Hitting the road for July 4th? 7 ways to save on rental cars.

Checking for recalled models and not overpaying for gas are good ways to ensure that renting a car isn't  a ripoff.

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    Newly built cars sit in a shipping lot near General Motors Car assembly plant in Oshawa are shown in this June 2012 file photo. Car rental can be unduly tricky, Ballenger argues, but with a little extra vigilance you can find extra discounts and protect yourself from unfair charges.
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I’ve rented a car just twice in my life – both times for out-of-town weddings, when I couldn’t risk anything going wrong with my venerable Ford Explorer. But by renting, I was taking a risk I didn’t even know about.

Did you know it’s legal for rental car companies to keep using cars that are under a safety recall? And even sell them without informing consumers of the defects?

An MSNBC report last week described the practice as “rental car roulette” and quotes Consumers Union representative David Butler about unrepaired recall incidents where “there have been real problems, accidents, and even in a few isolated cases, deaths.”

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Two senators have proposed a law to ban the practice, but it’s been sitting in Congress doing nothing for almost a year. More recently, Sen. Barbara Boxer asked the four major rental car companies to take this pledge: “Effective immediately, our company is making a permanent commitment to not rent or sell any vehicles under safety recall until the defect has been remedied.”

According to MSNBC, only one of the four (Hertz) agreed, while the others released various statements either denying they rented recalls or making safety assurances.

Safety is obviously the No. 1 concern, but most renters are also concerned about all the ways you can be nickel-and-dimed. Here’s how to rent safer wheels with the best deals…

1. Check for recall models

At SaferCar.gov, you can look up safety recalls by year, make, model, or time frame and avoid renting a model that might have some vehicles under recall. You could also ask someone at the rental car center, or stick to the companies who claim to keep unfixed recalls off the road.

Even if the model you’re looking at isn’t under recall, car safety ratings vary a lot. You can look up safety ratings and top safety picks at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

2. Skip the extras

Don’t accept or use goodies like a GPS, electronic tollbooth passes, satellite radio, or safety seats without knowing what they cost. You can save a lot by bringing your own – if renting a GPS costs $12 a day and you can outright buy a similar one for $100, just over a week of renting would pay for it.

3. Understand all the fees

Renting from an airport location, returning the car late, failing to fill up the tank, and dropping it off at a different location can all lead to extra fees. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson once made that last mistake – and paid $75 for it. “Which was more than it cost to rent the car,” he says.

4. Think before buying extra fuel

You might think it’s frugal to avoid a fuel surcharge (as much as $8 per gallon, according to Consumer Reports) by taking the seemingly generous offer to start you out with a full tank at, or even sometimes below, the local going rate. The catch is you have to buy the full tank’s worth, even if you only plan to use a few gallons. Plan your trip route and know the car’s mileage rate before considering this option.

5. Don’t get upsold

Many people don’t need to pay for rental car damage waiver coverage because their existing car insurance or credit card covers it. Check your policies and you can save up to $30 a day.

And unless you’re renting for business or carrying a lot of people/cargo, there’s nothing wrong with staying in the cheaper, smaller classes of cars. They’re easy to drive and park and get better mileage.

You don’t have to cram yourself into a subcompact – the difference between compact and full-size might be under $5 a day. It’s when you start looking at trucks, SUVs, and luxury cars that you see prices really jump to double or more.

6. Ask about discounts

Look into discounts through your employer, professional organization, AAA, AARP, and pretty much anything else you’re a member of. You can find a long list of car rental membership discount codes online. Especially if you’re renting for multiple days, 10 to 15 percent off is nothing to sneeze at. Don’t have any memberships? Chances are there’s still a discount coupon: Ask your favorite search engine.

7. Protect yourself

Paying for your rental with a credit card allows you to dispute mistaken charges later. Taking before-and-after photos and documenting existing damage to a vehicle can limit the risk of phony damage claims. If you’re offered a vehicle with too many scratches and dings to keep track of, ask for a different one in the same price range. Keep all your paperwork and receipts (including gas) for at least a few months. Take this seriously – damage claims can cost hundreds.

Brandon Ballenger is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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