Home > Guide To Renting A Car

Planning a vacation in Florida invariably involves renting a car. Unlike tropical islands where guests arriving by plane spend most of their vacation on the beach, Florida's vast collection of things to do and see means visitors need a way to get from point A to Z.

If you've ever rented a car, you know it's not quite as simple as it sounds. There are endless agencies to choose from, rates that seem to fluctuate on a daily basis and lots of variables that can affect your final cost.

If renting a car is a new experience, there's a good chance you don't even know where to start.

The first step is deciding on the size of vehicle you'll need. Car rental agencies offer several categories to choose from, starting with an economy (e.g. Geo Metro), compact (e.g. Chevrolet Cavalier), midsize (e.g. Pontiac Grand Am), fullsize (e.g. Chevrolet Lumina), premium (e.g. Buick LeSabre) and luxury (e.g. Buick Park Avenue). Convertibles, sport utility vehicles and minivans are usually available as well.

The most common rental size is the compact, which has enough space for two adults, three children and several pieces of luggage.

The next decision involves determining how you're going to make your reservation. You can go through your travel agent, who should have access not only to all the major car rental agencies but travel consolidators that offer special rates. As long as you trust your agent to find the best deal possible, this is a good route to take.

Another option is renting a car online. Just like a travel agent, the average consumer can call up any car rental agency's Web site and enjoy instant access to their fleet, rates and reservations. This is a great way to quickly compare rates offered by various agencies, view photos of the company's cars and make your reservation. Many companies offer substantial discounts (up to 20 per cent off) to consumers booking online.

Just remember to print out your reservation confirmation and keep it handy as a form of insurance in case your car isn't available when you pick it up.

Rental car rates can vary by 50 per cent or more between agencies at the same location. For example, in Tampa an economy car may rent for as low as $79 a week or as high as $149 per week on the same day. To get the best deal, reserve your car at least a week in advance, especially in destinations as competitive as Florida.

As you surf from one Web site to another, you'll notice that most rental agencies offer "hot deals" or "specials" or other enticements to earn your business. In one sitting, I found a one-week compact car rental in Florida for $129 US from Alamo and the same size car from Preferred Rent-A-Car (serving the Tampa and Orlando airports) for $138 US.

Online travel agencies offer one-stop travel shopping, allowing visitors to book everything from accommodations to flights to car rentals from one site. Here are just a few:

* Biztravel.com www.biztravel.com
* Expedia www.expedia.msn.com
* Internet Travel Network www.itn.net
* Preview Travel www.previewtravel.com
* TheTrip.com www.thetrip.com
* Travelocity www.travelocity.com
* The Hotel Reservations Network www.180096hotel.com

Though this travel consolidator specializes in affordable accommodations, you can also find great deals by booking a car rental through their Web site.

We also stumbled across a Web site called USA Please Visit! (www.usa.pleasevisit.com) which describes itself as " a guide to tourism in all 50 United States" and offers bookings for flights, trains, cars and hotels. Simply plug in your information, including destination, dates, choice of car and pick-up location, and the site conducts an extensive search of car rental agencies, some lesser known than others.

Our search for a one-week compact rental in the Tampa area resulted in rates that started at $119 US per week from InterAmerican and ran as high as $293.99 from Hertz. Five different companies offered cars for less than $200 US per week.

Keep in mind that the rates provided are only base amounts and usually don't include taxes, surcharges, insurance, gas and extra equipment. Most companies do offer unlimited mileage, but double-check before you drive away. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of 10 per cent in airport tax, a seven-per-cent state tax and $2.35 per day in local government surcharges and licensing fees.

Other extra costs may include car insurance, gasoline, infant and child safety seats ($2-$10 per day), fees for extra drivers or cellular phone rentals. Fill the tank before you return the car to avoid a refueling fee.

Before you pay for insurance through the rental company, check to see if your regular car insurance covers you in a rental car. It's also a good idea to find out if your credit card company will provide coverage if the cost of the rental car is charged to your credit card.

If possible, reserve your car for a week to get the best deal. Weekly rates usually mean keeping the car from five to seven days. But be aware of the "24 hour clock rate" which most rental car companies use when determining your final bill. If you're late returning the car, the company may charge an additional day's rate. Find out the exact time the car has to be returned to avoid extra costs.

Here's an added bonus: If the rental car company is out of the class car you reserved, you should be able to upgrade at no additional charge depending on what is available. The company is obligated to provide you with a car of similar or higher value.

There are a few safety issues that go hand in hand with renting a car. Be aware that certain unsavory characters will use various methods to distract motorists and cause them to stop their vehicles. These include: yelling, honking or pointing at your car as if something is wrong with it; motioning or asking you to stop and lend assistance; flashing headlights at your vehicle; or bumping your car from behind.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, don't pull over or stop. Instead, drive immediately to the nearest service station or well-lit public area and phone 911.

Here are a few other travel tips provided by Alamo:

1. Know your route! Before leaving the rental counter, ask for specific directions to your destination, including expressway entrances and exit numbers.

2. Roll 'em up! Keep your car doors locked and the windows up when driving or when parked.

3. No free rides! No matter how innocent or needy they may appear, hitchhikers can mean bad news. Avoid them.

4. Know your car! Familiarize yourself with your car's safety equipment, such as headlights and hazard lights, door locks and spare tire before leaving the rental counter. Always fasten your seat belts.

5. Hide your valuables! Lock purses, wallets, luggage and valuables in the trunk or glove compartment.

6. See the light! Should you become lost, do not pull over on the side of the road to study your map or directions. Instead, drive to the nearest well-lit, populated public place such as a service station or restaurant. And be sure to lock your car and take the keys with you.

7. Ready, check, go! Always park in well-lit areas and make sure you have your keys in hand when approaching your vehicle. Before entering, be sure to check inside and underneath your car. Lock your doors immediately upon entering.

8. Make the call. In the rare event you feel you are being followed, proceed to a well-lit, populated area and call the police by dialing 911.

How safe is the Internet? Many people are concerned about submitting credit card information over the Internet. According to the book "Travel Planning Online for Dummies", you shouldn't run into any problems as long as the site is encrypted. Both Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers indicate whether a site uses encryption.

On Netscape 3.0 and 4.0, look for a chain or padlock in the bottom left-hand corner. On Internet Explorer versions 3.0 and higher, look for a lock in the bottom right-hand corner.

If the locks or chains are not broken, then you can be assured that you're connected to a secure server and your information is safe.


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