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Rental car fee -- out of control

If you think that airlines are piling on with fees and charges, wait until you rent a car. Some, like most airline fees, cover optional extras that you can avoid if you don't want the option. Some are taxes imposed by state and local taxing authorities. But too many are like airline "fuel surcharges;" phony separate charges for costs that should really be included as part of the base price. A recent inquiry from a reader illustrates the situation:

"My husband and I rented a car from an online agency for a quoted price of $257.66 a week, supposedly 'including taxes and fees.' But our final bill came to some $200 more than that. The bill included these extras:

License Fee: $14

Sec. Fee: $5.90

Concession Rent: $31.49

Driver: $70

Trip Saver: $4.93

Sales and tax: 16.350: $56.61

Fl & svc Km 1.950: $25.74

My question: How can the amount have changed so much?"

This bill shows all three types of extras. Three of them represent options that the couple could have declined:

-- "Driver" refers to an extra $7 a day fee for a second driver. Some rental companies do not charge for extra drivers; others do. Many -- but apparently not this one -- waive the excess driver charge for spouses.

-- "Trip Saver" is for a roadside assistance program -- which this couple may or may not have really wanted.

-- "Fl & svc Km 1.950" refers to a refueling option selected by the renters. With most rental companies, they could have opted for a different "fill it before you return it" program and avoided this charge. At least, however, the refueling charge of $1.95 a gallon was reasonable -- some companies charge up to triple that figure.

"Sales and tax 16.350" represents the total tax and fee take by state and local governments, locally pegged at 16.35 percent. Local jurisdictions around the world have targeted car renters for a laundry list of taxes and fees. This figure isn't unusual; the total at many airports is higher. You can usually avoid some (but not all) of these taxes and fees by renting off-airport, but getting to and from an off-airport location may entail additional costs, as well.

The three really bad actors in this drama are "Lic fee," Sec Fee," and "Concession Rent." The rental company adds these supposedly to cover vehicle licensing fees, airport office security, and the rent it pays the airport. But it doesn't matter what the company calls them: They go directly into the rental company's pocket. Unfortunately, most other rental companies do the same. And excluding them from the advertised rate is a borderline scam.

Look at it this way. When you shop at a mall, the stores there don't tack on an extra "mall rent" charge to the prices on the tags. Your dentist doesn't add an extra charge to cover office expenses. Those expenses are part of the cost of doing business, and are factored into the store or dentist's prices. Similarly, vehicle licensing, security, and airport occupancy are all parts of a rental company's cost of doing business, and should be included in the base rate. The federal government doesn't allow airlines to do this sort of price splitting, which they would otherwise do with fuel surcharges. Unfortunately, no government agency devotes equal attention to rental cars, hotels, and other travel suppliers.

The online agency isn't blameless, either. It should have included all charges except the extra driver, roadside assistance, and refueling charges in the quoted price.

Whenever you rent a car, you can expect to see some pile-on of extras. Check the fine print on the Websites carefully when you compare rates and make reservations. And be especially alert for differences in extra driver extras: A more expensive rental from a company that waives the charge for spouses may be a better deal than one with a lower base rate.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com)

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