Renting a car is a popular way for getting around if you are flying to a travel destination that is not a large urban area or city. In some cities such as NYC, it’s best to rely on public transportation to get around. But in a lot of places you’ll need your own wheels to explore. We’ll cover all the basics of renting in our Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Renting a Car so you’re ready to hit the ground running on your next vacation!

The Basics of Renting a Car in the US

To rent a car in the US, you’ll need a valid drivers license and a credit or debit card. If you are under the age of 25 you may have to pay an additional “young driver’s fee” to rent from most US companies, but there are some companies who won’t rent to anyone under the age of 25 at all- so be sure to read the fine print before booking a rental! You may also need to show proof of insurance if you’re not purchasing insurance through the rental car company. More on that below!

Do Your Research

There’s no simply way to find the best rate on a car rental. There isn’t one “best” rental company as their prices all vary by location, as do the customer service experiences. So it’s best to take some time to do your own research. Here are the three ways you can search for rental cars:

  • Directly with the Rental Company: Go directly to the company’s website. Enterprise, Hertz, Budget, Avis, Sixt, Fox, Ace, and Thrifty are the most popular rental car companies in the US.
  • Book through an OTA: We discussed OTA’s (Online Travel Agencies) in our Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights. OTAs are third party platforms that serve as a one stop shop for booking travel including sites like Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, and Orbitz. The nice thing about OTA sites is that you can usually compare car rental prices across companies. The downside is that any issue with your reservation or rental will have to be dealt with through the OTA you booked through- and that can be a big hassle.
  • Book with Credit Card Points: If you have a travel credit card, you can use your points to book a rental car. Your credit card’s points platform will often do a direct comparison across various rental companies so this is a great way to see price differences and save money if you have the points. If you don’t have enough points for the full cost of the rental, many credit card points systems will let you pay the remaining balance.

Compare Prices

  • Check Different Rental Companies: As discussed above, you’ll want to check various rental companies for the cheapest prices. It takes some time, but look directly at the websites of each rental company as well as checking a few OTAs for the best comparisons.
  • Look at Non-Airport Locations: Airport rental locations are almost always going to cost more than if you rent a car from a non-airport location. It’s obviously most convenient to book a car right at the airport. There’s usually a free shuttle that will take you directly to the rental company and then you’re on your way. But if you’re looking to save money more so than you’re looking to save time, take a look at rental locations outside the airport. You will need to take a Lyft, Uber, or taxi to get to your car- but you can save a LOT of money if you have the little bit of extra time.
  • Compare Car Sizes: Another way to save money is to compare car sizes. Smaller cars cost far less than larger cars, SUVs and trucks. Cars are generally grouped into the following sizes (from smallest to larger): Economy, Compact, Intermediate, Full Size (also called Premium) , Luxury, Convertible, Compact SUV, Intermediate/Mid-Sized/Standard SUV, Full Size SUV (also called Premium SUV), Luxury SUV, Mini-Van, Passenger Van, and Pick Up Truck. Look closely at the models of cars each company uses in their examples to help you decide exactly what you need. The smaller the car, the less you’ll pay- so only get what you need!
  • Check for Discounts: Many rental companies offer AAA members a discount when renting a car- so be sure to check if you’re a AAA member. Also check with your employer for any potential discounts as many employers offer discounted rates with some rental companies if they have employees who travel frequently for work!

Make Sure You Have Insurance

In most cases, your own personal auto insurance policy will cover you in a rental car- but you’ll absolutely want to call your auto insurance company and check on your specific policy. If you have a full coverage policy, you’re likely to have that coverage extend to a rental car. The rental company will still try to up-sell you additional coverage- but if you’ve cleared your coverage with your own insurance company, don’t fall for this! If you do turn down insurance from the rental car company, you’ll need to provide proof of your own auto-insurance, so be sure to have a copy of your policy with you when you pick up your car.

If you have limited coverage on your own car, you may need to take out additional insurance through the rental company. If you don’t have a car and therefore don’t have an auto insurance policy, you’ll definitely need to take out insurance through the rental car company.

If you do need to purchase insurance, check with your credit card to see if they offer any options. Many travel cards will offer basic insurance coverage if you used that card to purchase the rental!

Another option is to purchase rental car insurance online instead of directly from the rental company. Rental Cover is an online insurance company you can check out- their costs are often lower than what you’ll be offered at the counter when you pick up your car.

If you are renting a luxury car, you may want to consider purchasing additional insurance coverage as your personal policy may not cover the full value of a luxury car should it be a total loss in an accident.

However you purchase insurance for your rental car, be sure you have full damage protection, theft protection, and additional protections for minor issues like flat tires and headlight repairs.

Pay Attention to Surcharges, Taxes and Fees

Let’s start with the moral of the story here- Always read the fine print! Rental car companies make a lot of extra money on surcharges and fees. There are additional driver fees, airport charges, mileage fees, fees for driving out of state, fees for automatic tolls, airport surcharges, car seat and GPS rental fees, one way rental fees, and early and late return fees. If you don’t read the fine print and ask questions ahead of time, you could be shocked to see that your total charge is FAR more than the base rate quoted when you booked.

Always be sure to check things like mileage allowance if you’ll be driving a lot, car seat rental fees if that’s something you’ll need, and automatic toll fees or out of state charges.

Before You Pick Up Your Car:

  • It’s a good idea to call your rental company to confirm your reservation before you arrive. Do this before your flight takes off so you can rest assured that your car will be waiting for you when you arrive. Check to make sure they have the type of car you reserved ready and waiting for you.
  • Pack your own car seat if you’ll need one. Car seats are an up-charge at any rental company- and you never know what kind of car seat you will get or what it’s history is. If your child uses a car seat at home, it’s best to take that with you if you can. If you do have to rent a car seat (it happens!) then definitely call ahead to make sure they have a model that fits your child’s height and weight.
  • Pack your own GPS as well. This feels a bit silly to say these days as most people have GPS right in their phones, but car rental companies will still try to up-sell you on a GPS system!

When You Pick Up Your Car:

  • Avoid the up-sell at the check out counter: Often times if a car company doesn’t have the level of car you rented available, they’ll ask you if you want to upgrade to the next size car. If you say yes- then you pay for that upgrade. But if you call their bluff and say no thanks, but they have to give you that next size anyways because they are out of the size you reserved- then that’s on them!
  • Take pictures before driving away: Before you drive away, you’ll want to do a very thorough walk around on the car. If there is ANY damage whatsoever- no matter how small or menial- take photos. Be sure to photograph the inside as well- any stains, tears in fabric, etc. should all be documented. Make sure the photos are dated on your phone. When you pull out of the parking lot, you will be handed a paper that allows you to document any noted damage. Note EVERYTHING and inform the attendant that you have photos of everything you have noted. While you can’t take pictures of cigarette smoke, if the smell of smoke is present (even if it’s clear that they tried to clean it out) then note this on your paperwork as well. This way, when you return the car, you will not be held liable for any dings or dents because you documented them before leaving the lot.

Before You Return Your Car

  • FILL IT UP WITH GAS! And be sure to do it as far away from the airport as your contract will allow (usually within 10 miles). Rental car companies will try to gauge you on gas by telling you that you can return the tank empty- and you can– but they will charge you an astronomical price per gallon. Also be aware that the gas stations closest to the airport will charge astronomical prices as well- because they know they are your last chance to stop before returning that car! So always plan ahead of time and locate a gas station a ways out from the rental drop off location where you can snag more typical gas prices!


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