We’ve talked with rental car agencies, car insurance agents, people who rent cars—and rented a few cars ourselves—to prepare this handy guide to help you through the rental car process.
Review your auto insurance policy.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, if you have comprehensive and collision coverage, your personal insurance policy will likely include driving a rented car.
WHN TIP – Coverage: Comprehensive and collision coverage often cover rental car repair costs if you’re in an accident. However, this coverage may not cover the time the car is not ‘rentable’ (i.e. – in the shop). This means you may have to pay rental fees as if you are still renting the car. Read your auto insurance’s fine print and the rental contracts regarding accident policies so you know what you are and aren’t covered for if the unexpected occurs.
Consider additional insurance.
If your current auto insurance does not cover rental cars, consider these options, available through your rental car company:
- Collision Damage Waiver (CDW): an agreement that releases renters from responsibility for any loss or damage to a rental vehicle (up to the full value of the car). CDW is the most common coverage option sold through rental companies and typically costs $9 to $19 per day.
WHN TIP – Check Your Credit: Your credit card may offer rental car coverage: most Visa cards have a collision damage waiver, as do some MasterCard and American Express cards. Check with your credit card company for specific coverage guidelines.
- Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI): provides coverage for damages to people or property outside the car; typically costs $9 to $14 per day. May include one or more of the following:
- Personal Accident Insurance (PAI): provides accidental death and medical coverage for the renter and additional passengers.
- Personal Effects Coverage (PEC): provides protection against loss or theft of personal belongings from the rental car.
- Additional Liability Insurance (ALI): protects the renter against claims made by third parties for bodily injury or property damage caused by the operation of the rental vehicle.
WHN TIP – Driving Abroad: Check with your agent, your personal auto insurance coverage will probably not apply when renting a car in another country.
Ask about discounts and employee perks.
- If you’re a member of AAA or a frequent-flier program ask if you qualify for a promotional discount.
- If you’re employed by a company that frequently rents cars you may be eligible for a negotiated rate.
Consider rental car memberships.
- Hate waiting in line? Major car rental agencies have membership clubs that allow you to bypass the rental line and pick up your keys from a specially designated counter – or walk right to the car! These clubs may also offer other savings and discounts.
Special Needs or Requirements
Determine vehicle preferences
Decide the type of car you want and reserve it at least one week in advance. Click here for a listing of common rental car types. As you make your decision, consider the following:
- Do you have a specific vehicle make or model that you prefer?
- How many people are traveling with you?
- How much luggage room do you need?
Consider child safety needs.
- If you are traveling with your own child seat, be sure you know how to install it in the type of car you are renting.
- No car seat? Reserve child safety seats well in advance. Car seats can range from $2-$10 per day to rent. Be aware that some car companies may not be able to guarantee you a car seat.
WHN TIP – Safe Seat Checks: Worried about installing an unfamiliar car seat? Check to see if your car rental agency is affiliated with the National Safety Council: they may have trained car seat installers to help you install the car seat when you arrive.
Reserving Your Rental
- Online reservations are easy – and often offer online discounts.
- Phone reservations – ask if there are any discounts or promotions going on.
- If you have a specific type of car (exotic, luxury, SUV, etc.) in mind, make your reservations well in advance to ensure availability.
Ask about taxes and surcharges.
- Rental car price quotes usually do not include airport or sales taxes.
- Vehicles rented at airports typically incur an airport surcharge fee (approximately 10% of the rental rate), in addition to regular taxes.
- For international car rentals, taxes are often 10-30% above the quoted rental rate.
Ask about rental company policies
Ask, email or research the rental agency’s policies on …
- Cancellation: Is there a charge for unexpectedly canceling the rental? How much advance notice is required?
- Roadside assistance: Are towing services available in the event of car trouble? Are they included with the rental fee or will you be charged extra?
- Operating hours: Is the rental company open 24 hours?
- What parts of the car are your responsibility while renting (i.e., you break/lose it, you pay for it). Tires? Car keys?
WHN TIP – The Minimum: Make sure to find out if there is a minimum time period for a weekly rate: if you rent a car for a minimum of five days but return it in four, you will still be charged the daily rate for five days.
- Traveling for over four days? Reserve at a weekly (not daily) rate, which is often less expensive.
- Many rental car agencies accept only major credit cards (not debit cards or cash). If you do not have a credit card, some car rental locations accept a pre-paid voucher issued by an appointed travel agent.
- Always get a confirmation number for your reservation. If it’s online, screen grab or print it out. This documentation should include your confirmation number, car rental company name, type of car requested, and date. Bring it with you when you pick up the car.
WHN TIP – Name Please: If you’re reserving your car via phone, get the name of the rental agency representative you made the reservation with. If you arrive at the counter and discover a problem with your rental, knowing this person’s name may be helpful.
WHN TIP – Give It Up: For airport rentals, give your flight number and scheduled arrival time to protect your reservation if your flight is delayed. (Many ask for this online.)
WHN TIP – Where Are You? Look up the address of the rental agency and call them to confirm that their location is in the airport. Otherwise, you may have to pay to take a shuttle to the rental counter.
- Rental car companies usually require drivers to be 25 or older and have a valid driver’s license.
- Additional drivers for the car? There may be additional charges.
WHN TIP – I’m Older: Some rental companies have a maximum age limit for drivers in certain locations. Rental companies without maximum age limits may require you to present documentation of your driving record, such as a letter from your doctor or your insurance company confirming that you are medically able to drive. Guidelines vary from company to company, but if you are over 65, find the rental car company’s policies on their website or call and ask before you rent.
Picking Up Your Car – Fast Tips
- Carefully read the rental agreement before signing – you should know what you’re paying for.
- Look for any restrictions or terms: towing a trailer, off-roading, driving in Mexico (if the vehicle was rented in the U.S. or Canada), etc. — failing to adhere to these restrictions could jeopardize your rental insurance coverage.
When You Get to the Car
- Make sure that the vehicle number on your confirmation packet matches the vehicle number on the car (usually located at the base of the windshield on driver’s side).
- Save yourself a luggage-lifting workout: before loading your belongings into the car, put the key in the ignition and make sure your car starts.
WHN TIP – Bum Rental: If your car doesn’t start, go back to the rental counter and ask for the manager; don’t return to the end of the line
- Damage inspection.
- Look for dents, scratches, or other marks on the vehicle.
- Make sure that any damages you see are noted on your contract before you leave so that you won’t be charged for them.
WHN TIP — Picture It: Walk around the car and take a video – inside and out (don’t forget the trunk!) before driving away so that you’ll have visual documentation of damage before you take it off the lot.
Get familiar with the car.
- Adjust your seat and mirrors.
- Locate the horn and controls for windshield wipers, lights, turn signals, heat/air conditioning, and cruise control.
- Be sure that all controls are working properly: if not, notify a rental agency representative.
- Check the mileage odometer.
- Check child safety equipment.
- If you have young children, make sure that any car seats or child restraints are properly in place.
- Handle last-minute items.
- Ask the rental agency for directions to the nearest gas station so that you’ll know where to refill your car before you return it.
On The Road
Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind as you’re cruising down the road:
- Be safe, be smart.
- Remember that you can still be charged with local parking and traffic violations.
- If your vehicle is vandalized, stolen, or involved in an accident, most rental companies will require you to come to their office to file an accident report.
- Many will also want a police report, particularly if it was a major accident.
- To reduce your risk of theft, always lock your car and never leave valuables unattended.
Returning The Car
WHN TIP – The Rental “24 Hour” Clock: Many car rental companies operate on a “24-hour clock,” which means that you will be charged for an extra day of rental even if you return your car a few hours later than expected. Plan accordingly.
- Return your car on time.
- Refill your car’s gas tank before you return it.
WHN TIP – Gas: Rental companies often offer a “fuel purchase option” of paying for a tank of gas in advance and bringing the vehicle back empty, instead of refueling it yourself. Consider your travel plans during your rental period: if you suspect that you may not have enough time to refuel, consider this option. However, there is usually a fee for returning a car empty.
- Carefully examine your rental agreement for all charges. Be sure that the check-in attendant inspects the car in your presence and that you agree about any damages.
- An extra fee is usually charged if a car is returned to a different location than where it was picked up.
With advance planning, renting a car can be a convenient way to travel on your next out-of-town adventure.
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