I've been rear-ended in a rental car by a hit-and-run driver. And on my last business trip, the rental agent almost foisted a car with a scratched-up bumper on me. (Thankfully, I remembered to inspect the vehicle before I left the lot and asked for a different one.) So I know firsthand the importance of making sure you have adequate coverage when you rent a car. Without it, you could face enormous bills and a damaged credit rating if you can't pay them.
But I am also frugal, so there is often a tug-of-war going on in my head when I rent a car: do I pay for the rental car company's coverage or not? Purchasing it can literally double the cost of a car rental. Sometimes the coverage is even more expensive than the daily rental rate.
Fortunately there are some good alternatives for those who want to be protected and save money.
1. Your own car insurance
If you own a car, then you (hopefully) have car insurance, and this is probably your first line of defense. You want to make sure you are adequately covered in four areas:
Loss of use: If you wreck a rental car, the rental agency will charge for the days that car is unavailable to other customers. My own auto insurance does not provide this coverage, so I use a credit card that fills this gap. (More on that in a moment.)
Collision/Comprehensive: Collision coverage typically covers damage to the vehicle if you are involved in an accident, while comprehensive coverage often pays for damage to the car due to theft, vandalism, flood, fire etc. Remember, your current deductible will apply. (Using the right credit card to pay for the rental can be helpful, since it may cover your deductible.)
Liability: This generally covers damage to another vehicle(s) and/or medical bills to others injured in an accident you caused. If you have an umbrella policy, that coverage may provide additional protection.
Medical/ Personal Accident Coverage: Does your personal auto insurance offer coverage for medical bills sustained in an accident, and will that extend to a rental car? Do you have good medical insurance? (Note, consumers who are injured in an accident sometimes find their own medical insurer balks at paying those medical bills.)
2. Your credit card coverage
Many credit cards offer rental car coverage. This insurance is usually secondary to your personal auto policy, and that the claim will first be filed with your own insurer. (A few credit cards automatically include primary coverage.) But it may cover deductibles or expenses that your personal auto insurance doesn't, such as loss of use. However, you'll need to be aware of exclusions, which may include rentals in some foreign countries, certain types of vehicles such as pickup trucks or full-sized vans, or travel on unpaved roads. Full-time students may also be excluded from coverage.
Like most third-party coverage, it typically covers expenses related to the rental car but not to other cars you damage or people or property you damage in an accident. For example, when I reviewed the coverage offered by the credit card I use most often, I noticed the following are not covered:
- Damage to any vehicle other than the rental car
- Damage to any property other than the rental car, owner's property, or items not permanently attached to the rental vehicle
- The injury of anyone or anything
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind here is that you need to read the details about what is and isn't covered before you get to the rental car counter.
If you're thinking about getting a new credit card that provides rental car coverage, keep in mind that your credit score will be a factor in whether you're approved. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.)
3. Private third-party coverage
If you purchase travel insurance, you can often add rental car coverage for a small additional fee, says Damian Tysdal, publisher of TravelInsuranceReview.net. But, as with credit card coverage, it usually doesn't cover everything. "It is really just for collision and loss of use," he says. "It won't cover a car you hit, or harm to others."
You can also purchase coverage through a third party, even if you don't buy travel insurance. For example, American Express cardholders can buy "Premium Rental Car Coverage" for most rentals for a flat fee of $19.95 or $24.95 per rental (not per day). It is primary coverage, and there is no deductible. It also provides additional coverage for accidental death and secondary coverage for medical expenses, and covers vehicles the basic automatic coverage doesn't (such as luxury vehicles and SUVs).
Other third-party services such as Protect Your Bubble, offers rental car coverage for $7.99 per day and covers rental car damage and theft, and personal effects protection, with no deductible. However, like other third-party coverage, it doesn't include additional liability coverage or personal accident insurance so you'll want to make sure you are adequately covered there through your own insurance policy or find out whether that coverage is available through your rental agency.
"If you are looking for the best coverage, look to your personal auto insurance," says Tysdal. If you don't own a car or have minimal coverage on your vehicle, you may need to piece together the best coverage you can from the options available.