Wavering about Rental Car Waivers?

Okay, it's not a life-changing, existential decision. It's not going to change the color of your hair or your outlook for future happiness. But deciding whether or not to accept the rental car "waivers" when they're offered is a question most of us will be asked many times in our lives and the way we respond to it can be the difference between, well, the difference between a cheese sandwich and a filet mignon. And I don't know about you, but, as for me, I'll take the steak.

Like the oft-asked question, paper or plastic, those of us who rent vehicles for business or pleasure are frequently confronted with the question, "Do you want to accept the damage waivers?" While we then try to respond as if we know what we're talking about, many of us react to that query as if we are being asked the physical description of a quark. We generally duck our head, shrug our shoulders and pick either "yes" or "no" based on, essentially, no knowledge whatsoever.

While rental car company waivers aren't to be feared, you can bet not too many people are writing masters' theses on them this term. But they don't really require an advanced degree to be understood, if not cherished. Waivers sold by a rental car company waive the company's right to collect for damages from the renter. These waivers may cover liability (damage you cause to other people or property), collision (damage you cause to the vehicle you rented) and comprehensive claims (stolen vehicle, weather-related damage like that caused by hail and flooding and collisions with animals). They don't, however, pay the poor, suffering animal.

While we like the idea of a company waiving the right to collect money from us, you have to remember they don't waive that right for free. Instead, the cost is substantial given the rental company's real risk of loss. Very frequently rental car damage waivers can nearly double the cost of the vehicle rental, because they can cost between $7 and $25 per day, depending upon the company, vehicle, and type of waiver purchased.

Despite the cost, a substantial number of people opt to buy the various rental car waivers, which brings joy to the hearts of rental car company executives. According to a recent survey of consumers who have rented a car in the past three years, 19 percent said they always buy the rental company-offered waivers at the rental car counter and another 19 percent said they sometimes buy them. The survey was sponsored by Progressive Insurance.

The reasons consumers offered for purchasing the waivers were lame. They ranged from not knowing if their personal auto policies provide appropriate coverage (24 percent) to feeling pressured by the rental car counter agent (eight percent).

So what to do when offered the waivers? The big secret is that most "full coverage" auto insurance policies, like the one you probably have, and many credit cards, like the ones you might be holding, offer coverage that eliminates the need to buy the waivers.

"If you have 'full coverage' on your personal automobile and liability coverages, you should check with your agent or your company to see if that coverage extends to a rental vehicle," said John Barbagallo, director of product development, Progressive. "Chances are, it does and if you're involved in an accident with a rental car, in most cases you would be liable only for your deductible on comprehensive and collision coverages, just as you would be in your personal vehicle."

They key item to attend to before you get to the rental counter is to check with your insurance agent, your credit card companies and eyeball your insurance policy. After all, there's no point paying $25 a day for something you don't need and probably will never use.

Jack R. Nerad, editor of Driving Today, tries to save money when he can so his wife can spend it.