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Don’t be afraid to drive a hard bargain

Special to The Times

SUMMER is road-trip season, but with the cost of gasoline soaring higher than the temperatures outside, vacationers can use some help saving money on car rentals. Here are some useful strategies:

* Call your credit card company and learn what auto-related insurance is already provided through use of the card. Many people don’t realize that their credit cards’ automatic benefits might cover them in case of an accident and that it isn’t always necessary to choose coverage from the rental company. Also check your auto insurance policy for the same coverage. These simple steps can save you $15 or more a day.

* Book early. Unlike airlines, rental car agencies don’t usually charge for cancellations, so nab the first good rate you find. You can always take advantage of a lower rate later. Comparison shopping shouldn’t take long, because many sites collect prices from many sources. Try www.expedia.com, www.orbitz.com, www.bnm.com and www.sidestep.com.

* Always request economy cars. If you booked one, but the company has only mid-size cars available, that’s the company’s problem, not yours. You are liable only for the base price you agreed upon at the time of reservation. Also, refuse any extras, such as GPS systems, unless you’re offered them for free.

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* Avoid the urge to upgrade to an expensive vehicle. An SUV or sports car will burn a lot more gas than a compact. The cars with better mileage are at the low end of the price range.

* Demand the final, bottom-line price when booking. Many rental companies lure business by quoting only a low base price that doesn’t include mandatory fees, taxes and other concession surcharges that, especially at airports, can increase the daily rate by as much as half.

When you book online, click all the way through to the total price, which is usually not listed until the final booking confirmation page. (Many rental car companies are not upfront about taxes and fees; even the biggest nationwide companies often warn that their quotes include mere approximations of what the real charges will be.)

* Make sure your “discounted” rate is really a bargain. When you book, agencies often ask whether you’re entitled to a corporate or special discount, such as a senior citizen’s rate. But these prenegotiated rates, including priority club rates, sometimes work out to be more expensive than the rate you’d be quoted if you’d booked without affiliations. Always compare “special” prices against regular rates.

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* After researching online, call. You may be amazed at how much discretion the rental locations have. Ask to speak to the manager and tell him or her the best price you were quoted online -- or even one given by a competitor. The manager often will be willing to undercut the price by a substantial margin -- but only if you’re willing to ask.

Enjoy your vacation. And make sure you drive as carefully as you rent.


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