Should You Book Your Rental Car Through a Third-Party Website?

Are the Savings Worth the Extra Effort?

Car rental employee giving keys to customer
••• Car Rental Employee Giving Keys to Customer. vm / Getty Images

Reserving a rental car online is a complex process that involves comparing rates and car classes. Third-party websites offer an easy way to compare car rental rates, but are they the best websites to use when actually reserving your rental car?

What Is a Third-Party Car Rental Website?

Third-party travel websites, such as Orbitz, Rentalcars.com, Expedia and Auto Europe, sell travel products from a variety of providers.

Some, such as Expedia, are online travel agencies, while others, such as Auto Europe, are car rental wholesalers or consolidators. Still others, such as Priceline, sell travel products using an opaque online sales model in which customers do not find out which company will supply their rental car until after they have paid for it.

How Do Third-Party Car Rentals Work?

Typically, you visit a third-party website, type in your travel details, and wait for the site to give you a list of rental car rates and options. You may or may not be able to see which car rental company will be your actual provider. If you find a rate and car class you like, read the cancellation policy and rental terms and conditions carefully and, if you are comfortable with them, reserve your car.

Some third-party websites require you to pay for the car in full when you reserve it. Pickup procedures vary. Auto Europe, for example, gives its customers a voucher to take to the rental car office; the exact terms and conditions are listed on the voucher so that you can decide in advance which types of damage waivers and optional services you would like to pay for when you pick up the car.

If possible, pay with a credit card. Most credit card companies offer their cardholders the opportunity to dispute incorrect or fraudulent charges.

What Is Included in My Third-Party Car Rental Price?

Depending on where you plan to pick up the rental car and which company provides that car, your price may or may not include taxes, fees, theft protection, damage waivers, licensing fees, winterization fees and location surcharges.

Your car rental company will offer you the chance to purchase damage waivers (the collision damage waiver, for example), theft protection, personal accident insurance and optional coverage when you pick up the car.

Important: It is your responsibility to understand which restrictions apply and which coverages are required in the country you are planning to visit. Some car rental companies will not rent to customers over age 70 or 75. In some countries, such as Ireland, you must either have Collision Damage Waiver and Theft Protection coverage or pay an enormous deposit against possible damage to the car. You may discover at pickup time that the car rental company you rent from will not accept the coverage provided by your third-party website, and you will have to purchase additional coverage if you want to rent the car.

What Can I Do to Minimize Potential Problems With My Third-Party Car Rental?

Look carefully at the price, country-specific terms and conditions and general rental policies for the car rental company you plan to use. It can be difficult to find this information on a car rental company's website, and customer service representatives in your own country are not likely to know anything about terms and conditions, required insurance or age requirements in another country.

You may need to telephone an office in your destination country to get the information you need.

If you are working with a third-party website that uses an opaque sales model, be sure to read the terms and conditions of that third-party website before you reserve a rental car. Pay special attention to information about liability insurance, theft protection coverage and collision coverage (the CDW). If you cannot determine which types of insurance and coverages are included in your rental rate, contact a customer service representative at the third-party website and ask them to send you detailed information about the costs of your proposed rental.

Important: Be absolutely sure you understand the cancellation policy before you reserve your rental car. Some companies count late arrivals, even those caused by flight delays, as no-shows, and no-shows are typically considered to be cancellations.

If your flight is late and you have not contacted both your third-party website and your car rental company, you could end up losing your reservation and paying the entire cost of your rental. Never assume that the car rental company will hold your reservation if you have booked through a third-party website.

What Happens if I Want to Dispute Part of My Car Rental Bill?

If you believe you were wrongly billed for damage to your rental car or for coverage you declined and you paid with a credit card, follow your credit card company's procedures for disputing the charge(s). Some credit card companies require that you submit disputes in writing, while others will initiate an investigation if you call their customer service hotline.

Save all receipts, contracts, emails, reservation printouts and related documents until your billing dispute has been resolved to your satisfaction.