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PLANNING TO RENT A CAR? THEN PROCEED WITH CAUTION

SHARE PLANNING TO RENT A CAR? THEN PROCEED WITH CAUTION

Renting a car can be a tricky business. Competition is so tough that companies are finding it difficult to raise rates. To increase revenues without appearing to jack up prices, they've resorted to feats of "led-ger-de-main": now-you-don't-see-them-now-you-do surcharges.

Making an informed comparison among rates requires extensive shopping and intensive questioning about extra charges, taxes and even the type of car you'll receive in different categories.When a Thrifty agent in Denver was asked about the lowest weekly rate for an economy car, he cited $149.94. The best rate on a compact: $162.94. But with either choice, you get exactly the same car: a Dodge Neon with automatic transmission.

Other tricks to watch out for:

- MILEAGE FEES. Unlimited mileage is not guaranteed. Dollar in Minneapolis offers it only if you confine your driving to Minnesota.

- ALL-INCLUSIVE RATES. Alamo's new All-In-One rates are supposed to simplify the rental process by including all the extras: taxes, airport fees, the additional-driver fee, a tank of gas and collision-damage waiver (CDW). But if you rent a car for just one or two days you pay a $20 surcharge on top of the "all-inclusive" rate - plus an extra $10 in Boston, Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia.

Agents don't always mention the surcharges. Recently, for example, an agent cited the $45 All-In-One daily rate for a compact at Washington's Dulles Airport for one day. But a corporate spokesman said the charge would actually be $65, including the extra $20. That compares with a standard daily rate of $50.99 plus 8 percent tax - potentially a better deal if you don't have an additional driver or need CDW, which limits your liability in an accident (many drivers are covered by their own car insurance or their credit card).

- THE YOUTH PENALTY. Drivers under 25 can't rent from Avis, Budget, Hertz or National at all. At other companies they face a $15 to $20 surcharge and other requirements, such as proof of insurance.

- CANCELLATION FEES. When you book a specialty vehicle (such as a convertible, minivan or four-wheel drive) in places where demand is high - say, Denver during ski season or Florida during spring break - you're subject to a fee of $50 or $100 if you cancel less than 24 hours before pickup. National is extending its $50 cancellation fee to all types of cars at certain locations during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.