Renting a car in your destination gives you a lot of freedom, but it can also have some disadvantages. I weigh this decision carefully. There are a few key points I consider first. Is the cost worth the freedom? Am I trying to cover a lot of ground? If so will this save me time? How challenging or expensive is parking if I have a rental car? If I am traveling overseas do I feel comfortable driving in this country?
If you’re renting a car, the car rental tips below can help you navigate this process.
This is intended to be a high-level overview with practical tips; most of these have been written from mistakes I have made. You are welcome!
Every car rental company is different, and rules vary by country. Please add your own research to this list.
Always reserve your car ahead of time. If you wait and rent at the counter you will pay much more. I have watched people try to rent last minute at the counter and the prices they end up paying are often double what I have reserved online.
Some rental car companies have age requirements; if you are under 25 you might need extra insurance—if they let you rent one at all.
To rent a car, you will most likely need a credit card. Some companies allow you to rent with a debit card but may require a hold of funds and will run a credit check. If you are using a debit card, make sure you know ahead of time how much of a hold they may place. I’ve even had a hold put on a credit card. The hold was so high (and my credit limit so low) that it left me with almost no funds on the only credit card I was traveling with.
You absolutely should have some form of insurance on your rental car, and there are a few ways you can go about it. Your primary car insurance provider may offer it as a rider for short periods of time, or longer if you travel extensively. Check with them first. When I was with a major carrier it was really inexpensive to add rental car coverage for a week or two. Talk to your agent.
Many major credit cards, specifically ones targeted to travelers, now have rental car insurance. Check your policy carefully and print a copy to take with you. I thought I was covered on a recent trip to Ireland, went to pick up my car and learned the coverage through Citicard no longer existed. I even called them on the spot after calling them three weeks prior. That cost me a lot of money. Capital One Venture and Chase Sapphire Preferred both have coverage, but not for Ireland. Be sure you fully understand your credit card car rental insurance policy and your own personal car insurance policy before you make any decisions.
If you strike out with those avenues, buy it through whoever you are reserving your car with, either the third party company or the rental car company. You do NOT want to buy it at the counter. When shopping for a rental car consider this as part of the cost; you can usually save a lot by insuring at the time of reservation.
I prefer to book directly through the rental car company vs. a third-party operator. If you have a problem with the car, have an accident or some other issue, working directly with the rental car company will be much easier. That being said, sometimes the deal is just too great to pass up!
Upgrades are when you reserve one “class” of car, but you show up to get your car, spy some sexy car sitting in the lot and wonder “How much would THAT cost me.” ASK! Often you can upgrade for $5–10 a day. If you are in a location with a lot of families renting vans or SUVs, you might be able to snag a fancy sports car much cheaper than you think you can. (Just double-check your rental insurance coverage; some kinds of cars are excluded.) You can ask at the counter, or I’ve even asked the lot attendant about upgrading. It depends on the location, but don’t hesitate to ask if you see a really hot car sitting there. And, don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s more than you want to pay. I’ve rented a Jaguar for the same cost as an economy car. Sometimes I get a sweet deal.
Speaking of deals, when you are looking at costs on websites, don’t assume the economy car is going to be the cheapest. Again, it matters where you are renting and what the season is. Oftentimes a larger sedan will cost less. It might cost you more in gas but if everyone wants a tiny economy or a huge SUV, sometimes those sweet sedans that ride so nicely and have all the bells and whistles are just sitting there.
When you pick up your rental car, take pictures of EVERYTHING. Inside, outside, TRUNK. You want a record of what it looked like when you picked it up. Don’t let them rush you. I am often anxious to get on the road, but I can’t stress enough how important this is so that you can refute any claims if they come up. Make sure any dings or scratches are recorded by the person getting your car. If there is not an attendant and you see something that is concerning, find an employee to speak with.
Make sure you have a spare tire and a jack in the trunk. I had a friend rent a car, get a flat and, lo and behold, no spare tire!
Put all paperwork in the glove box for safekeeping.
You don’t have to take the first car they assign to you. If it smells bad or does not have the features you expected, you can ask for another car that is comparable. I have had cars that smelled like a gas station bathroom, like an ashtray, like really bad cologne. It’s ok to say no.
Have a little pack of disinfecting wipes handy. One of the best car rental tips I ever got! You can wipe down the steering wheel, shifter, door handle and other high-touch areas. Cars are generally cleaned between customers but sometimes not very well. I have found a lot of not pleasant things in cars. Nail clippings, condom wrappers, old food. Look in the console and under the seat before you take off.
Sign up for the loyalty program. When I was traveling a lot for work I exclusively used Enterprise, and I really enjoyed being a preferred member. Lots of little perks, upgrades and in general just good service.
If you’re a member of AAA, investigate their rental car loyalty programs — currently they offer discounts with Hertz. There is no age limit for AARP, so sign up for that and enjoy that discount as well. It’s not just for the over-50 crowd!
When renting the car, they may ask if you want to pre-pay for gas. They make it sound like a good deal, but often it is not. Plan to fill up the tank before you return the car. Before you leave the rental center, use your phone to look for the gas station nearest your return location. If you take back a rental car with anything less than a completely full tank, they’ll charge you a ridiculous per-gallon price. Keep that gas station receipt, too, because sometimes the needle takes a bit to get back up to full, and the sensors in the return lot don’t capture the tank level accurately. If the station’s pumps fail to print a receipt, take a photo of your fill-up location with time so they can see where and when you filled the tank.
When you return your car, you will often be met by a representative of the company who will log the miles and the fuel level and walk around the car looking for dings and damage. I take pictures of the car again and I stay until I know everything has checked out ok and get my receipt. If they start to point to something they think you damaged, I will say “Hold on, I have a photo of that on my phone” and honestly, most of the time they just move on. I’ve probably rented 100-plus cars and only twice did someone try to pin damage on me that I knew for sure didn’t happen when I had the car. Both times I was able to prove it had not. I go the extra mile with the photos step but it gives me peace of mind.
The cheapest price is not always the best deal. I rented a car in Phoenix and waited 40 minutes at one of the budget rental car places. (And the line behind me was twice as long as the one I waited in.) For an extra $200 for the week I could have walked up to the mostly empty Enterprise counter. Your time is worth money. I am cheap, cheap, cheap but I will never rent from that budget company again at that airport. Keep in mind that everyone is understaffed right now as well, and the companies with the cheapest prices have the least staff. It’s just math.
Weigh the pros and cons of renting a car. Sometimes it makes more sense to use public transportation. If you’re intimidated by public transportation, this piece gives you some good tips to get more comfortable. Things to consider: do you need to traverse a large section of a city or country? Will you have issues finding parking and how much might parking cost? Can you access everything you want to see using public transportation, in a timely manner? And most importantly, will you feel comfortable driving? For me, the freedom of having a car is a luxury, and in cases like my 12-Day Solo Trip to Ireland, it made sense to spend the money. Most of the time, however, I am going to stick with public transportation.
Lastly: Rent the convertible. I’ve never regretted this splurge on a special vacation.
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