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Tales From the Freeway

Hired Wheels : Renting a Car Doesn't Have to Drive You Around the Bend


O.J. Simpson makes it look sooo easy in those rental car commercials. His plane is taxiing on the runway, but he still has to reserve a rental car. What to do?

No problem. Simpson simply sprints the entire length of the airport, leaping over an occasional piece of Samsonite, and, within seconds, is at a Hertz Rent A Car counter being handed a rental agreement by an unquestioning, smiling sales rep.

For mere mortals, however, renting a car is not always that easy. We know that renting a car takes planning and money, preferably in the form of plastic.

But, into everyone's life, a rental car eventually comes. It's an option for summer travelers who want to save wear and tear on their own auto as they motor up the coast, for people who have relatives visiting from Schenectady and need an extra car to get to the Wild Animal Park, or for people whose own cars are on the fritz.

For the uninitiated, here are some ins and outs of the car rental business.

How old do you have to be?

You can vote for the President of the United States at age 18, but if you want to rent a car, most agencies require you be at least 25. Some agencies have lowered the age to 21, but extra information is needed to qualify and the rates may be higher than if you're older.

What do most agencies require of a rentee?

A valid driver's license goes without saying, but in the car rental business it also goes without saying that you need a major credit card, such as Visa, MasterCard or American Express. The credit card acts as a security deposit in case you decide to abandon the car in a ditch or if you spill grape juice all over the back seat.

If a renter has car insurance, more's the better, but for people without it, agencies will sell a policy that includes all the state mandated levels of liability coverage. No matter what, you won't drive a rental car off a lot without insurance, and if it's theirs rather than yours, the price can be hefty.

At Avis Rent A Car, for example, they sell an insurance policy that goes like this: A $9 daily fee that covers damage or theft of the car; $3 daily for medical coverage for anyone injured in the rental car; $1.50 daily for personal possessions stolen from the car; $6.95 daily if a third party is injured in an accident. This is in addition to your daily rental rates.

Rental agencies also require advance reservations, and most agencies have toll-free numbers to handle bookings. Unlike O.J. Simpson, most car renters need to book at least a week or more in advance, and preferably up to a month during the summer and holiday seasons.

"You can reserve anywhere from a week to a couple of months in advance, and with heavy summer traffic, the sooner you book, the better," said Joe Russo, a Hertz spokesman. "You also get better rates than by walking up to the counter, and you've got the assurance that, once you've booked, that rate is confirmed for 180 days, it's locked in."

What if you don't have a major credit card?

As inconceivable as that may seem, especially to a rental car sales rep, there is a way to rent a car without a credit card. Called "cash qualifying," you may think it would be easier to take the train.

Besides plunking down a whopping sum of cash as security, (anywhere from $300 on up, which can also go toward your rental fee), you must provide information that stops short of submitting your birth certificate in triplicate.

At most agencies, to cash qualify, you must put down the deposit, plus sign a form allowing the agency to call your place of employment and your bank. Some agencies go a step further and call your landlord, if appropriate.

What kind of car can you get for all this?

Agencies rank their cars by size--economy, mid-size and full-size--and charge accordingly. It is standard for rental cars to have automatic transmission, but some agencies have a few stick-shift models available.

Jerry Wetherholt, manager of Ugly Duckling Rent-A-Car in Oceanside, says he often gets requests for sports cars like convertible Mustangs, but his offerings are more middle-of-the-road Oldsmobiles, Plymouth Arrows and Chevy Chevettes.

Hertz Rent A Car uses only Ford models, from economy to mini vans, and they can all be outfitted with luggage racks, child safety seats and ski racks. Hertz also has vehicles designed with hand controls for disabled travelers. Avis uses General Motors vehicles and offers Sunbirds, Prizms, Corsicas, Grand Ams, Skylarks and Achievas, among others.

As far as color goes, everyone wants white or silver, said Tracey Yoakun, a rental sales agent for Avis Rent A Car at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. "Nobody wants burgundy or maroon or the bright red cars," she said.

Can you take a rental car out of state or out of the country?

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