When it comes to shopping for something on-line, we tend to become naturally more focused on a singular aspect of the product or service we desire. There is so much information to be absorbed while browsing sites that it is nearly impossible to factor everything in. This is very true of the travel industry, which happens to be the second largest on-line market (I’m sure you can guess what the first is) and the one thing most customers tend to zero in on is that magical of all numbers: price.
This is of course to be expected. We can, after all, only afford what is in our budget. However, the first order of business should always be to understand the requirements of our vacation, in this case, the car rental. Before you look at prices, you should have a solid idea of how many people you need to accommodate, the amount of days you are staying, whether or not you can drive a manual shift, and the locations you are picking up and dropping off at. Provided you have those things locked down, you can safely move on to comparison shopping.
While it is true that 91% of travelers at least research if not purchase their trips on-line (source: Nielsen NetRatings – EyeforTravel independent study), it is always best to have some human contact before you make that important decision. In fact, if it is difficult to elicit at least a personalized e-mail response within 24 hours of contacting a travel company, you can almost guarantee that their customer service will put you on the back burner should you have a problem. Before you settle on a price, make sure that any future dealings with the company you choose will be satisfactory, or you will end up paying much more than that number on the screen.
The time honored tradition these days is “added extras”, also sometimes known as local taxes, hidden fees, or much more malicious wordings, depending on who you talk to. Some companies only quote you a “base rate”. Some companies will tell you their price is “all-inclusive”. Sometimes this is true, other times it is anything but. As long as the company is honest in conveying this information, it should not be a deterrent, as sometimes it is not within their control. Make sure you always read any terms and conditions and if you are still uneasy, call or e-mail the company and ask if there are any other charges to be expected upon arrival. Note that I say “charges” and not “fees” or “costs”. The basis of this being that in most cases a security deposit will be held for gas and key as well as a deductible for insurance purposes. The things that should either be included or not are:
Value Added Tax: Like sales tax in the States, all the countries in Europe have a different tax structure. This can be as low as 7.6% (Switzerland) to 25% or more (Scandinavia) and is generally not refundable as it is on goods, since car rental is deemed a service.
Insurance: While there are new types of insurance being imagined up by rental companies everyday, the main ones are usually Collision and Theft (these two are sometimes covered by credit cards – more on that in later articles), liability, personal accident insurance (like medical insurance) and personal effects coverage (covers your belongings inside the vehicle).
Mileage: Only luxury vehicles and SUV’s should come with limited mileage. Beware any company who does not have unlimited mileage on normal sedan and wagon vehicles, even vans.
Local Taxes: These typically include premium location surcharges (airports and railstations especially), road taxes, additional drivers, eco surcharges and more. Like insurances, these are called something different every day.
After inclusions are tallied up, request a free quote in writing. If you can’t get a free quote in writing, chances are the company will end up billing you for something you do not know about. If the company has a website where the quotes are stored, print it out off of your browser. Make sure it has a tracking number so you can pull it up when needed. Also make sure you know the difference between a tracking number and a confirmation number. One holds a rate quote, one holds an actual vehicle.
In general, you can get the lowest price from a consolidator, who deals with multiple suppliers. They have contracted wholesale rates and typically hold more weight when confirming special requests such as hotel deliveries, additional equipment and after hours pick ups. It helps if they have a “best rate” policy. The better companies will offer to beat any rate you can find provided it has the same parameters and inclusions. Always ask if they have discounts for memberships like AAA, AARP, etc. Ask friends who have used the company if they know of any discount codes. You never know what will bring down the price in the long run.
To sum this up, always remember that price should not be the first thing you look at. Make sure the company is reputable, is easy to reach via telephone and e-mail, has the criteria you require available, and then worry about the price. It may sound like a lot of work but in the end you will be happy that made the right choice.