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Car Rental 101

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"Staycation" -- a stay-at-home vacation to explore the hometown attractions -- has become the getaway destination of choice.

That's all well and good if you happen to live someplace that boasts, say, the world's largest hairball ... or even a mall with a Sharper Image that has enough display massage chairs for the whole family to enjoy at once.

For the rest of us, a "staycation" requires a road trip beyond the town borders. And that may mean lining up reliable transportation -- say, a rental car with accoutrements that our regular ride doesn't offer.

Score a deal on those rental wheels
Some of the best rates for rental cars come through loyalty programs -- such as AAA, your alumni association, and even your credit card company. The key to not getting taken for a ride is to comb through the restrictions, requirements, and other details of the rental offer for anything that may stall your trip or pad your tab.

Keep checking for better rates, even after you reserve a car. Like airfares, car-rental prices change because of demand or other factors. Most rental companies offer an out after you make a reservation. So if you find a better deal, you won't lose any money if you cancel. But as always, check the fine print to make sure! And don't wait until the last minute to reserve a rental, particularly in the high-travel summer months.

After you've lined up your wheels, you'll find other ways to save. While watching the Fine Living channel (hey, a gal can still pine about a trip to Provence, right?), I picked up a few more money-saving pointers.

Don't get taken for a ride
1. Convenience costs. It'll run you 20% to 30% more to rent your car from the company's airport outlet. Instead, get a ride into town and pick up a car at a location far from any hubs.

2. Prepaid gas plans will again jack up your total. Go to GasBuddy.com, and map out the stations nearest to where you're staying or picking up/dropping off your car to save some bucks.

3. Don't overpay to insure. Your existing auto policy may be all you need to cover your bumper, if it includes third-party liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage for rentals. If so, you could save $10 to $30 a day on additional insurance through the rental company. Read your policy or call the company to find out exactly what's covered. And ...

4. Realize that coverage through your credit card can be very restrictive. It may be available only if you rent through a certain company, and even then, it may not activate until after your auto policy kicks in its due. Luxury cars and pickups are often not covered. And if you're found to be liable for an accident or for a stolen vehicle (by forgetting to lock the doors, for example), prepare to pony up for the losses.

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Dayana Yochim spent her last "staycation" catching up on laundry and email and spending quality time with her DVR. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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