Losing her rental car keys was not on Susan Kelly’s itinerary when she visited Kauai, Hawaii, recently. But there she was with her husband, rummaging through their hotel room, retracing her steps and trying to locate the elusive fob for their sedan.
“I was looking everywhere for it,” recalls Kelly, a respiratory therapist from Elmhurst, Ill. “Finally, we called Avis to find out if they had a spare.”
The couple waited on hold and finally got through to a representative who said Avis might have an extra key, but they would have to call the airport location.
Kelly wondered how much of her Hawaiian vacation she would lose. How much would her car rental company charge to retrieve her keys? And would travel insurance cover her loss?
There are no reliable industry-wide statistics on car rental lockouts. Enterprise Rent-A-Car says less than 1 percent of customers across its brands last year were locked out of their cars and had to call the company for help. That number doesn’t include customers who decided to use their own service, like AAA, to help them unlock the vehicle.
Getting locked out of your rental car is a serious matter for drivers, says Michael Stalf, CEO of the German car rental company Myonecar.
“It can be the end of your vacation,” he says.
But it doesn’t have to be. You can take a few steps to fix or prevent a rental-car lockout on your next trip.
First, call your car rental company
Your car rental company may be able to get you back into the car quickly.
“With the modernization of cars, solving this problem for most of our vehicles is fairly easy,” says Nick Sorrentino, owner of Reno Tahoe Rental Car. “We can log on to the relevant app, unlock the vehicle, and in many cases, even start the vehicle.”
If not, the rental company will give you options, which usually involve calling a tow truck or a locksmith.
Do car rental companies keep spare keys?
Generally, rental car companies don’t keep spare keys. Kelly’s situation with Avis was not typical. “We only receive one set of keys,” says Avis spokesman James Tucker. Avis offers a lockout service through its emergency roadside assistance, but if you lose your key, expect to pay somewhere between $150 and $225 for a replacement, according to Avis.
Hertz also doesn’t keep duplicate keys on-site for most of its vehicles. If you signed up for its premium emergency roadside service you can get a lost key service at no charge. Otherwise, Hertz charges a flat fee of $250 for a lost key.
Enterprise doesn’t keep spare keys. Instead, it gives drivers both keys attached to a ring. If you don’t buy Enterprise’s additional roadside protection coverage and you lose your keys, the company will charge you $58 for lockout services. It will also charge you for the cost of the tow if you choose to use its towing service, and replacement keys, which can vary based on tow distance and the type of car.
Don’t panic; the cost of a lost key might be covered
Kelly might have been covered if she had paid extra for Avis’s extended roadside assistance, which includes the services of a locksmith. Enterprise, which owns the National and Alamo brands, also offers roadside protection coverage for an extra charge, and covers lost keys and lockouts. Roadside assistance typically costs between $4 to $7 per day. But read the coverage carefully before buying the coverage. Some roadside assistance plans don’t cover towing after an accident.
Her AAA membership would have reimbursed up to $150 for a locksmith, depending on her membership level. And if she had a Visa card, she might have also used its pay-per-use roadside assistance program
Before making a decision, review all of your options
There may be less-expensive options than the car rental company’s tow truck. Those include your credit card’s roadside assistance, your car insurance company or a membership like AAA. You may be able to get your car towed back to the rental location at a reduced rate. Travel insurance does not typically cover loss of your car rental keys, but it may provide roadside assistance for your rental car.
These steps could make a lockout a non-event. They did for Sajeed Javed when he recently rented a car in New York.
“I couldn’t for the life of me find the keys,” says Javed, who runs an automotive site. “I kept calm and looked in all the obvious places and then all the less-obvious ones. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the keys anywhere.”
Javed called his car rental company. Fortunately, he paid extra for roadside protection.
“My rental company was very helpful, keeping me in the loop about how soon they’d be able to organize a new set for me,” he says. “They even offered to organize transport to help me get to my meeting that morning, which was helpful.”
How to prevent a loss or lockout
The best way to handle the loss of your car rental keys or a lockout is to avoid it in the first place.
• Make the keys harder to lose. “Attach a big, noticeable lanyard or keychain to them,” says William Baldwin, who publishes an automotive blog. “Ideally, something that will make a noise when dropped.”
• Separate the keys. Some car rental companies will give you two keys on the same ring. That’s always puzzled frequent car rental customers like Harvey Moshman, a TV producer from Los Angeles. “Separate the keys and give the spare to the other driver,” he says.
• Get an AirTag. “Travelers should attach the tracker to the rental car keys as soon as they get them,” advises Simon Mawdsley, co-director of Grand Prix Grand Tours. “That way, as soon as the keys go missing, you can quickly check the app to find them.”
Like Kelly, I’ve lost my car rental keys before but fortunately found them before having to call the car rental company. The worst part of the experience is that initial feeling of helplessness and despair. You imagine the towing bill and the invoice for the new key and you wonder how much of your vacation you’ll lose.
Helping you cope with that anxiety is above my pay grade as a travel columnist, but this should help: A vast majority of lockouts end with the renter back in the car sooner than they thought and at minimal cost - or none at all.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at email@example.com. Originally published by The Washington Post.