your reservation at this location. If the clerk has too many tips for you? Run away.


Millennial Renters: Fight for Your Rates

There’s nothing set down in stone that requires rental-car agencies to charge higher rates to drivers under 25. Young renters who call and plead their case to rental car companies may find an office that’s willing to reduce or even drop the fees.

For rental companies, the statistical risk associated with youthful drivers may be a smaller liability than the branding risk of outraged Yelp users complaining about ageist penalties.

“Millennial renters are just as satisfied as other renters,” Corwin says, citing one key finding in the J.D. Power rental-car study, “but they are more vocal when it comes to advocacy or negative comments.”

(Wassana Mathipikhai/Shutterstock.com)

Decide Whether to Buy Insurance…

Should you buy insurance? It’s the ultimate rental-car question. Odds are you won’t wind up in an accident, but better safe than sued (or worse). Steve Lehto, a Michigan-based consumer-protection attorney and frequent contributor to Jalopnik, says that he’s heard a horror story for every possible rental scenario.

“You’re going to want insurance from the moment you sit in the car to the moment you bring it back,” he says.

As for how much insurance you should buy? Try to ask someone who isn’t trying to sell it to you. If you have health insurance, you probably don't need to buy extra personal accident insurance, for example. But if you are a car owner with only limited-liability insurance for a personal vehicle, this insurance will do you little good if you get into an accident while driving a rental car.

“There are three classes of people," Lehto says. “People who’ve got full coverage on their own cars and are renting. They don’t even have to think about it. People who’ve got limited coverage on their own cars. They have to ask themselves, ‘What happens if there’s damage to the car?’ And then there are people who don’t have insurance at all, because they don’t have a car. They’re the ones who need to step up and buy something."

…But Never Make Decisions About Insurance at the Counter

Whatever you decide to do about insurance, don’t wait to make that decision when you’re picking up the keys, Lehto.

“You can buy insurance from the rental car company, or you can buy it from anybody else you want to,” Lehto says. “If you are standing in a parking lot of a rental car place, the rental agent will ask you, ‘Would you like to buy insurance from us?’ And that insurance is the most expensive that you can get.”

In fact, you can reliably buy insurance from that same rental-car agency at a lower rate, so long as you buy it online (or over the phone). That’s because at any point before the person-to-person purchase, you have options, whether that’s through booking search engines or from another rental-car agency—and the company knows it. While you are surveying your options, Lehto says, you should place a call to your credit-card company and your insurance company (if you are a car-owner). You may already have all the coverage you need.

In the end, you want to opt in on the things you know you need—not doubt yourself over what things you can afford to opt out of.

Flirt With More Than One Reservation

Peak rental season runs from April through September. (Nope, it’s not the holidays.) In order to get the best deal you can right now, make two reservations while you’re shopping, Abrams says. There aren’t usually any penalties for canceling a rental-car reservation, so long as you do so in advance. If a better deal comes down the line, drop the one that didn’t work for you.

Hell, find several deals and reserve them all. Of course, rental-car companies (and your fellow renters) would prefer that you didn’t do this. The threat of no-shows—customers who reserve a car in advance but never cancel the reservation when their plans change—makes it hard for rental-car companies to match up their inventory with their customers. That’s why many companies offer discounts to customers who pay in advance, since they’re less likely to bail without canceling.

Now, if everyone follows this advice, everyone is in trouble. Tech can save us from ourselves, however. New apps are poised to give find drivers the best prices while providing companies with more accurate predictions for providing the right number of cars. Autoslash, for example, checks your reservation against new rates, coupons, and discounts several times a day. When a better rate pops up, Autoslash cancels the existing reservation and books a new one. Those digital coupons, by the way, can’t always be applied to pre-paid reservations.

For its part, the rental-car industry is working to improve the booking experience. The move by Avis to acquire Zipcar, for example, involves “more than car-sharing,” Abrams says. “It’s really a technology play, so the rental transaction is less dependent on brick-and-mortar and labor. So any renter can rent any vehicle anywhere strictly through this virtual platform.” Hertz, he says, plans to have similar functionality in 300,000 cars—over half its fleet—within four years.

What About Not Renting a Car—or Borrowing One?

If you’re flying into a city with a robust public transit system, well, take advantage of that!

If you’re flying into San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C. and insist on renting a car anyway, consider using one that happens to be parked at the airport. Flightcar is a ride-sharing service that puts long-term parked cars to work: Drivers who are departing hand off their keys (virtually) to drivers who are arriving.

Here’s how it works: For car owners, Flightcar is sort of like a valet-plus service. Owners who entrust their vehicles to Flightcar get a free short- or long-term parking spot at the airport while they’re away, plus a free car wash—even if no one rents the vehicle. When someone does rent a car via Flightcar, the owner gets paid by the mile.

For renters, it’s like renting any other car, really. The prices are comparable, and the range of cars is broader. Flightcar takes care of some of the insurance up front. Renters receive $1 million of liability insurance. Owners are covered for the vehicle’s value (with a $0 deducible) in the event of any accident or vandalism.


Save on Gas (or, Just Relax About It)

The very fastidious driver can use the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report and its fuel-cost calculator to determine exactly how much gas a rental-car trip will use (and how expensive it will be), then compare that rate to the pre-paid rate offered at the rental car location. People who have chill should just fill up the tank on the return trip. One more recommendation from AAA: Make sure the tires have good air pressure before driving.

What Kind of Car Should You Rent?

What goes best with your playlist?

Enterprise couldn't provide any information about which cars in its fleet are the most popular; the spokesperson claims the company doesn't even know the answer. (Hertz and Avis didn't respond to inquiries.) Abrams, though, offered five answers: the Ford Focus, Nissan Versa, Toyota Corolla, Chevy Impala, and Chrysler 300. So maybe go with what’s popular.

If you’re hoping to store all sorts of end-of-summer gear, then Matt Hardigree, editor-in-chief of Jalopnik, recommends a roomy hatchback, such as a Volkswagon Golf or a Ford Focus. For cruising around, treat yourself with something sleek and sporty, because you deserve this.

Finally, consider checking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s listings on Recalls.gov before loading yourself or your family into a rental vehicle. Never assume the rental-car agency has done this due diligence already.

“Quite honestly, it sucks,” Abrams says, when I ask him about how the industry keeps pace with recalls. “It creates havoc. The government guidance as well as consumer sentiment is that they want rental companies taking any recalled car out of the fleet until repairs are made. That includes a loose knob on a radio. Or a wobbly side mirror. It’s very disruptive.”

What Color Should You Pick?

Easy! There are no rules. Go with your gut. And don't be afraid of red.

Top image: g-stockstudio / Shutterstock.com.

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