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15 Things To Know About Booking Rental Cars (And What To Avoid)

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Lori Zaino
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Lori Zaino

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Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lan...
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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.

15 Things To Know About Booking Rental Cars

1. Inspect Your Car Inside and Out Before Driving Away

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.

2. Avoid Drop-off Fees

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.

How To Deal With Late Returns

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).

3. Check Before Crossing Borders or State Lines

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.

4. Understand Car Rental Insurance

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.

Main Types of Car Rental Insurance

  • Primary Insurance (Collison Damange Waiver): Covers theft or damage to the renter’s car from an accident before claiming your personal car insurance
  • Secondary Insurance (Collision Damage Waiver): Covers theft or damage to the renter’s car from an accident after claiming your personal car insurance
  • Liability Insurance: Covers other people or vehicles involved in the accident
  • Personal Accident Insurance: Covers damage to yourself or your party if injured in an accident (many healthcare, life, travel, and auto insurance policies already include this)
  • Personal Effects Insurance: Covers items stolen from a rental car (your homeowners or renters insurance may cover this)

How Rental Car Insurance Works and What It Covers

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.

Don’t Rent a Car Without Insurance

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.

5. Your Credit Card May Offer Car Rental Insurance

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.

6. Don’t Go Too Big or Too Small

Rental Car
A midsize or standard car is (usually) just right. Image Credit: tekhnika via Pixabay

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.

Understanding Car Rental Categories

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:

  • Economy Cars: 2-door vehicles that can seat 2 to 4 people and fit a few small-to-medium-sized suitcases. These vehicles are typically tiny but tend to be great on gas.
  • Compact Cars: 4-door small vehicles that can seat 4 to 5 people and fit a few medium-sized suitcases or maybe 1 large bag.
  • Midsize Cars: Also known as intermediate rental cars, these cars are larger than compact cars but smaller than standard cars. They can usually fit a few large suitcases.
  • Standard Cars: Slightly bigger or able to fit more bags than midsize cars.

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.


7. How To Deal With Gasoline and Electric Charging

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.

Don’t Prepay for Gas

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.

Locate Gas Stations Ahead of Time

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.

What To Consider When Renting an Electric Car

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.

8. Join Car Rental Loyalty Programs

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.

The Best Car Rental Company Loyalty Program

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.

9. Open Credit Cards That Offer Car Rental Elite Status

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 Travel 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.

10. What To Know About Renting Cars Abroad

Car in Italy
Make sure to understand the terms of your car rental when renting abroad. Image Credit: Lachlan Gowen via Unsplash

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:

  • Crossing Borders: As we mentioned above, it’s key to discuss your plans with the rental car agency if you plan to cross borders. This may incur restrictions or additional fees.
  • Tolls: Toll systems work differently in foreign countries. Be sure you know the toll rules and the rates before driving. Make sure you have the appropriate currency or toll tag necessary.
  • Fees: Certain countries charge additional fees for car rental, such as various taxes, additional insurance, or other charges. Ask before renting if there are any extra fees on top of the price you’re already paying.
  • International Driver’s License: Some countries or rental agencies may require an international driver’s license, which you’d need to obtain before you leave home.
  • Road Rules: Roundabouts, different traffic laws, and driving on the opposite side of the road can confuse even the most seasoned drivers. Make sure you’re clear on the country’s rules and driving system before getting behind the wheel.
  • Car Rental Insurance Exclusions: Some credit card car rental insurance doesn’t cover you in certain countries or territories. If you’re using insurance offered to you by a credit card, it’s vital to read the fine print to ensure you’re definitely covered.

11. Always Ask for Upgrades

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.

12. Think Twice Before Booking Through an OTA

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.

13. How To Find Cheap Car Rentals

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:

  • Book in Advance: According to Auto Rental News, limited vehicle availability will continue to be an issue in 2023. But booking in advance means you should be able to get the car you need at a better price (hopefully, at least). According to RentalCars.com, booking 3 to 6 months in advance seems to be the sweet spot for affordable rentals. However, if you need a larger or special vehicle, plan to book even earlier.
  • Earn Elite Status (Or at Least Join the Loyalty Program): Holding elite status or even just being part of a loyalty program may mean you’ll have access to special deals, promotions, or discounted rates.
  • Consider Those OTAs: Although booking through an OTA is something you should definitely think about before doing, you can often save a lot by using popular sites like Kayak, Expedia, or Skyscanner. Read our article on the best websites for finding cheap car rentals to learn about the pros and cons of each of our favorite booking sites for rental cars.
  • Use Shopping or Credit Card Travel Portals: Booking a rental car by clicking through a shopping portal, using a credit card perk such as an Amex Offer, or booking via a credit card travel portal may save you money, earn you bonus points, or provide statement credits.
  • Don’t Forget About AAA: Renting a car with the American Automobile Association (AAA) often means you’ll see discounts of 10% to 20%.
Hot Tip:

Looking for cheap car rentals? Here’s how to find them in popular U.S. cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City, and Orlando.

14. Consider the Alternatives to Traditional Rental Agencies

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.

15. How To Get an Additional Driver for Free

Couple in a car
One perk to marriage is you may get to add your spouse as an authorized driver on your rental car for free! Image Credit: Karan Shiwalkar via Unsplash

Elite Status

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.

Loyalty Program Membership

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.

Get Married

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.”

Rent in Specific States

Certain states, including Illinois and Texas (among others), automatically allow your spouse as an authorized driver on your rental car.

Join the American Automobile Association

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.

5 Tips on How To Avoid Hidden Fees When Renting a Car

1. Opt-out of Toll Programs

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.

2. Bring Your Own Car Seat

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.

3. Check Mileage Limits

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.

4. Pick Up and Return at the Same Spot

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.

5. Skip the Extras

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.

Final Thoughts

Cruising in a car
Forget the extras, roll down the windows, and enjoy your rental car. Image Credit: Averie Woodard via Unsplash

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I return a rental car to a different location?

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.

Can rental car fees and extras cost more than the rental car itself?

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.

Does it cost extra to rent a child car seat with a car rental?

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.

Should you wash a rental car before returning it?

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.

Lori Zaino's image

About Lori Zaino

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lanka, Sicily, and Myanmar.

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