Edited by: Nick Ellis
& Juan Ruiz
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Renting a car seems like a basic process and is likely something you’ve done before. But, there are some things to know about renting a car that can save you time, energy, and money.
Whether you’re a beginner to the rental car world or a seasoned renter, check out these tips and tricks for car rental that can help you avoid hidden fees, get elite status with rental agencies, and better understand rental car insurance.
After all, a successful (or unsuccessful) car rental experience can make (or break) a vacation.
This is a fundamental tip, no matter how much of a rush you’re in after picking up your car. Even if it’s late at night or you’re hustling to get to that meeting or start your vacation, make sure to slowly and carefully inspect the outside and inside of your car.
Take photos and videos as proof, and make sure to report anything that strikes you as “off” to staff before driving away. This may take a few minutes, but it could save you a lot of money and hassle in the long run — you don’t want to be charged for any damage the car had before you picked it up.
Many car rental agencies charge drop-off fees for things like bringing the car back outside of business hours or for one-way rentals. However, not all agencies charge these fees, not all fees are equal, and some agencies offer promotions that waive or lower these fees.
While you may not be able to avoid drop-off fees entirely, reading the fine print and searching for promotions is an easy way to get discounts or find ways to escape the fees altogether. Another option is to consider renting at city-center locations, as many airports charge additional drop-off fees.
If you do drop your car off after hours or when no staff is around to do a return check, make sure to take additional photos and videos of the car upon return. Otherwise, it could be your word against theirs if you’re charged for damage (and we all know who wins in that scenario).
Some rental companies charge for crossing borders, and you should let your agency know what you’re doing in case there are restrictions or you need additional insurance.
For example, many U.S. rental agencies allow you to drive a rental car across the border to Canada with no restrictions, but driving to Mexico is another story. There are typically additional rules that apply, depending on the agency.Hot Tip:
Don’t forget to discuss your plans with the rental car agency when renting a car abroad. This is especially important in Europe, where countries are smaller, and you might be able to easily drive a car from Spain to Portugal or from Austria to Switzerland, for example.
We get that car rental insurance is confusing. And when you consider specific rules or quirks that vary by state, country, or rental agency, things can really get difficult.
We advise doing your homework on insurance before renting. You’ll want to be sure you understand the types of insurance offered and the policies you’ll need to keep yourself, others, your rental car, and other cars safe and covered.
The most important insurance to consider when renting a car is primary, secondary, and liability insurance. It’s also key to understand exactly what each policy covers.
For example, certain CDW policies may cover most damage to your rental vehicle but not windows or tires. Make sure you’re aware of what your own auto insurance policy covers and what each country or state requires, as well as the policies and prices offered by the rental agency.
If you do have an accident with a rental car, you may or may not have to pay a deductible, depending on the insurance policy.
Most rental car agencies won’t let you rent a vehicle without some form of mandatory insurance. Know that having an accident with your rental car without insurance means you’ll be liable to pay for the damages.
Many credit cards offer some form of car rental insurance. Usually, for the insurance to be applicable, you must pay for the rental using that specific card, as well as turn down any additional insurance offered to you through the agency when you reserve or pick up a car.
The main thing to know about your credit card’s rental insurance is whether it includes primary insurance or secondary insurance. Be mindful of the amount of time your card offers insurance for, as this often varies by credit card and may depend on if the rental is international or within the U.S.
If you do decide to purchase insurance offered by the agency, it’s important to read and understand the terms, how to claim it, and how to apply it. Sometimes, it doesn’t apply to certain vehicles, like vans, or may exclude rentals in specific countries or territories.
Note that most credit cards don’t cover liability insurance (and laws in certain countries or states may require you to have it), meaning you may have to purchase it at the rental car counter.Hot Tip:
Not sure which credit card has the rental car insurance that best fits your needs? Read our article on the best credit cards for rental car insurance coverage.
While the rental car shortage has abated a bit, prices are still high, as agencies aren’t totally out of the woods yet. In fact, they added 58% fewer cars to their fleets in 2021 when compared to 2019, according to Zippia.
This is why booking a midsize car is often the way to go. These are the vehicles that agencies tend to have the most of, so the likelihood of securing availability at a reasonable price is greater with this type of car.
Rental companies may have fewer vans, SUVs, or specialty cars, which drives up the price for these particular vehicles. You may even notice a standard or midsize car is actually more affordable than a tiny Toyota Yaris!Hot Tip:
Many rental car loyalty programs offer upgrades to elite members starting at the midsize category.
Car rental jargon can be confusing if you don’t quite understand it, especially when you’re trying to make sense of the differences between seemingly similar categories.
Here are some of the key car types to know:
You may also see terms like premium, luxury, as well as the aforementioned terms, applied to SUVs. When it comes to choosing your car, pick the option that fits your party and luggage requirements and stays within your budget.
Some rental companies give you the car with a full tank of gas, some give it to you empty, and others give it to you somewhere in between. Make sure to be fully clear on the gas situation before driving away, including what level you need to return it at, how much you have upon pickup, and what type of gasoline the vehicle requires.
Whenever possible, skip the prepay option for gas, as it’s typically more money than you’d spend putting gas in the car yourself. Only use this option if you really don’t have time to fill up the tank or are renting a car late at night and you aren’t sure you can find an open gas station.
It’s also a good idea to find a gas station ahead of time before returning your rental car, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar place. The last thing you want to do is drive around lost with practically no gas just before a flight out of town. Sourcing a place to refuel ahead of time means you can easily fill up your tank and return your vehicle (and catch your flight or train) on time without stress.Hot Tip:
When refueling your rental car, make sure to use a credit card that offers additional points or miles for gas station purchases.
When renting an electric car like a Tesla, figure out beforehand where you can charge it along your desired route. The rental company may be able to help with this. It’s important to know that you’ll likely be charged a charge fee for recharging, and just like gasoline, prices can fluctuate (note that some hotels have free car charging!). Make sure to confirm with the rental company on its policy for what the charge should be upon return and check to see if you have the right cables for recharging before driving away.
You may also want to check out some videos or read up on how to drive an electric vehicle so you’re prepared to operate this type of car.Hot Tip:
Not sure if renting an electric vehicle is worth it? This post compares costs and time for electric vehicles and ones that run using gasoline.
Many car rental companies have loyalty programs. Besides earning points, joining programs (and earning elite status within these programs) means you may have access to things like discounts, promotions, upgrades, and more. Just as you would do with hotels or airlines, make sure to sign up for your chosen program and familiarize yourself with the perks in order to maximize your rental experience.
In our experience, one of the best car rental programs to join is Dollar, thanks to its low redemption fees (starting at around 500 points per day) and ample benefits, like a free additional driver, priority customer service, and skip-the-counter car pickup.
Similar to airline and hotel loyalty programs, car rental loyalty programs feature different elite levels, each with varying perks and benefits. Some credit cards may offer status with more than 1 agency as well. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers Avis Preferred Plus status, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle status, and National Emerald Club Executive status (upon enrollment).
Some airline and hotel loyalty programs will also allow you to earn points or miles for car rentals. Likewise, booking car rentals via your preferred travel portal can also be advantageous. For example, Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders can earn 10x points on car rentals booked via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.Hot Tip:
Not sure what credit card is best for car rentals? Read this post on the best credit cards that include car rental elite status.
Renting a car within the U.S. is one thing, but doing so in another country can be an entirely different ballgame. Here are some things to consider:
It’s always worth it to ask for an upgrade when renting a car. You may get one for free thanks to availability, or there’s always a chance the agent might offer you an affordable upgrade price. The worst that could happen is that you won’t be upgraded and will have to stick with whatever car you previously reserved.
While booking a car rental through an online travel agency may offer attractive pricing, if anything goes wrong, it may complicate things.
If you need to cancel, get a refund, or change plans, adding a third party into the mix may make it harder for you. Weigh the possible reduced price against these considerations to decide if booking through an OTA is right for you. If your plans aren’t concrete and you think you may need to make changes, booking directly with the rental agency is probably the way to go. On the other hand, if your plans are set and you don’t foresee changes, you may want to book through an OTA or a travel portal for the best prices or any earning bonuses you may receive.
While renting a car today is cheaper than it was in previous years, it can still be pricey. Here are some tips and tricks for finding a car at an affordable price:
Don’t forget that if you’re not entirely dependent on a rental car and only need it for a few select trips, choosing a car-sharing company like Turo or Zipcar may be a better bet. Or, you can consider using services like Lyft or Uber.
If you’re traveling in a place like Europe, it may make sense to use trains instead of renting a car. Many high-speed options can get you where you need to go in half the time. When it comes to certain countries in Asia, it may be more affordable and easier to hire a driver than to rent a car.
As you may have already figured out, holding elite status with a car rental company means you’ll have extra perks and benefits. One of these may be adding an additional authorized driver to your rental free of charge. For example, Gold, Platinum, or Diamond members of SIXT’s Advantage Circle loyalty program can add 1 authorized driver to their profile for free.
In some cases, you don’t even need to reach elite status to get an authorized driver for free; you just have to be a part of the loyalty program. For example, joining Dollar’s Express Rewards loyalty program means you can add a spouse or domestic partner as an authorized driver for free.
Marriage offers many benefits, and being able to add your spouse as a free authorized driver to rentals through certain agencies is one of them. For example, Avis states that “A spouse or life partner can drive a rental car without an additional fee as long as they have a valid driver’s license and are 25 or older,” but this doesn’t apply to friends or other family members. Budget expands slightly on this, stating the following drivers would be authorized to drive your rental car: “a spouse or partner or your employer or employee if you rent through a company account.”
Besides being able to access discounts, renting as a AAA member means you’ll save the additional driver fee at certain car rental agencies, such as Hertz.
This typically requires you to tell the car rental agency that you’ll pay tolls on your own. You’ll also need to close the toll transponder in the car so that the readers don’t recognize it. Of course, you’ll still have to pay the tolls on your own (using cash or your own toll transponder). But, you’ll save on additional fees rental companies charge you to use their transponders.
Yes, this one is annoying, especially if you prefer to travel light. But bringing your own car seat can save you anywhere from $10 to $15 per day, and may also be useful to use and keep your little one safe during a plane ride. Some car rental companies around the world don’t charge extra for car seats, or you may be able to find promotions offering them for free or at a discounted rate.Hot Tip:
Joining AAA offers yet another benefit: The association’s partnership with Hertz means you’ll get a car seat for free when adding the relevant AAA promo code to your Hertz booking.
Some rental car companies impose mileage limits. Check these before booking (or at least before driving away) so you’re not caught off guard and don’t get charged extra fees if you go over the limit.
Renting a car from one spot and returning it to another — especially if it’s across state lines or international borders — can incur hefty fees. Avoid these charges by structuring your trip around returning the car to the same spot. If that’s not possible, compare prices with different rental car companies to see which one charges the lowest price or fees for this type of car rental.
Even if they’re just a few dollars a day, extras add up. Just say no to things like GPS and satellite radio. Instead, download Google Maps (iOS, Android) so you can access maps offline, and plan to connect your phone via Bluetooth (or bring a cable) so you can play your own tunes from Spotify or another music-streaming service.
Renting a car can be daunting, especially after what many deemed a “car rental apocalypse” in 2022 that’s still lingering. But these tips and tricks can help you master the art of car rental, making it more affordable and less stressful.
Simply knowing how to avoid hidden fees and maximize your car rentals can make all the difference on your next getaway, whether that be a family vacation or a business trip. When in doubt, join the car rental loyalty program, and always, always read the fine print of your rental agreement.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
Yes, you can return a rental car to a location different from the one where you picked it up. However, you’ll likely be charged an additional fee for dropping the car off at a different location.
You may be able to lower this drop-off fee (or avoid it entirely) by looking for promotions or deals, joining a car rental loyalty program, earning elite status, or comparing prices across agencies.
It is possible that extra fees can add up to a price higher than your original rental price, especially if you get all the bells and whistles, like GPS, a car seat, upgrades, insurance, satellite radio, an additional driver, and more.
Avoid these fees by doing your homework, reading the fine print, bringing your own car seat, or joining car rental loyalty programs.
In most cases, you’ll have to pay extra to rent a car seat when renting a car. However, there are certain companies that may not charge extra, and you may also find discounts. Being a AAA member may mean you can get a free car seat with certain rental companies like Hertz.
You don’t need to wash your rental car before returning it. Most rental companies wash cars before renting them to the next customer.
However, if you made a massive mess in the rental car that could be considered damage, you may want to clean it before returning — or expect to be charged an additional fee. For example, you should wipe up food, gum, or beverage spills and empty out excessive sand or dirt.
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