What to Know
Keep these things in mind as you start your search for a rental car.
The size of the rental car can impact the price you pay. Terms like "compact," "mid-size," and "luxury" can vary across rental car companies. To illustrate car sizes, companies usually provide car models or suggest how many passengers the car seats safely.
Shop and Compare
Search across several websites for the type of car you’re interested in renting. To get an idea of the best price you can get, search for rates at individual rental car company websites and price comparison websites.
Money-Saving Deals or Specials
If your travel plans are flexible, you may be able to rent a car when price breaks are available. Try searching for specials geared to the length of time you need the vehicle. You may find better deals if you book in advance, or book in combination with a flight or hotel. Read any fine print about restrictions on special offers, including blackout dates when an advertised price may not be available. Some companies also offer special rates for seniors or members of organizations, like motor clubs.
Comparing advertised rates for rental cars may not give you an accurate picture of the price you will pay. Try to make an “apples to apples” comparison of car rental prices that includes all mandatory fees and charges, as well as charges for options.
Some fees may be quoted when you reserve a car online, though you may not find out about all the charges until you go to the rental office to pick up your car. Read your contract carefully and look for fees triggered by specific events — like accidents.
Your Driving Record Is Important
Many companies check driving records when customers arrive at the counter and reject those whose records don't meet company standards. Even if you have a confirmed reservation, you may be disqualified from renting a car for recent violations, including:
Ask the rental car company in advance whether they check customers’ driving records.
Rental companies usually offer drivers additional coverage options — for a price. If you buy their coverage, they say you can minimize your liability while driving their rental car. However, you may be covered already through your own auto or homeowner's policies. Read your insurance policies for specifics and call your insurers if you're uncertain about the coverage. If you're traveling on business, you may be covered under your employer’s insurance. Some credit card companies, and motor clubs provide members with free rental protection when you use their cards to pay for rentals.
Salespeople also may try to sell you a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), or a Loss Damage Waiver. These waivers guarantee that the rental company will pay for damages to your rental car. It’s not technically collision insurance — the company won’t pay for any injuries to you or damages to your personal property. Coverage under your medical insurance plan might offer protection that CDW coverage lacks.
If you don’t buy CDW coverage or aren’t covered by your personal auto insurance policy, you accept responsibility for any damages — and could be liable for the full value of the car. Some rental companies hold you liable only for a portion of the value.
If you purchase CDW, your coverage still could be revoked if you damage the rental car while:
Rental car companies may offer other coverage options for additional charges. Prices and policies for coverage vary among companies. If you decide to pay for extra coverage, ask for details.
Ask About Fees
Ask about fees before you rent a car to avoid surprises when you pay your bill. Here are some common fees and charges you may encounter.
The rental company will add on the required state, city, or county taxes — and their own sales tax rates — to the price of your rental car. You may see other fees, too, like a “vehicle licensing fee” or an “energy recovery fee.”
Early or Late Return Fees
Being early is not always a good thing. Some rental companies may charge a fee if you return the car more than 24 hours before your reservation was supposed to end. If you must return the car early, call the company to talk to an agent.
Running a little late? Many rental car companies have short grace periods that allow you to return the car without a fee if you’re late by less than 30 minutes. However, you still may have to pay a full day’s charge for optional items, like navigation systems and liability coverage options. If you’re running more than a half hour late, call the company to see if it’s cheaper to pay late charges or extend your rental.
If you’re renting a car at the airport, fees can increase the rental rate considerably. These surcharges can apply even when rental car companies shuttle you to their off-site lot.
Most companies require you to return your rental car with a full tank of gas. If you don't, you'll be charged the rental company's price for gas, which is virtually always more expensive than if you refill the tank yourself at a local station. Companies might give you the option of pre-purchasing a full tank of gas when you first take the car, so you can return the car without paying an additional fee to fuel up. There’s usually no refund for unused fuel.
Most rental car companies now offer unlimited miles. But daily mileage caps may apply based on the type of vehicle you rent (for example, some SUVs or high-performance vehicles). It helps to know about how far you plan to drive so you can select the company that offers the most favorable mileage terms.
Roadside Assistance Fees
Ask whether roadside assistance is included in the price of your rental car, or if the company will charge you a fee for it. If the company charges for a roadside service plan, find out exactly what it will cover if you need help — for example, if you have a flat tire or lock your keys in the car. If you’re a member of a motor club, you may have free or low-cost roadside assistance through your membership.
Before you head out on a road trip, check whether your rental company allows you to drive out of the state or geographical area in which you rented the car. Ask about the charges to drive out of state.
Need to drop your car off at a location other than where you picked it up? You may have to pay a steep fee for that.
If you’d like to include extra items in your rental car — like a navigation system or a car seat — you’ll have to pay a fee. Reserve these items in advance; availability varies based on the location of the rental.
Want to switch off driving duties? Some companies charge a fee to add another driver — even your spouse — to your contract.
You don’t have to be 25 to rent a car. Drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 are allowed to rent cars — for an additional fee.
Debit and Credit Card Blocking
Most rental companies place a hold — or a block — on your debit or credit card to protect themselves from possible charges beyond the authorized amount. They don't process the blocked amount unless you fail to return the car as specified in your contract. Your spending limit on your card may be reduced by the blocked amount until shortly after you return the car.
Tips for a Smoother Car Rental Experience
Renting a car is such a common part of the travel experience that you’d think the process would be straightforward and transparent—yet somehow it is anything but. Many travelers aren’t sure how to rent a car without making a few common mistakes. Do I need to buy additional insurance? What about paying to refuel the car? I hear horror stories about phony damage claims; should I be worried? No one is around to inspect the car with me; is that OK? Can I drive into another country? Do I need all the extras they offer me at the rental counter? These questions come up pretty much every time someone rents a car. Again, anything but straightforward.
Among all your options, there are some things you don’t need to do, or even should not do, when renting a car. Below are 10 of them.
Prepaying for Gasoline
Prepaid gasoline charges appeal to the desire for simplicity while traveling, and also to concerns about being late for flights, as every few minutes added to the trip to the airport create more risk for arriving too late to board. As airport security has added considerable time to this process, rental companies have come up with new options for car refueling and are giving them the hard sell at the rental desk.
Unless you are completely sure you will return the tank empty, or you have a pre-dawn flight that would make it worth the money not to have to refuel yourself, don’t fall for this one. Even the option where the company charges you only for fuel you actually use is tipped aggressively in the rental agency’s favor because the cost of having them refuel your car is almost always higher than the cost of doing it yourself.
To beat the rap on this one, don’t make the next mistake:
Failing to Check on Your Way Out for a Place to Refuel on Your Way Back
The best time to find a place to refuel your vehicle is immediately after you pick it up. As you are driving away from the airport or rental agency, take note of the local gas stations, and make a plan to return to the most easily accessible or best-priced of them at the end of your rental. The neighborhoods around airports can be confusing and unfamiliar, so you don’t want to be driving in circles looking for a gas station as your flight time approaches. Figure this out on your way out, when you are not pressed for time.
Purchasing Insurance, Reason No. 1: Your Own Auto Insurance Covers You
Before accepting this one at face value, it should be emphasized that auto insurance policies can vary considerably, so you will want to check with your own insurer directly. If you have the minimum legally permissible coverage, it may not include coverage for rental cars—whereas if you have what companies call “full coverage,” it almost certainly does, at least in your home country. Call or email your insurer to find out.
In general, the rule of thumb is that the coverage you have for your main vehicle extends to your rental vehicle, because the rental is considered a replacement vehicle under the policy. So if you have comprehensive coverage on your own car, your policy would also give you comprehensive coverage for the rental vehicle.
Most policies will cover you even if the rental car is a “better” or more valuable car than your own car, so you don’t have to worry if you get an upgrade or rent a much better car than the one you insure at home.
Note, however, that an accident in a rental car will typically raise your rates if you have to make a claim on your own insurance policy.
Purchasing Insurance, Reason No. 2: Your Credit Card Covers the Rest
Anything your own car insurance does not cover, it is likely that your credit card will. In some cases the credit card coverage is as good as or better than your auto insurance; in others it is intended to be secondary insurance to help cover anything your auto insurance does not.
Of course, you will need to pay for your car rental using that card; just having a qualifying credit card does not give you any protection.
Ignoring One Possible Caveat: “Loss of Use” Insurance
When a rental car is damaged, “loss of use” charges are applied to cover the potential revenue lost when the vehicle is off the road for repairs. This is typically charged in the amount of a day’s rental for that vehicle, and most auto insurance companies do not cover this fee. Many credit cards do, however; American Express, MasterCard, and Visa all offer “loss of use” coverage with rentals paid for with some of their cards. Check the terms and conditions in advance to make sure.
Ignoring Potential Offers for Upgrades
In the past, I’ve recommended reserving a low-priced car and then inquiring about upgrades at the rental desk. This works best at busy times when the garage is running low on its cheapest vehicles and may offer you free or very affordable upgrades to a larger car class due to inventory management issues.
In most cases, the desk agent has considerable discretion in setting upgrade rates, so if he or she asks if you are interested in a larger car, respond that it depends on the price; you might find yourself in a bigger and better car at minimal additional cost.
Failing to check for AAA, AARP, Reward Program, or Other Discounts
Many membership programs establish relationships with car rental companies as a member perk. These include travel organizations like AAA, airline frequent flyer programs, age-specific organizations like the AARP, and even some sports- or hobby-focused groups. Rental car discounts are typically listed on the organization’s website; you are already paying membership dues, so have a look before booking, and you could find a great deal.
Making Too Cursory an Inspection Upon Departure
When you pick up your car, check it inside and out for anything that could potentially be considered damage before you drive away. Look for scratches, scuffs, loose parts, and working power windows and mirrors.
Keep an eye out for problems both small and big; the tendency is to take a quick walk around the car looking for scratches and blemishes, thinking that big problems would have already been noticed, but this is not always the case. I once rented a car with a loose back bumper that the car rental company had not noticed previously. If I hadn’t caught this before we left the garage and an inspector had seen it later, I would have been held completely responsible.
Your best protection here: Take photos or a video of a slow walk around the car, and “kick the tires,” so to speak.
Leaving Final Inspection to Chance
Recently, the procedure of returning cars has come to resemble checking out of a hotel, where you leave your keycard on the night table and head out the lobby door with only a wave to the front desk. Car rental returns have taken on a similar feel; as often as not, you follow signs to the back of a row of recently returned cars, take out your stuff, leave the key in the car, and walk away without speaking to anyone directly.
If it feels unsettling just to leave the car without an agent checking it over, it should; the most serious complaints about car rental companies in recent years have been disputes over damage claims. If no attendant is present at dropoff (and sometimes even when there is), the dispute later becomes your word against theirs.
Again, your best protection here is to take photos or a video of a slow walk around the car.
Crossing International Borders
Most U.S. car rental agreements do not allow you to drive the car across international borders. Additionally, your U.S. car insurance rarely covers international car rentals, so you will likely want to purchase insurance from the rental company at the time of rental.
Credit card companies may help here, as most do offer coverage in many international destinations.
Outside the U.S., policies on border crossing vary by destination and car rental agency. In some cases driving into another country is permitted if you give advance notice and/or pay an extra fee.
If you do drive across international borders without authorization and you have a problem, the protections of your rental contract, insurance, and other sources may be negated. For more information, see International Car Rental Tips.
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