You booked your flight and reserved your hotel. You looked at the weather forecast and decided to pack an extra sweater. What is next on your pre-travel to-do-list? It had better be the rental car.

If you are not prepared with knowledge about rental car options in a new location, you will be more vulnerable to the nickel-and-diming of hidden fees. The rental car industry has steadily been adding more additional costs. This helps them keep their profit margins in the green, but if you’re not careful, you could get trapped into spending a lot more money than you intended.

“Our number one advice for renters is to do their homework,” David Solomito, vice president of marketing for North America at Kayak told the New York Times. “For most people, rental cars are the least considered part of trip.”

One way to avoid high fees on rental cars is to rent from a location that is not at the airport. Kayak reports that this tactic can save you as much as 11% on rental costs. But the worst of the hidden fees come after you return the car.

The good news is that with a little bit of planning, you can keep those fees low. Here’s how:

Refuel before you return the car

Most rental car companies will ask you to return the car with the same amount of gas as when you left. But the distance between where you top off the tank and the return facility isn’t negligible.

This gray area leaves unsuspecting renters open to exploitation. So you should always inspect your final bill carefully. You might find a “fuel service” charge that shouldn’t be there. In which case, you are well within your rights to call and complain.

Fortunately, companies like Avis and Enterprise are increasingly using “connected” cars, which use technology to automatically report fuel levels. This technology is highly accurate, so discrepancies are likely to go down.

But still, travel experts suggest you know where to find the closest gas station to the rental facility.

Beware of electronic toll booths

In the past, toll booths were manned by operators, people who collected your money and let you continue on your route. The transition to electronic tolls have made it more difficult for car renters to know how much they owe or how they will be charged.

Different car rental agencies have tried different solutions to this complication. Enterprise, National and Alamo offer the use of automatic tolling for $3.95 per day it is used, with a maximum charge of $19.75 for the rental term. 

Other agencies put electronic transponders on their cars that get triggered when you drive past a toll booth. These charges will show up on your bill after you return the car. So even if you paid your toll in cash, double check the statement from your car rental company to be sure you didn’t pay twice.

If you are driving in the Northeast or in the mid-Atlantic states and have an E-ZPass, you can use this to make sure the toll fee goes to you directly. In California, some toll roads allow drivers to register a credit card to the rental car license plate and request that the tolls charge automatically.

Return the car on time

If you return the car too early, you might disrupt the facility’s planned schedule, so you should definitely call ahead. You will most likely still be expected to pay the full amount, even if you return the car a whole day in advance.

Late returns, on the other hand, almost always generate fees. If you don’t at least call the agency to let them know you will be late, you might be charged up to $60 per day in daily rental charges.

Take responsibility for traffic and parking violations

When it comes to run-ins with traffic cops, don’t think you can shirk responsibility just because you are in a rental car. In fact, you stand to get in even more trouble! Most of the major rental car services will charge you if they find out you racked up any tickets on their vehicle.

These penalties are usually detailed in the terms and conditions of the rental contract, so be sure to read the fine print carefully and know what you are and are not responsible for.

Beware of complimentary “upgrades”

USA Today reports that it is common for rental car employees to ask you if you want to “upgrade” your package when you pick up the car. They will not tell you there is an extra cost. But you should assume there is one. At Hertz, these upgrades can cost as much as $162.

That is why you need to read all the documents before you sign them! The same thing happens with last-minute insurance “upsells.” It is an old trick, but it still gets renters all the time.

Read more travel industry secrets on our blog.

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