Skiers deal with some of the worst driving conditions imaginable. Start with mountain driving on steep, unfamiliar roads, then add snow, black ice and whiteouts. Factor in an expensive rented SUV that'll be loaded with all your gear and jammed into a crowded lot. When you tack on the everyday dangers that any driver faces, it's tough to get around the fact that bad things happen to nice rental cars. Are you covered?
Rental car companies, of course, offer an alphabet soup of waivers and insurance products, designed to protect you—and them—in the event your SUV goes greasy-side up. You might think it's easiest and safest to sign up for the full ride, but in many cases, you're paying for coverage that you already have, needlessly running up your tab. There are a few caveats, though, so before you count on your personal policies or credit cards for coverage, it's worth understanding which extra coverage you may need and which you almost certainly won't. And don't expect straight answers at a rental counter. All you'll generally get there is a hard sell and tales of scary wintertime driving.
First, a few definitions: A Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is an option that eliminates your responsibility for damage to or loss of a rental car. That's essentially what a Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) is as well, and the two are used more or less interchangeably by the car-rental industry. You'll be offered one or the other but not both. Note that neither CDW nor LDW is actually insurance, in the conventional sense of the word. They're merely releases from liability for damage to the vehicle. Liability insurance, which is true insurance, is usually offered by the rental car companies as a supplement and will pay for any damage you may inflict on other people's vehicles. Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) covers a renter in the event of accidental death or accidental injury to a renter or his or her passengers. Personal Effects Protection (PEP) insures the property of the renter and any member of the renter's immediate family traveling with the renter—in case someone pinches your Atomics while you're parked for lunch, for example.
All this coverage can add up fast. As an example, look at a theoretical Ford Expedition rental in Salt Lake City in January. Hertz wants $539.99 for seven days. For starters, it'll actually cost you $725.62, thanks to Salt Lake City's 16.1 percent tax, a 9.25 percent concession fee recovery, an $8.05 vehicle license fee recovery and a $27 charge for putting ski racks on the vehicle. (You've got to reserve the latter ahead of time, by the way, and you should expect basic hardware, not state-of-the-art Thule or Yakima systems.) The concession fee recovery is what rental companies charge to cover the cost of doing business at the airport. The vehicle license fee helps rental agencies recover taxes on license tags. You can't escape those needling charges. But then Hertz offers you a Liability Insurance Supplement at $10.99 a day, Loss Damage Waiver at $22.99 a day, and PAI and PEP at $5.99. Oh, and that 16.1 percent tax is slapped on all of them. Elect these options on your seven-day rental, and you're looking at an additional $320.73 or a grand total of $1,046.35 for an advertised $539.99 rental.
Luckily, you probably don't need most of this coverage. If you have car insurance in the United States, you may be fully covered for CDW/ LDW andliability on rentals in the U.S. and Canada, or covered minus a deductible. The law varies from state to state and your coverage might have additional clauses, so check with your insurer. But in New York State, for example, you're fully covered for any damage—withouta deductible—when you rent a car. This is called primary insurance.
Moreover, many credit cards offer CDW/LDW coverage. If you already have car insurance, the credit card insurance kicks in as secondary insurance,useful for paying any deductible that your car insurance policy may carry. And if you don'tt have car insurance, it functions as primary insurance. But not all cards are alike. American Express, for example, will not cover CDW/ LDW for rentals on the largest skier-friendly SUVs, such as Ford Excursions or Chevy Suburbans, something you might not discover until you're sitting in a ditch, cell phone in hand. And credit cards usually won't cover liability. Your own car insurance will take care of it, but if you don't have insurance, you might elect to accept that coverage from the rental company.
As for PAI, you're already covered if you have car insurance. Homeowners or renters insurance usually covers theft while you're traveling, which is what PEP is supposed to protect you from. Your policy, however, is probably subject to whatever deductible you've elected.
Finally, don't rely on your car insurance if you're heading on a ski trip overseas this winter. Most American policies won't cover European car rentals. Some credit cards do offer limited coverage on a country-by-country basis. American Express, for example, will cover your CDW/LDW in Verbier this winter, but they don't offer liability insurance in Switzerland or other European countries. And no one, American Express included, will touch Italy, where car rental company insurance is, alas, the only way to go. Ultimately, no matter where you travel, it pays to do the math before you hit the rental counter. Spend 15 minutes checking your insurance policies before you head to the slopes this winter, and you could easily save yourself hundreds of dollars.
THE FINE PRINT
One big advantage to booking a rental car online—through a travel site like Travelocity or a car rental company's site—is that most websites let you see an itemized list of extra charges before you book. We looked at Denver International Airport for a standard SUV rental in January. Every company will hit you with a $2.20 daily facility charge, a concession fee of 11.11 percent and tax you at 12.95 percent, but other charges vary.
ALAMO Weekly rental $284.99; extra day $57; extra hour $17; LDW $19.99; Liability $11.95; PEP-PAI $7.99 per day; ski racks $7.50 per day. 800-462-5266; alamo.com
AVIS Weekly rental $409.99; extra day $58.57; extra hour $27.01; LDW $22.99; Liability $11.95; PEP-PAI $4.95; ski racks $30 per week. 800-331-1212; avis.com
BUDGET Weekly rental $303.04; extra day $75; extra hour $25.01; LDW $21.99; Liability $11.95; PEP-PAI $4.95; ski racks $7 per day. 800-435-7100; budget.com
DOLLAR Weekly rental $330.99; extra day $62.99; extra hour $21; LDW $19.99; Liability $9.95; PEP-PAI $8.45; ski racks $5 per day. 800-800-4000; dollar.com
HERTZ Weekly rental $409.99; extra day $82; extra hour $41; LDW $22.99; Liability $10.99; PEP-PAI $5.50; ski racks $27 per week. 800-654-3131; hertz.com
NATIONAL Weekly rental $369.99; extra day $74; extra hour $24.97; LDW $21.99; Liability $10.99; PEP-PAI $3.95; ski racks $7.50 per day. 800-468-3334; nationalcar.com
THRIFTY Weekly rental $330.99; extra day $62.99; extra hour $21; LDW $16.99; Liability $9.95; PEP-PAI $4.95; ski racks $35 per week. 800-847-4389; thrifty.com