(MoneyWatch) Millions of folks rent a vehicle each year, with the heaviest rental volume being the summer months and during the holidays. But renting a car and rental car insurance is still one of the most misunderstood consumer transactions around because most folks don't have a lot of experience dealing with it. The fact is that even if you rent cars on business trips, it's not something most of us do frequently for personal use.
I'm generally in favor of buying rental car insurance and later this week I'll tell you why. But if you do this, you need to pay attention to the details. If you don't, you could end up paying too much, getting stuck with extra fees or worse, ending up uncovered for thousands of dollars in damages caused by you or someone else.
If you are going to rent a car, here is a list of the most common fees to look out for:
Vehicle Registration, Recovery and Drop-off: This always sets me off when I see this fee charged by some car rental companies. I'm the one returning the car and the cost of registering it should be built into the rental fees. The fact is that some stick this 3.5 percent charge to renters and some do not. So the point here is to ask about all fees and insurance costs when you are shopping around for rental car rates.
Age related Surcharges: Most states require drivers to be at least 21 to rent a car. If the driver is under age 25, then they will pay more and have fewer choices in what they can rent. The surcharges for these drivers can vary widely from one company to the next and can range from an extra $20 to $80 a day.
Second Driver Fees: These fees can range from $4 to $25 a day and can add up for couples who travel together and share a rented car.
Late Return Fees: This is where you can really get stung on costs. Return a car an hour late and you can get charged by the hour or for a full additional day. Avoiding this is simple enough: Stick to your travel plans and return your car on time. In my experience, if you are a little late, when you return the car ask the customer service manager if they can waive the late return surcharge and they will often make this accommodation.
Gas Fill Up Charges: Bring the car back with a partial tank of gas and you'll pay dearly. Car rental companies will fill your tank for you for as much as double to cost of local gas prices. Alternatively, they'll offer a fuel-purchase option, where they'll charge you for the full tank of gas when you pick up the rental. This is a good deal for the car rental company, as they know most cars are returned with some gas in the tank and therefore they get to resell the same gas to another customer. Making a stop at a local gas station and filling up before you return the car will avoid this extra charge.
The bottom line: Look carefully before you rent a car and don't go on a rant when you return it.