Rental-car customers stuck in a traffic jam of fees

Additional charges can boost a bill by 75 percent

That all-purpose consumer slogan, "shop around," never carried more weight than it does for today's car renters, dialing toll-free numbers for comparative prices.

Rental agencies like to tout their low daily rates. Maybe boast of unlimited mileage. But they are less likely to tell you about the additional fees, surcharges, and taxes until the time comes to sign the rental contract.

In fact, the actual cost of renting a car may exceed the advertised rate by as much as 75 percent, estimates the National Association of Attorneys General.

For example, a mid-week rental of an intermediate car from Avis at Denver International Airport listed a three day-rate of $195, But factor in the $1.60 facility usage fee, a 10 percent concession recovery fee, and another 13.05 percent in state taxes, the total bill comes to $248 (not to mention insurance options which could add another $137 to the bill).

"Many of the [additional] costs are taxes used to fund public projects like convention centers, arenas, and airport expansions. This type of funding is very trendy right now," says John LeSage, director of research for Abrams Travel Data Services in Long Beach, Calif.

"Car-rental taxes and fees have become very complex because everybody wants to get into the taxing act. And since the renters are seldom locals, and as such not voters, the politicians feel there is no impact from this form of taxation," says Warren Erbsen, the owner/partner of Cherry Creek Travel in Denver.

One charge appearing on a lot of rental-car bills is a "concession fee."

"As airports expand, they are building consolidated rental-car facilities. These combined services include car washes and customer-service areas as well as shared shuttle buses from the airport. The airports are passing the costs to build these consolidated facilities to the rental agencies - and then allowing the agencies to pass these costs through to the customer in the form of a concession fee," says Mr. LeSage.

This fee adds 2 to 10 percent to the bill. While that may seem like a piddling amount, consider that in 1997, Hertz collected $24 million in concession fees and Avis came in second with $17 million.

Other surcharges include a vehicle-license fee, whereby the cost of the vehicle's license and registration are passed on to the renter, and a waste tire/battery disposal fee which is added on to some rentals in Florida.

Seeking respite from these fees, some cost-conscious travelers are renting cars at off-airport offices in hotels or city locations to avoid airport-specific surcharges.

In the case of that Denver car, the total cost of the three-day rental could be reduced to $166 by picking up the car at a downtown location - a savings of slightly more than $80.

"In some cases, rentals have gone from $20 to $60 a day with the additional surcharges. Some of my clients are just refusing these rentals, and one client now always asks for an off-airport rental because the airport rental-car agencies have the extra surcharges," says Cheryl Smiertelny, a Certified Travel Consultant (CTC) with World Bureau, a travel agency with 12 offices throughout southern California.

But renting a car off-airport is not convenient for all travelers, and in some cities, there are no savings to be realized by doing this. In Honolulu, for example, where many car rentals are part of package deals, the cost is actually higher to pick up the car downtown, rather than at the airport.

The bottom line is to ask about taxes, surcharges, and fees when you call for rental rates.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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