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Getting the best car rental deal

If you believe the advertisements, renting a car appears – on the face of it – to be a stress-free, easy transaction. You front up to the counter, hand over your credit card, sign a few documents, accept the keys to your near-new, filled-to-the-brim vehicle, and drive off into the sunset.

And for corporate customers driving on the company credit card, that's how smoothly it can go. Car rental companies love corporate customers because they have deep pockets and offer plenty of repeat business. For the well-heeled corporate customer, great deals and gold cards are the norm.

But when you or I walk into the car rental outlet, the game changes. Corners may be cut, inclusions may be excluded, and there are pitfalls galore for the uninitiated. So here's a few tips from the experts on how to really drive your dollar further.

Rule 1: Book your car when you book your flight.
Much like the airline business, the earlier you book, the better deal you'll get. If you arrive at your destination and front the counter for a rental car, you will pay top dollar – and most likely you won't get the size or type of car you want. Instead of a Corolla, you'll simply get what the company has on offer and pay the maximum rate to boot. Most rental companies do not charge a cancellation fee either, so if your plans change there's no financial penalty.

Rule 2: Know what you want.
Car rental companies don't segregate vehicles by brand name. They split their fleet into cars which fit specific categories, usually aphabetical and usually defined by size, engine capacity and features. An A-class car, for instance, could be a Hyundai Getz, or a Holden Barina, or a Kia Rio, while a B-Class could be a Corolla or a Pulsar. The bigger the car, the more you'll pay. And don't expect to get the specific brand of car you see pictured in the brochure because you are sure to be disappointed. If you have need of a specialised vehicle, such as a people-mover, make your booking weeks in advance.

Rule 3: Shop around, and take advantage of special deals.
A handful of car rental companies control the bulk of the business and are fiercely competitive. You'll find most are within $5 of each other on competitive category cars but from time to time, they'll cut rates to woo customers. Corporate “partnerships” also means reduced rates are offered through credit card providers (Amex, etc) or airline frequent flyer memberships. Surf these websites and scan the brochure material to milk these relationships for a potential further 10-20 per cent discount; a little homework here can save big bucks, particularly on a medium-to-long term rental.

Rule 4: Read the terms and conditions.
Yes, it's a pain but there are a myriad of traps hidden therein. Some of these include: failing to nominate a second or third driver (if he/she has an accident, your insurance is null and void); and driving on dirt roads (the large rental companies allow you to go on any gazetted road while smaller ones don't permit it unless you're renting a soft-roader SUV or 4WD).

Rule 4: Check your rental car for damage before driving away.
If the car has any noticeable scratches or dents, these should be noted and co-signed by a company representative on the agreement form. If not, you may be liable for the insurance excess (as much as $2000).

Rule 5: Ask for an all-inclusive quote for a specific period of time.
That way you won't get any nasty surprises from extras like the airport concession recovery fee (which some rental companies sneak on the agreement as a percentage on the complete deal). However, companies generally don't like to include insurance costs in their quotes, because this is a negotiable process and depends on how much excess you are willing to pay in the event of a prang.

Rule 6: Watch out for the hefty “one-way” fee.
If you are only planning to drive from one destination to the next (say, Sydney to Brisbane) and leave the car there, rental companies will charge extra to return the car to its point of origin. As a general rule of thumb, the further the distance (from point of origin), the higher the charge.

Rule 7: Refuel the car before returning it.
Car rental companies charge double the market rate ($2.40 or more a litre) to top the car back up, and then add it to your credit card.

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