Question: What is the reason for a drop-off charge for a rental car? Sometimes it is assessed, and other times it is not. In October, for instance, I rented a car in Phoenix with a California license plate, and I dropped it off at LAX. The fee was $200. Why?
Answer: Because you have to pay for convenience.
That's not to say it's right, nor is it to say that it should always be the consumer's lot in life, but increasingly, it is. You want to change your airline ticket because your plans change? You pay for it. You need to cancel a hotel reservation? Fork over a fee. You want to change the date of your cruise? Good luck with that.
For consumers, it's a question of who holds the cards. (Answer: Not you.) But for companies, it's often a question of managing its assets. An empty seat, bed or car because of your issue shouldn't be their issue.
"Most rental car companies transport the cars back to their original location after use, and they therefore need to pass on the expense to the renter," said Richard Weede, vice president for communications for Rentacarnow.com, which helps consumers find the best rate.
Using the IRS' 2009 mileage allowance rate for business miles (55 cents a mile), if it's 370 miles from Phoenix to Los Angeles, you would be allowed $148.50. Add the time for somebody to make the drive, and you can easily see where the $200 fee comes from.
But here's the confusing part: You might not get charged a rental car drop-off fee, or you might find a lower fee at another agency. It depends on several factors. For one thing, your base rental rate might be higher, incorporating the extra fee. For another, the location to which you're returning the car may meet the company's needs. And if you're a member of the "elite" car rental club, you may avoid the fee altogether.
It's a little bit like the airfare roulette we've all become accustomed to playing. It always depends on something else besides your goodness as a human being.
"It always pays to shop around before renting and always getting confirmation of any drop-off charges before picking up the rental car," said Carol Margolis, a self-described road warrior for the last 24 years and founder of Smartwomentravelers .com.
"If the charges seem too high for the city a person is traveling to, call the agency and ask them what they would do in your situation . . . to get the best one-way rental without a drop-off charge. Ask, ask, ask."
And what's the worst the agency can say? Go rent somewhere else? In these economic times, maybe you still do have a card or two up your sleeve.
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