The Coming and Going column in the Aug. 14 Travel section incorrectly said that Southwest Airlines passengers now have two years to use a frequent-flier ticket. The airline has extended to two years the amount of time passengers can accumulate miles, but once a voucher is issued for a free flight, it must be used within one year. (Published 8/27/05)

WHEEL LIFE

It Wasn't Me!

If you rent a car and no one is available to inspect it with you before you take it or after you return it, can you get stuck with the bill for damages that occurred before or after you took possession?

Yes, say two CoGo readers who have been fighting damage bills for months.

Julianne Mueller of Falls Church says that several days into a rental from Enterprise in Dublin, she and her husband noticed that one of the tires had a different hubcab. They didn't think much about it until several days after returning the car, when they got a bill for more than $600 and were accused of damaging the car by changing a tire and driving a long distance on a spare.

Closer to home, Robert Szabo of Washington returned a Thrifty car to the Savannah airport. Although he says there was no damage to the car when he left it in the lot without being inspected, a collection agency is demanding $534.84 for a crumpled bumper.

Rental companies "go out of their way to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt," says Michael Towers of the Association of Car and Truck Rental Independents and Franchisees. But in rental locations without high volume, there is no economical way to inspect each car with the consumer. It's simply "one of those situations," he says.

Claudia Bourne Farrell of the Federal Trade Commission says she knows of no consumer law governing the issue, and adds: "I think it's going to be a private fight."

After CoGo inquired about Szabo's problem, the collection action was halted "in the interest of excellent consumer service," Thrifty spokeswoman Terri Wilson Shaw said in an e-mail. Enterprise was still investigating Mueller's complaint at press time, but spokesman Lee Broughton said, "Our normal policy is to walk each customer around the car before and after. If that didn't happen, we'll not hold the customer responsible for damage."

Bottom line: If given the option of a personal handoff or a key drop, choose inspection. Check the car yourself and consider taking photos if no inspector is available. And don't just assume your credit card or personal insurance covers the rental -- make sure.

outer limits

Fly Like an Astronaut

If last week's successful return of the space shuttle Discovery whetted your appetite for space travel, CoGo has two suggestions: the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Houston's space station simulator, similar to those used by astronauts in training, quickly became its most popular attraction when it opened in January. The facility includes a spacesuit collection, movie theaters, a Kids Place Station with interactive exhibits, a portrait gallery and a behind-the-scenes tour that might include a look at astronauts in training. The tour costs $17.95 for adults. Details: www.spacecenter.org.

You can arrange to have lunch with an astronaut at Cape Canaveral, 45 minutes from Orlando. The adult price of $49.99 includes lunch, a space center tour, Imax movies and various exhibits. The cheapest ticket: $16 for adults to visit just the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Details: www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

TRAVEL TICKER

Southwest Airlines extended to 24 months the period for accumulating and using frequent-flier miles, but announced that it will restrict the number of seats available . . . Northwest Airlines flight attendants are deciding whether or not to honor picket lines as mechanics move closer to an Aug. 20 strike. The carrier says it is committed to its full schedule.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

American Bounty

Fly to the Cayman Islands for $342, including taxes, on American Airlines. Details: What's the Deal?, Page 3.

Reporting: Cindy Loose.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to:

cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.