Originally created 01/30/05

Car rental companies snub, charge young drivers



NEW YORK - Lindsey Benoit thought her three-day trip from New York to New Hampshire would be easy - until she started looking for a rental car.

Ms. Benoit, 23, discovered that it's difficult to find a company that will rent to drivers under 25 years old, and even harder to find one that offers younger drivers a good deal. She ended up renting from Hertz Corp. for $400, almost twice what an over-25 driver would pay.

Being treated like a liability wasn't just expensive, it was insulting, the New York resident said.

"I feel like, even if I gave them my blood type and promised them my first-born, they would still have been rude and mistrusting."

This winter, as thousands of twentysomethings plan spring breaks in Fort Lauderdale, ski trips to Vermont and weekend getaways to Vegas, many will stumble upon the under-25 rental car roadblock. Most companies charge young drivers about $20 to $50 more per day - even those with perfect driving records - because of the higher accident rate among people under 25.

Facing high fees and often outright rejection, some find it's cheaper to fly. After calculating under-25 rental car surcharges on top of drop-off fees, Andrew Blair, 23, of Minneapolis, discovered that a trip from Portland, Ore., to San Francisco would be less expensive by air.

"It's something I knew was there, but I didn't think it'd change my trip plans," Mr. Blair said. "I have a clean driving record. I don't have anything that would make me more of a risk."

Ms. Benoit, who will likely be renting a car again when she returns to New Hampshire this spring, also is discouraged that her clean record doesn't count for anything.

"You're old enough to drink, you're old enough to do anything else in the United States," she said. "Why can't you rent a car when you've been driving since you were 16?"

Blame their accident-prone peers who have sent auto insurance premiums soaring and made car rental companies wary of younger drivers in general.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, under-25 drivers are significantly more likely to get into accidents than older drivers. After age 25, the per-driver crash rate drops off dramatically and continues to fall as age increases until drivers reach 85 years old.

"If the data supported it, we'd love to have younger drivers as customers, but unfortunately, it doesn't make business sense," Hertz spokesman Richard Broome said.

Some companies rent to 21- to 24-year-olds in any state, but for a price. Alamo Rent A Car's under-25 customers, for instance, should expect a $20 daily surcharge, according to Travelocity.com's Web site. In some states, companies allow drivers as young as 18 years old to drive, but the price tag is usually even higher - Dollar Rent A Car's 18- to 20-year-old customers typically pay an extra $65 per day.

According to travel Web sites, New York is the only state where all licensed drivers over the age of 18 have the right to rent a car. Companies that don't normally rent to under-25 drivers must do so in New York, but there is, of course, a surcharge. Hertz, for example, charges about $50 extra per day to 18- to 24-year-old drivers in New York.

Mr. Broome would not disclose how much Hertz has to pay in liability costs in New York, but he said it was "significantly higher than (Hertz's) national average."

Sticking to planes, trains and friends' vehicles whenever possible is a popular choice for those who have gone through the under-25 rental car experience.

Dave Nadkarni, for one, is holding off. While attending a conference in Miami last year when he was an undergraduate at University of Utah, he and his friends were rejected by all the major rental car companies there. After spending an afternoon on the phone, they finally found a small local company - "probably not the most reputable," Mr. Nadkarni said - which charged $30 per day.

"Now, I'm just going to take steps to use my own vehicle," said Mr. Nadkarni, who now lives in Los Angeles. "If I'm traveling on the other coast, I'll look for a friend or family member that has a car."

How do you get the best deal if no friends or family can lend a hand? Research. Because rules and regulations vary state to state and company to company, it's important to plan trips in advance, said Tracey Weber, a senior vice president at Travelocity.com. Also, keep in mind that for business trips, corporate employees and military personnel are typically exempt from under-25 restrictions.

Erin Smith Watson, of Atlanta, said renting a car cheaply as a young twentysomething is possible, but it takes patience and persistence. When she planned a trip last fall to Grand Rapids, Mich., where "there aren't really many taxis running around," Ms. Watson knew she had to rent a car.

She spent hours online and on the phone before finding a $10 daily under-25 surcharge with Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Ms. Watson hopes to avoid car rentals altogether until her 25th birthday.

"If I have the choice, I'd rather not rent," she said.