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Before you hit the road in your rental car, check whether you really need that extra insurance. Photo: Aurelio Firmo

Your bags are packed, you’ve found a sitter for the dog, and you’ve suspended your newspaper subscription for a few days. That can only mean one thing: You’re going on a trip.

This year, consumers will take 1.6 billion leisure trips across the United States, reports the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group. Nearly eight in 10 travelers will go on their adventures by car, many of them rented.

Before drivers leave the rental-car lot, the salesperson will pitch an optional collision damage waiver (CDW) or loss damage waiver (LDW), which is the rental company’s version of car insurance (although it only covers damages to the rental car and not personal injury). Between the jargon and additional surcharges (what the heck is an energy recovery fee?), things can get overwhelming in the few moments you have to complete the paperwork.

In fact, 42% of consumers are thoroughly confused about insurance coverage when renting a car, reports the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). And to make sure they’re covered, 34% will automatically shell out the extra cash “just in case.”

So it’s no wonder that the $36.4 billion rental-car industry rakes in the profit with its optional rental insurance, says IBISWorld, a market research firm.

But after spending an average of $66 per day for a car, reports AAA, do consumers really need to pay an extra $5 to $20 per day for rental-car insurance?

If you paid for the car with a credit card, probably not.

As a membership perk, many credit cards offer rental-car insurance, such as collision damage and theft protection. But the coverage on these cards is usually secondary insurance — so you’ll have to file a claim with your primary car insurance company first — and will only cover things like your deductible and towing charges, reports the Insurance Information Institute.

Nonetheless, about one in four consumers doesn’t have a clue whether or not their credit card provides any type of coverage, adds NAIC.

To inform drivers of their options, consumer website CardHub examined four of the major credit card networks and their rental-car insurance policies. In its “2014 Credit Card Auto Rental Insurance Report,” CardHub found that while some offer better coverage than others, all have limitations in their coverage — be it rental time limits or country exclusions. Additionally, none of the card networks covers exotic, expensive, or antique cars, trucks, vehicles with open beds, or recreational vehicles.

“So far, AmEx would be best,” says CardHub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez. American Express was rated No. 1 in CardHub’s study because it offers the most comprehensive coverage, has insurance on all of its cards, and its policy information was easily accessible. But it’s also the only card that doesn’t offer coverage for popular SUVs, including the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Land Rover Range Rover, and Lincoln Navigator.

Here’s a snapshot of each credit card network’s coverage:

American Express: All its cards offer insurance, and rental coverage lasts up to 30 days. Towing charges, damage to tires and rims, and accidents that occur on dirt and gravel roads are covered. The loss of use of the car and insurance deductible are also covered. Some SUVs and luxury vehicles, vans, and trucks aren’t covered.

Discover: All its cards offer coverage, which lasts up to 31 days. Its policy covers towing fees, damage to tires and rims, and accidents on dirt and gravel roads. But the loss of use on your auto insurance isn’t covered. Luxury vehicles, vans, and trucks also aren’t covered.

MasterCard: Its insurance policy is limited to World cardholders. Coverage lasts up to 15 days for World cards, and up to 31 days for World Elite cards. Towing and damage to tires and rims are covered, as are accidents that occur on dirt and gravel roads that the city routinely maintains. The loss of use and insurance deductible are also covered. But luxury vehicles, vans, and trucks aren’t covered.

Visa: Rental-car insurance benefits are offered to all cardholders. Towing charges for the vehicle and the loss of use and deductible on your auto insurance policy are covered. However, coverage is limited to 15 days domestically, and accidents that occur on dirt and gravel roads are not covered, and neither is damage to the tires and rims of the vehicle. Luxury vehicles, vans, and trucks also aren’t covered.

Comparison of Credit Card Rental-Car Insurance

American Express

Discover MasterCard

Visa

Card Type

All cards All cards World and World Elite cards

All cards

Vehicles Excluded

Antique, exotic, or luxury vehicles, vans, trucks, pickups, motorcycles, recreational or off-road vehicles, and some popular SUVs Antique, exotic or luxury vehicles, vans, trucks, pickups, motorcycles, recreational, or off-road vehicles Antique, exotic or luxury vehicles, vans, trucks, pickups, motorcycles, recreational, or off-road vehicles

Antique, exotic or luxury vehicles, vans, trucks, pickups, motorcycles, recreational, or off-road vehicles

Rental Coverage Duration

Up to 30 days Up to 31 days Up to 15 days for World cards; up to 31 days for World Elite cards Up to 15 days for rentals in your country of residence; up to 31 days outside country of residence

Road Exclusions

Accidents occurring on dirt and gravel roads are covered Accidents occurring on dirt and gravel roads are covered Accidents occurring on dirt and gravel roads frequently maintained by municipality are covered

Accidents occurring on dirt and gravel roads are NOT covered

Country Exclusions

Theft or damage  in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand Theft or damage in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand are NOT covered for the Escape card.
There are no country exclusions for the rest of the cards.
Theft or damage in Israel, Jamaica, the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland are NOT covered for Standard, Gold, and Platinum cards.
The World cards do not have any country exclusions.

Theft or damage in Israel, Jamaica, the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland.

Loss of use of rental car

Yes No Yes Yes

Deductible on your auto insurance

Yes Yes Yes

Yes

Towing Fees Yes Yes Yes

Yes

Damage to tires and rims

Yes Yes Yes

No

Full Policy Details American Express Rental Collision Policy Review your account online or call for details. Review your account online or call for details.

Visa Rental Collision Policy

Source: CardHub’s 2014 Credit Card Auto Rental Insurance Report

Confirm That You’re Covered

Before you’re blindsided at a Hertz or Enterprise Rent-A-Car counter about CDWs and the potential protection you may already have, you should do your research. To qualify for a credit card’s supplemental insurance, card issuers typically require that you’re the primary renter of the car, that you pay for the car with the credit card that provides the protection, and that you decline the rental company’s supplemental insurance, or CDW/LDW.

To know exactly what type of insurance benefits you have (and how to use them) call the toll-free number on the back of your card. Then ask them to send you their coverage information in writing so it’s easier to resolve any disputes down the line.

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