Renting a Car
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.
Before You Rent a Car
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 in service (while it's in the shop) which means that you may have to pay for those days as if you are still renting the car.
Make sure to read the fine print in your auto insurance and rental contracts regarding accident policies to make sure you'll be covered if the unexpected occurs.
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 of 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 Card
Your credit card may offer rental car coverage. Most Visa cards have a collision damage waiver, as do some MasterCard, American Express, and Discover cards. Check with your credit card company for their 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 if your personal auto insurance coverage will cover car rentals in another country. Visit Independent Traveler for tips on renting a car abroad.
Choosing A Car
Reserve the type of car you want 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?
Car Seats & Child Safety
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? Ask 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.
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.
Discounts & Employee Perks
If you're a member of American Automobile Association (AAA), a national organization, 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 also be eligible for a negotiated rate.
Rental Car Memberships
Hate waiting in line? Major car rental agencies often have membership clubs that allow you to bypass the rental line and pick up your keys from a specially designated counter right away. These clubs may also offer other savings and discounts.
Reserving Your Rental
Here are a few things to know:
- Consider placing your reservation online. Check for Internet discounts.
- If reserving via the phone, 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.
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?
Traveling for more than four days? Reserve at a weekly (not daily) rate, which is often less expensive.
WHN Tip: The Minimum
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.
Payment Options: 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.
Confirmation: Always get a confirmation number for your reservation.
- Online: 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.
- By 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 the company 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 years of age or older and have a valid driver's license.
WHN Tip: The Max
Some rental companies, like Alamo and National, have a maximum age limit for drivers in certain locations. Rental companies without maximum age limits, like Hertz, 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, call and ask about the policies before you rent.
Additional drivers for the car? There may be additional charges.
Picking Up Your Car: Fast Tips
At the Rental Counter:
- Present your confirmation number, driver's license, and credit card. The customer service agent will complete your registration, you'll get the rental agreement, and they'll direct you to where you can pick up your car.
- Carefully read the rental agreement before signing. 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 base of 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
- 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.
Before You Leave:
- Inspect the vehicle (inside and out) for damage, dents, scratches, or other marks. 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
If you have a cell phone with a camera feature, quickly take pictures of any damage on the front, side, and back of the car before driving away so that you'll have photo documentation if needed.
- If you have young children, make sure that any car seats or child restraints are properly in place.
- 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.
- If you're unfamiliar with the area, ask for a map; many rental companies provide local maps at no charge.
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 companies will also want a police report, particularly if it was a major accident. Visit our Car Accident section for tips on what to do after an accident.
To reduce your risk of theft, always lock your car and never leave valuables unattended. Check out our Prevent Car Theft When You Travel article for further information.
Returning the Car
- Return your car on time.
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. Example: if you rent a car at 6 pm on Wednesday and bring it back at 9 pm on Thursday (27 hours later), you will still be charged for two days' rental. Plan accordingly.
- Refill your car's gas tank before you return it.
WHN Tip: 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. Above all, be safe and be smart.
Road TripsIf You Are in a Rental Car Accident