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W hen you need a car and no other form of transportation will do, your best solution may be a rental car. But if you're like most leisure travelers, chances are you don't step into a car rental agency often. And that's where confusion over rates, age requirements, and insurance sets in.
     Frequent business and leisure travelers know how to cut through the red tape by asking the right questions. You can do the same thing.
     You'll enjoy increased peace of mind, limit your liability, and have less stress after you return the car. Some frequently asked questions about renting a car:

Is there an age minimum for renting a car?
Most U.S. car rental companies require you to be 25 years old or older. Outside the U.S., age requirements vary.
     In the U.S., a few companies, such as National Car Rental, have a 21-year-old minimum at some locations. Companies offering this lower minimum age usually do so at small, privately owned centers, not at the corporate-owned locations in big cities. Call the company's toll-free number to find out if and where lower age minimums apply. If you're between 21 and 25 years old, you may pay an additional "young-renter's fee" of approximately $5 a day.

Why do I need a major credit card?
Regardless of age, when you rent a car you'll need to have a credit card--in your name--and a valid driver's license. Car rentals use your credit card (they rarely accept debit cards) to guarantee your reservation and to gain prior authorization from your credit card company for the amount of the rental car contract.
     Do you have to pay for the rental car with your credit card? Absolutely not. Your credit card assures the company that there's a form of payment available, but you can pay your bill by cash, or share draft or check if applicable, when you return the car. Then make sure the company destroys your credit card's prior authorization slip.
     One way to keep travel costs down is to have and use a
credit union credit card. The average interest rate is three to five percentage points better than bank-issued credit cards.

Are there extra costs for adding an additional driver?
Intricate rules usually apply to adding another driver. To understand what applies in your situation, deal directly with the car rental company, not through a middle person.
      Add the second person's name at the same time you sign the contract. Generally, if the second driver is a spouse (or someone you can prove lives at your address) or a business associate, there's no additional charge and you won't need an additional credit card.
     However, if the second driver doesn't fit this description, he or she also may need to provide credit card information. The company also will charge the second driver a fee of approximately $5 per day.

I already have automobile insurance; do I have to buy additional coverage?
Rental car companies can't make you buy extra insurance, so it's up to you to make sure existing coverage protects you and the car. Some companies require proof of insurance before you rent a car. Ask your insurance agent to call the rental company in advance, or take a copy of your collision and liability coverage with you.
     Keep in mind, though, some insurance companies don't extend coverage to rental cars--it depends on your individual auto policy. If you're at the rental counter and don't know what your policy covers, ask questions before declining collision damage coverage. The company's collision damage insurance may be pricey, up to $20 a day, but that's small change if you're in an accident and aren't covered. After all, you're responsible for damages that happen on your watch.
     Outside the U.S., your insurance coverage probably won't extend to car rental. Your option is to buy collision damage insurance from the rental company, fairly expensive at up to $25 a day, but a good option when you consider you're buying yourself some peace of mind.

If my credit card offers car rental insurance, what should I know before renting a car?
Call your credit card company and ask about insurance before you leave home. Find out if the issuer covers all types of cars and vans. Ask if there's a deductible amount, and if this is your responsibility.
     Inquire about what steps you should take if you're in an accident. Obviously, it's easier to gather this information when you're not injured or flustered. Travel armed with this information--and if the situation arises, file a police report, if needed, or report the accident within a required time frame.

Are rental cars priced according to their size?
Outside of specialty cars and vans, most rental cars fall into three categories: compact, midsize, and full size. For example, a Ford Escort is compact size, a Mercury Mystique is midsize, and a Chevrolet Lumina is full size. Count on paying about 20% more per day per larger category.

What about mileage limits and other factors affecting price?
No matter what type of car you rent, you'll pay an additional fee per day (fees vary depending upon drop-off point) if you plan to return the car to a second location.
     There may be a mileage cap of around 1,500 miles--ask about this up front. Some companies offer free mileage packages, but after you reach the cap, you might pay a hefty mileage charge to adjust for depreciation of the car.

How can I get an upgrade to a bigger car?
As a repeat customer, you already may belong to a rental company's "club" that automatically offers free mileage or upgrades to larger cars or cars with luxury options.
     If you're a member of a professional club or association you also might get an upgrade. Ask about your upgrade eligibility when making your reservation. Another tactic is to look for upgrade coupons. You'll often find them in advertising booklets with entertainment or travel themes.

What should I know before taking my rental car off the lot?
You can be held responsible for any pre-existing damage, so make sure you and the agent go over the car carefully. Note any damage, even the smallest scratch, and then keep a copy for your records.
     If the car has more damage than you want to be accountable for, simply request another car. If the rental company can't provide one, your detailed damage list should suffice. Or consider switching gears and going to another car rental company.

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