Renting a car should be a simple walk-in, drive-out transaction, but it doesn't always work out that way, particularly for consumers dealing with unexpected charges. Here are 25 bits of insider car-rental knowledge designed to take the stress -- and extra cost -- out of the experience.
Louis DeNicola contributed to this story.
Large booking sites such as Expedia offer healthy discounts on car rentals booked as part of a package. The price of a trip from Seattle to Las Vegas in mid-October with a compact car from Avis, a hotel room at the Luxor, and a return flight on Spirit Airlines represented a $194 savings over booking the car, hotel, and flight individually. In this case, the car rental portion accounted for only $15.
There is always a coupon code to be had. Follow rental car companies on social media or sign up for their email lists to learn about sales, codes, and special offers, or simply search the web before booking. If deals are hard to find on your own, try a service such as Zalyn, which searches through hundreds of codes to highlight the best ones for each driver's search criteria.
AAA and AARP members can get discounts with certain car rental companies, and employers may also sometimes provide discount cards to their workers. Some credit cards also confer car rental benefits. American Express offers upgrades and discounts at Avis, Hertz, and National for Platinum card holders.
Related: 10 Memberships That Pay for Themselves
The big names in the rental car industry -- Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise, all of which own other rental companies -- operate hundreds of locations but may not always have the best prices. Some smaller independents and companies trying to break into new markets offer excellent deals and high-quality service, too. Sixt, for example, is a European agency that's expanding stateside.
Always sign up if a rental car company has a free rewards program, which can sometimes be linked to airline and retail rewards programs for a multiplier effect. Members usually get to use special booths with shorter lines and enjoy perks such as locked-in preferences that avoid upselling, as well as points toward future free rentals. Most rental companies waive some fees for customers with a membership.
Not all rental cars are created equal when it comes to how much gas they use. When planning a long trip in a rental, take a few minutes to compare the fuel efficiency of the available vehicles. Sometimes a "free upgrade" can really cost you on gas. Even within a particular class of cars (such as compact or midsize), there can be significant variance between models.
Many car rental companies offer "pay now" discounts. At Avis, for example, prepaying yields up to 30 percent off the base rate. But Avis also charges a $50 cancellation fee if plans change, so be certain before going this route. The company might waive the fee if a change results from a flight cancellation, but travelers need to call before their scheduled arrival time.
Rental rates are more flexible than most people realize, as a former Enterprise associate revealed to Consumerist. The upshot: Don't be afraid to haggle. Take time to understand the other side's needs and motivations -- such as managers' and sales reps' eagerness to sell insurance add-ons and keep parking lots empty -- to get a better deal.
Rental companies typically reserve a certain amount of credit on the card used to pay for a vehicle. It varies by company but typically includes the full price of the rental and a deposit. Budget's hold, for example, is usually the rental quote plus 25 percent or $200, whichever is greater. Customers on a tight budget with a low credit limit (or a balance nearing the limit) should factor this hold into spending plans. Ask at pickup how much is being held and avoid nasty surprises.
Buying insurance adds a lot to the daily cost of a rental -- Avis, for example, has a loss/damage waiver of $29, plus $3 for personal accident insurance, $1.25 for theft coverage, and $12 for additional liability insurance, all charged daily -- but having too little can be a disaster if there's an accident. If you own a car, first check your existing auto insurance policy for rental car coverage. Many credit card companies also provide some insurance automatically if the card is used to pay for the rental -- but see how much is covered and when. Some policies provide only reimbursements, meaning the renter is on the hook to pay for damages upfront and only gets reimbursed later, when the insurance company has reviewed the claim.
It often costs more to authorize more than one person to drive a rental car, so make sure to ask. The good news: Many jurisdictions have laws that allow an "authorized driver" to be added to a rental for free; this applies to spouses in California, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin. A "surrogate driver" for a mobility-impaired renter who meets the location's rental requirements may also count. For an additional driver who doesn't fit this designation, however, there's a cost. Enterprise, for example, charges $12 a day.
Planning a ski trip this winter? Keep in mind that the road to the resort may require four-wheel drive or chains. Consider booking a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as chains can be tricky to install, cost extra money to buy, are a pain to bring back in luggage, and are unlikely to easily fit both the rental and the car back home. The rental may cost slightly more, but not nearly as much as an accident that results from a poorly equipped vehicle.
Rental car companies offer a walk-around inspection of a vehicle and a form on which to mark bumps, scratches, or imperfections spotted before a car is driven off the lot. The forms are pretty crude, though, and don't cover the size or extent of damages. To guard against post-rental disputes, take pictures during the inspection that show the exact extent of any damage. And to prove the photos were taken at pickup, email copies somewhere so they carry a timestamp.
When doing a walk-around, inspect the car's interior, as well. A previous occupant may have left behind something unwelcome. A CBS News affiliate in Denver reported that a Colorado family rented a car and drove it across state lines before discovering, upon unpacking to return it to the lot, marijuana hidden in a back seat pocket. The family would have been in trouble if stopped by police or at the border crossing into Canada.
Most rental cars are "smoke free," so if you're a smoker, either don't light up in a rental or budget up to $250 extra for cleaning services. In its policy description, Budget asserts that this isn't discrimination: "If any car smells of smoke when it is returned, customers will be assessed an additional charge -- just as they would if the car's interior had excessive stains, dirt, pet hair, or soilage attributable to the renter's use."
The best routes to some popular destinations feature automated, all-electronic tolls, and ignorance doesn't let drivers off the hook for payment. Rental car companies handle such tolls in a variety of ways, including by charging administrative fees on top of the tolls. Some offer prepaid programs for drivers who know they'll be taking automated toll roads and bridges. Thrifty offers a program called PlatePass, for example, in which renters pay a daily fee (typically between $4 and $5) to have tolls automatically charged to the credit card on the reservation. Opt out, and administrative fees add $15 per toll to the bill (although there is a $90 cap for each rental).
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Car rental companies such as Avis charge an extra $15 a day for a GPS unit, and smartphone owners with map apps don't need one. Before hitting the road, however, check the coverage map for your mobile network and make sure your phone plan includes plenty of data (to avoid overage fees). It's also a good idea to download any available updates for a preferred app before leaving a home Wi-Fi network. And bring a car charger for the phone, because GPS is a big battery drain.
Satellite radio lets travelers enjoy a variety of music and other programming without worrying about reception. But as a rental-car add-on, it's expensive. Avis, for example, charges an extra $7 a day for Sirius XM. Travelers with good data plans on their smartphones -- and traveling where the signal is good -- can bring along an auxiliary audio cable, plug it into the car's sound system, and use a free app such as TuneIn or Pandora (or even sign up for a one-month free trial of Sirius XM to get satellite radio on a phone without paying the rental company charge). Not all cars are equipped for this, though. Check before leaving the lot.
Unlimited mileage is common at most major rental companies, but don't take it for granted. Budget, for example, has some locations that don't participate in its unlimited-mileage program for one-way rentals. Customers should look out for any mention of a per-mile charge in the rate summary section of a reservation quote -- or no mention of "unlimited mileage."
Refilling the gas tank before returning a rental typically saves money (how much depends on the company). The logic is simple: When a driver doesn't refill the tank, someone from the rental company has to take the car to a gas station, refill it, and return it to the lot, which costs time and money. Those costs are passed on to customers in various ways -- sometimes unless they can show a receipt for a gas purchase. Without one, no matter what the fuel gauge shows, some companies now automatically bill for refueling when a trip covers less than 75 miles: a service charge of $14 at Budget, for example.
Travelers typically get the best rental rates by picking up and dropping off at the same location. Most companies do offer one-way rentals, but often at a slight premium, and they also charge if renters return a car to an unexpected lot. At Budget, there's a minimum $45 "unauthorized return location" fee.
Don't rent from a company's airport location if it can be avoided. The convenience often comes with a fee or a higher rate, and the difference in cost mounts each day. Locations just a little farther away offer better deals that can save drivers money -- even after the cost of a ride in a shuttle, cab, Uber, or Lyft there and back.
Car rental companies work on a pretty tight timetable. When vehicles are returned late, it costs them money, and they don't hesitate to pass that expense on to renters. Budget, for example, gives renters a 29-minute grace period -- but once the vehicle is a half-hour late, an hourly charge is applied (it varies by vehicle and location).
Travelers who get parking tickets while driving a rental should pay them ASAP. Rental companies typically pay unpaid tickets for cars in their fleet -- but then bill the renter's credit card for the cost of the ticket plus an administrative fee. It's cheaper to handle parking tickets before they ever get back to the rental car company. Most major cities offer the option to pay online.
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