Unlocking a mystery about rental car keys

Unlocking the mystery about rental car keys.
(Getty Images/PhotoAlto)

Question: My wife and I are retired and have done a lot of traveling in the U.S. and throughout the world in the last 10 years, meaning a lot of rental cars. In the last three to four years, half a dozen cars we’ve rented in the U.S. have come with two keyless entry remotes attached to a braided cable that’s nearly impossible to break. At each rental counter, I have asked why we are given two keyless remotes that are impossible to separate. No good explanation so far, except that they don’t want us to lose them. Huh? If I lose one, I’ll actually lose two and won’t be able to use the car. If they are separated, I might lose one, which will be expensive, but I won’t have lost two (even more expensive) and I’ll still be able to use the car. Hope you can find a rental car person who can explain this irritating mystery.

Charles Perkins

La Mesa

Answer: To understand the answer, you must understand that it’s not about you. Yes, we know you’re the customer and this is a service industry. It’s your pocket that’s being stretched out of shape.


Good points. But those points don’t trump an underlying business reason for the Case of the Connected Keys.

Aaron Medina, Western-Pacific regional vice president at Hertz, explained it this way: Hertz has about 460,000 cars in its fleet, which changes as the fleet is “refreshed” — that is, cars are sold or retired. If you have the option of picking up your car in one place and dropping it in another (as Hertz and most companies permit), the company usually wants a car that comes with all its pieces and parts, including two fobs.

So, yes, if you lose one key, you lose both keys, and those remotes will have to be replaced (at your cost) if your trip is to continue.

It will cost you a pretty penny, as anyone who has replaced a remote knows. How pretty? I just checked on a replacement for mine and it would cost about $200. But wait, there’s more — and when it comes to mistakes, isn’t there always?


Yes, said Brian Haggerty of Cross Island Collision on the border of Nassau County and Queens in New York.

“The fob and the car are programmed together,” he said in an email. “It … has an electronic chip in it which is programmed to the car.

“If you get a new fob for a car it needs to be programmed to match the car. This is why they’re expensive — because they are a wireless remote that needs to be programmed.”

For my car, I was quoted $120 for reprogramming. If the two are added together, the mistake would cost $320.


Oh, and your rental car contract probably says you’re responsible. “Losing rental car keys can cost $500 or more, and most mass-market insurance companies won’t cover lost rental car keys,” said Ray Crisci, a senior vice president with Chubb Personal Risk Services.

Chubb does cover for lost rental car keys through the liability section of its auto contract, he said. “If our customer loses the keys to a rental car, we’ll pay the cost of the replacement keys, towing the car back to a rental car facility, and any loss of use while the car can’t be rented due to the lost keys,” he said.

If you’re inclined to lose stuff, check your auto insurance to see whether you have “dunderhead” coverage.

Not all rental companies give you two keys, said Avis-Budget spokeswoman Alice Pereira.


“The majority of our vehicles are now rented with only one key,” she said in an email. It’s interesting that something you don’t get may be a competitive advantage.

The rental car landscape comes with its own set of surprises. It seems simple enough — you give the car rental agency money, it gives you a car, you give it back — but it is far more complex than the consumer knows.

Next week, just in time for Memorial Day getaways, we’ll talk more about the pitfalls, perils and, yes, even pleasures of renting a vehicle.

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