With the recent ubiquity of ride-hailing services and the sharing economy as a whole, renting a car is less necessary than it used to be. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll never need to rent a car ever again. Maybe you want to drive across Crete or you’re in Los Angeles for more than a couple days. It means that when it does come time for you to rent a car, you’re probably a little rusty. So we’re projecting our transparent travel mentality to the rental car industry to give you all the insider tips you need to save money and have a smooth rental experience.
Our Step-by-Step Guide to Renting a Car
1. Compare Your Total Cost Options
Look at the prices at different rental companies and make sure you’re comparing the final rental price for each option. Some rates may seem great when you’re first scrolling, but when you click through to book, extra rental fees get tacked on which jacks up the price. Keep this in mind as you’re doing your research. Some of the rental car companies that you can find most U.S. cities are Enterprise, Budget, Avis, Hertz, National, and Alamo.
You’ll also want to factor in any discounts you get from membership in different groups. For example, AAA and AARP members, as well as active-duty military members, usually qualify for discounts on rental cars. Most rental car companies offer their own loyalty memberships, so if you rent cars frequently, this is a good way to earn points and extra discounts. In addition, many hotel loyalty programs offer extra rewards when you use their credit card or your membership number to purchase car rentals. Check to see what rental car deals your hotel program offers so you can earn points towards your next hotel stay.
2. Pick an Inexpensive Car
Unless you absolutely need to reserve a certain kind of vehicle, it often pays to book the least expensive model and then ask about upgrades at the desk. They may be running low on inexpensive cars and might give you a discounted rate to move up to an SUV or a nicer vehicle. Of course, if you’re traveling with a group, it’s best to reserve a larger vehicle up front to ensure they don’t run out.
3. Opt Out of Extras
Bring your own GPS (hello, most phones have one these days!), look around for the most affordable place to rent a child car seat, ditch the satellite radio option, etc. These upgrades come with a high price tag. It’s more economical to bring your own or make arrangements outside of the rental car company.
When it comes to the rental company’s insurance options, you can almost always pass on this if you have your own car insurance especially if you’re renting the car in the U.S. Most auto insurance policies will extend your coverage to rental cars as long as you are renting the car for personal use (some policies might not cover you for commercial use). It’s best to call your insurance provider ahead of time and ask if you need the additional insurance or not. If you’re planning to pay for the rental with a credit card, your credit card company might provide additional coverage as well. Call them too. Know the details of your coverage beforehand so you can confidently say “No” when the rental agent tries to upsell you on this confusing upgrade.
If you do choose to buy additional insurance from the car rental company, be sure to ask exactly what is covered. If a rental car is damaged, many companies will charge a Loss of Use fee, equal to the lost revenue for each day the car is out of commission. These fees can accrue quickly, and they’re likely not covered by your existing car insurance, but your credit card company may cover them.
4. Get Your Own Gas
Rental car companies often ask you (or sometimes require you) to return the car with a full tank of gas. If you don’t, they’ll fill it up for you when you return the car. But don’t be fooled by this “convenience.” They’ll charge you an arm and a leg for that fill-up. It is always less expensive to fill up the car and pay for the gas yourself. Paying for the car rental company to refill it comes at a premium, with a much higher price per gallon than you’d get at any gas station.
Once you leave the rental lot, find a close and convenient place to refuel. Find it now, when you’re not pressed for time hurrying back to the airport, for the smoothest car return experience.
5. Inspect the Car
Really inspect it. You’ll want to identify and point out to an employee any scratches, internal damage, loose parts, non-working windows and mirrors, or anything else that looks out of place. It’s a good idea to take photos or videos of anything you find, as an extra layer of protection. If you don’t point out that tear in the seat before you leave, you could wind up paying for it yourself if they find it when you return.
6. Return the Car & Inspect Again
We recommend doing another close inspection with photo and video evidence, just in case the company levels any damage claims later. It’s best to do this inspection with an employee if they are available. If not, keep the photos on your phone as documentation, just in case.
Some Tips for Saving Money
1. Check Your Memberships
Membership in certain groups like AAA, AARP, some corporate groups, hotel loyalty programs, or frequent-flyer programs can come with rental car discounts. Check-in with the group website before you book your car.
2. Where You Rent Matters
Renting a car from the airport is typically the most convenient option, but you’ll pay for that convenience in airport fees. Depending on your personal convenience vs. cost mentality, it might be worth it to use a ride-hailing service to get to another rental lot with fewer fees. Before you decide, factor the cost of the ride to and from the airport into the price to see how much you’ll save. Location is a consideration in big cities as well. It will almost always be cheaper to take an Uber/Lyft or public transportation outside the city to rent.
3. Fewer Drivers, the Better
Everyone who drives the rental car needs to be registered with the rental car company for insurance reasons. Guests who aren’t registered shouldn’t drive the car, and you’ll want to sign on as few drivers as possible. For each additional driver, you’ll have to pay a daily fee, no matter how little they’re actually behind the wheel.
4. A Note on Drivers Under Age 25
Even though it’s now possible for people under 25 to rent a car (though the minimum age varies by company and state, so double check), it’s substantially more expensive. No matter a person’s driving record, younger drivers are seen as liabilities for rental car companies. If you’re traveling with someone under 25, know that registering them as a driver will raise the price considerably. If you’re under 25 and looking to rent a car, it might be more affordable to rely on ride-hailing companies or taxis. Do the math and see.
There are some ways to skirt the premium that comes with renting under 25. You might be exempt if you’re an AAA member, a USAA member, a federal employee, or active-duty military. Bring proof of your membership or orders with you when you pick up the car.
Alternatives to Traditional Car Rental
Of course, you know you can avoid renting a car by taking advantage of ride-hailing services, but if you’ve read this far you probably want a car to call your own. Depending on where you’re traveling, there might be more affordable, less traditional options. Most of these are car-sharing models, ideal for if you need a car for a short trip then don’t need it again for a few days. Here are some options:
Since you’re in the market for a rental car, we’re going to assume you’ve got a trip coming up. If you’re still in need of a hotel, we’re here to help. Visit Roomkey.com to compare hotel rates and exclusive low loyalty member prices from your favorite brands all in one place. When you’ve found the hotel that fits your needs, we’ll transfer you directly to the hotel’s website, so you can complete your booking, join their loyalty program (if you haven’t already), and receive the best customer service possible. We’re all about search without the gimmicks and hotel booking without the runaround. That’s how we make travel work for you!
Like what you see? Sign up with Roomkey to receive honest offers, industry insights, and great travel advice.