July 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

A rental car grace period? Better say your prayers

The nuns at old St. Mary’s taught me that there were two kinds of grace: sanctifying and actual. But I don’t think Sister Theresa traveled much, or she would have known there’s a third kind of grace: rental car.

And, compared to the spiritual ones, it’s a state we’re all unlikely to achieve.

Not long ago, anyone renting a car had an hour to return the vehicle without penalty for going over the 24-hour daily rental period. This was handy, since you spent that hour finding an airport gas station so you could avoid a ridiculous charge for making the rental company gas up its own car.

But like so many other travel amenities, such as a coach-class airline seat that doesn’t force your knees into an upright and locked position, you can pretty much wave a stewardess-style “buh-bye” to the grace period.

No place for grace

I learned this on a recent trip to Cape Cod, where Mrs. Funny Money and I play a vital role in the local ecosystem by reducing the excess population of lobsters. (As we all know, the leading cause of global climate change is lobster flatulence.)

By some miracle of air travel, we claimed our bags right away and picked up our Avis rental car, which was suddenly more than $80 higher than the reserved rate. Picking up the car 35 minutes early meant our scheduled return time was 35 minutes late, prompting an hourly fee of $55.51, plus an additional 46 percent (!) in assorted Boston airport surcharges, fees and tourist taxes.

According to the attendant, Avis eliminated the grace period more than a year ago. A look at other major renters shows the same thing: No grace period survives except at Payless, Hertz and Budget. Even then, the grace period is a mere 29 minutes. Only Fox Rent-A-Car gets close to the traditional hour of grace, giving drivers 59 minutes of leeway.

What’s worse is that the hourly charges are hardly hourly. They start at one-third of your daily rate, and go up. On my Avis reservation, the “hourly” charge was 36 percent higher than my daily rate. For the week, Avis gladly rented me a car for $1.70 an hour, but after 2:25 p.m. Saturday the charge jumped to 32 times that amount.

Time really IS money

The same elastic approach to time shows up in additional overtime charged. Miss your return time by 90 minutes at Hertz, for example, and you’ll be charged for a full day.

You can find a grace period on some rental car preferred customer plans, and on the perk packages with some higher-end credit cards, such as the American Express Platinum card, which can gain you a four-hour grace period at Hertz, or by enrolling in Hertz’s own Platinum Service.

But unless you want to shell out $450 for a Platinum Amex (and even then you’re limited to Hertz), you’ll just have to leave extra time to get back to the airport. Otherwise, you’ve got the same chance of attaining grace as the nuns gave me — no prayer.

Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”
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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet