Renting a car can be an amazing way to see the sights on your next vacation. Having access to a vehicle gives you much more freedom than you would have without one. This is especially true for locations that don’t have easy public transit. But a rental car is also a great choice if you’re going to be traveling longer distances. You may want to choose one for a road trip. And if you’ll be taking day trips from your main destination, that’s another good reason for having access a rental car.
The downside is that renting a car is often a major expense on a vacation or business trip. Before biting the bullet, consider whether you truly need access to your own vehicle. If your destination is a large city, you can likely use the subway or other public transportation. If you aren’t traveling far from your hotel, then maybe using Uber or Lyft will end up being cheaper. In Europe, using the train systems may work even if you’re going further from your lodgings.
If you decide that you need or want to rent a car, however, here are some things to consider.
Choosing a Car
Think about what kind of car you need. Most likely, you’re not going to be off-roading on vacation while in a rental car, so if you don’t need an SUV, don’t get one! They’re typically the most expensive vehicle in any rental car company’s fleet. Now, if you’re traveling with 5+ people, maybe a minivan or SUV is necessary. But for a couple’s vacation? Skip it.
Most car rental company websites will help you understand how many passengers can fit into a given size car, as well as how much luggage it can hold. Get the smallest car you feel comfortable with. If you arrive and the car is too small, you can often upgrade to a larger size, if needed. Also, consider the fact that the larger the car is, the more fuel it burns. Renting a smaller car will help you cut down on gas costs, too. This is especially important if you’re in a country where the cost of gasoline is higher than it is in the United States! (I was stunned by the cost of petrol in England. No wonder people try not to have or use cars very much!)
And though we don’t like to think about it, there’s always a chance you may have an accident. Of course, you’ll have good insurance (right?) – more on that later. But the larger the car, generally the higher the value of that car. Which could mean higher costs to you or your insurance company should you have a wreck. However, consider the flip-side here too. You ARE more likely to have an accident if you’re driving somewhere that you’re not familiar with the roads. So you may not want so small of a car that injury is more likely. Try to find the right balance for you between small and cheap, and larger, safer, and costly!
Rent in Advance
This is generally the best way to save a few bucks and ensure that you’ll get a vehicle to suit your travel needs. Although prices fluctuate frequently, you’ll find that they tend to go up the closer you get to the rental date. On the other hand, if you start looking early enough, you may well benefit from seasonal sales. Giving yourself the time needed to hold out for a better price is never a bad idea, and many websites will even allow you to sign up for email notifications when the price drops on the item you’re looking for.
When you do book in advance, compare rates not only on travel sites like Priceline and Expedia but also on the company’s website. The company may have special rates, reward points, coupons, and other specials you can only get it you book through them.
The way I usually do it is to start out on a comparison site. I find the lowest rates I can, and then check the website of the rental car companies that came in the cheapest. That way I can see if they offer even lower prices.
Deciding on Drivers
Decide how many people in your party actually need to drive your rental car. Additional drivers sometimes drive the costs of renting a car even higher. If you’re only going short distances, it should be easy to have only one driver.
However, if you need multiple drivers, make sure you declare that when renting and when signing the paperwork. If someone drives the rental car who is not on the agreement, and an accident happens, most likely you’ll end up paying for it out of pocket. Your insurance won’t cover it, because the contract is invalid. The rental car company won’t cover it because, again, the contract is invalid. Whoever was doing the driving isn’t legally responsible for the vehicle, so likely they won’t pay. It’s just not worth the risk.
Young drivers may cost even more than drivers not in those age groups. So try to avoid having anyone under the age of 25 drive the rental car. Occasionally you may also find a higher fee for senior drivers, but this is uncommon in the US. (Usually seniors get a discount rather than a fee.) However, if you’re renting a car internationally, make sure you qualify. Some countries limit senior’s ability to rent, or you may be subject to a higher rate or a surcharge.
I think this is the single most stressful question you get asked at the rental car counter! Rental car company’s insurance is expensive! But they will also scare you with the worst-case scenario of what can happen if you don’t buy their insurance. Plus, you’ve probably gone through all the same debate when you booked the car in the first place!
Don’t let their scare tactics work. Here’s what you should do – BEFORE you rent a car.
- If you own or lease a car, call YOUR car insurance company and ask them if your policy covers rental cars. Find out all the details. What is your deductible in case of a rental car accident? Does it cover damage to both the rental car and any other vehicles or property involved in a collision? Does it cover your medical bills, and those of anyone else injured in the accident? Are their limits to the coverage you have?
- Call your credit card companies. Many of them provide rental car insurance provided you use their card to rent the car in the first place. Find out if your credit card(s) offer rental liability protection. And ask for the same details described above regarding deductibles and coverages. (If you use this method, just make sure to pay for the rental car with the credit card that covers you!)
Only if neither of the options above cover you in case of an accident, should you purchase insurance at the counter. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of money because you’re already covered.
Do You Need GPS?
Some rental cars come with a built-in GPS, or you can often pay to rent a unit if the car is not equipped with one. Think about whether you really need it before paying extra for GPS. Most likely you can use a map app on your phone for the same purpose. Just check first to make sure you’re in an area where you will have cell phone coverage.
Ask About Toll Roads
If you’re renting a car and might be driving on toll roads, find out what the car company’s policy is. They may include a transponder in your car and only charge you the normal fees. (A transponder is a gadget that allows toll roads to record your passage and charge you, typically without your needing to slow down and/or pay in cash to an attendant.)
But make sure they don’t have surcharges unless you’re willing to pay for them. It may end up being better to pay cash or just avoid the toll roads altogether.
Look for Discounts
You can also search for discounts to save even more money when renting a car. This will help you save even more money off your standard rates.
AAA, AARP, and Seniors
If you are a member of AAA or AARP, you can probably get a good discount when renting the car if you provide proof of your membership. Even if you’re not a member, but you’re 50+ years old, you may qualify for a built-in discount.
Rental Car Company’s Website
As I mentioned above, you may find discounts on the rental car company’s own website, that you don’t find elsewhere. So make sure to look for them there before completing your reservation elsewhere.
Check the car companies’ social media accounts too. They may have special discounts for their followers, or they may publicize coupons. You can even reach out to them on social media and ask if they have a discount for your travel dates and location. Can’t hurt to ask!
Discount sites like Groupon often have coupons for renting a car.
You know those coupon books that kids sell to raise money for their schools, sports teams, and scout troops? Check those out, because sometimes they have coupons for rental cars too. I’ve seen then in the big paper discount books, but I haven’t seen them on the credit-card sized plastic discount cards. But you never know. \
Rental Car Clubs
Do you prefer a particular rental car company? If so, check to see if they have a members club you can join. Many of them do. Earn points by renting from the same company, then use those points for free upgrades and more.
Check to find out if your car company offers special discounts for active military, military veterans, or government employees, if you fall into any of those categories.
Other Ways to Save Money on a Rental Car
Here are just a few more things to consider that can save you money on a rental car.
Where to Rent
If you’re flying, consider renting from a car company that’s not on the airport’s grounds. The airport charges them rent that is usually higher than the surrounding area rent, so they pass those fees along to you. If you can take a shuttle, taxi, or Uber to the rental car location, you can often get lower rates.
If your travel dates are flexible, check your dates. Many companies have cheaper rates on the weekend than during the week. Renting a car over a holiday will result in a higher cost.
For Heaven’s sake, don’t forget to fill up the gas tank before you return the car! Depending on the company and your contract, you may have to return it completely full, or you may only have to fill it up to the level it was when you first left with the car. Know how much gas you need to add, and fill it up before you get to the rental car return. And keep in mind that gas stations near the airport usually are more expensive than others just a few miles away. You can use an app like GasBuddy to help you find the cheapest gasoline.
One other thing to consider if you’re planning to rent a car internationally, is whether they accept and recognize your driver’s license. Some European countries do accept a US driver’s license, while others require an International Driving Permit.
You’ll also need to be aware of the traffic laws and customs in the country where you plan to drive. Of course, I knew when I first visited England that we’d be driving on the left side of the road. I even knew about the roundabouts. What I didn’t realize was that traffic lights go from green to yellow to red, just like in the US – but they also go from red to green to yellow! We don’t do that here! Things like that can confuse someone driving in another country for the first time. So make sure you’re comfortable with how drivers and the road systems work wherever you’re going.
For more information on international driving, visit this page on the US Department of State website.
Thanks for reading and I hope this guide helps you save money when renting your next car, and answers all those burning questions you may have! Do you have any further tips? If so, chime in with a comment below.