From finding a good deal to figuring out insurance requirements, renting a car can be a complicated process fraught with many pitfalls. Here are some best practices to follow, from reservation to return.
Compare the prices and convenience of airport locations to those outside the airport
Prices vary greatly depending on the vehicle model and agency location. Airport rentals are generally subject to additional taxes and fees and are generally more expensive.
Some cities now charge similar fees if an agency is within 20 miles of the airport, according to Jonathan Weinberg, founder of AutoSlash, a car rental platform. “Always check both,” he said.
If you are flying and choose an off-airport rental location at your destination, consider the cost and convenience of transportation to the agency. Most have more limited opening hours than airport branches, which can be important if your flight is delayed.
Don’t pay in advance
Many agencies offer discounts if you pay in advance. However, prepaid contracts often incur fees if you cancel.
Most unpaid reservations are flexible, so you can cancel at any time without penalty. Experts recommend making reservations early and then using the time before your trip to check prices. If they drop, you can cancel and rebook at the lower price. Many agencies, including Budget and Dollar, offer best price guarantees. This means that if you find a better price for their cars elsewhere and they can verify the claim, they will rent the car to you at a price that is 10 percent less than that price.
The AutoSlash website tracks your reservation for free and notifies you of any price drops.
Maximize your memberships
Use memberships with retailer Costco or AAA or AARP organizations to get a discount at certain companies. Payouts vary. If you join Costco solely to rent cars, it may take several rentals per year to recoup the $60 membership fee.
If you participate in loyalty programs from Avis, Hertz or other major car rental companies, which are usually free, you are eligible for express pickups, which means you can skip the line at the counter and go straight to your vehicle.
Consider alternative companies
Turo and Getaround act like Airbnbs for rental cars: owners offer their vehicles for rent through company websites or apps. Available in 11,000 cities in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Australia, Turo requires renters to find out where and when they can pick up the car from their renter, although some owners also bring the car to you.
App and web-based rental company Kyte is available in more than a dozen cities across the United States and has no brick-and-mortar locations. It delivers and collects its cars wherever you specify at competitive prices, at no extra charge. The contactless and app-based UFO Drive rents electric vehicles in more than 20 cities in the US and Europe.
Check the upgrade policy at the counter…
With traditional agencies, if the car you reserved is not available when you arrive, it is common practice to give you the next available car at no extra charge. This may not always be clear and agencies have been known to ask you if you want a paid upgrade. Before accepting, ask about the original vehicle class. If it is not available, you are entitled to a free upgrade.
Watch out for “manager specials,” which are usually bargain leftovers. According to Mike Taylor, managing director of travel, hospitality and retail at market research firm JD Power, the transition to electric cars has seen renters receive surprise electric cars that they didn’t necessarily want.
… and know your insurance coverage
If you already have car insurance, this insurance coverage also extends to rentals in most cases. Many credit cards also offer protection against theft and damage if you pay with this card. Check both before purchasing additional insurance from the agency.
“Credit card insurance is just collision insurance, not liability insurance,” Mr. Weinberg said, noting that liability insurance will cost about $20 per day.
If you don’t have insurance and rely on a credit card for coverage, be aware of the exclusions of certain car types and peer-to-peer rental agencies like Turo.
“You want to avoid duplicating coverage, but you don’t want to think you’re fully covered when you’re not,” said Chuck Nardozza, general manager of sales at AAA Northeast.
Most private car insurance policies do not cover driving abroad, with some exceptions for Canada and Mexico.
Before you set off, document the condition of the vehicle
Look for damage, including dents and scratches and upholstery tears. Take photos or video to determine the condition of the vehicle upon pickup. If there is damage, ask the company to document it in your records.
Take photos again when you return the vehicle. Even if an employee inspects the car and gives you a receipt, you will have a record of its condition in case any damage is discovered during a more detailed inspection.
Buy gas before returning the car
Fuel options include returning the vehicle with a full tank or having the company fill it up at seemingly attractive prices per gallon. However, in the second scenario you will have to purchase a full tank.
“If you use three-quarters of a tank of gas, you give the rental car company a quarter of a tank of gas for free,” Mr. Weinberg said.
When returning the vehicle, take a photo of the gauge showing a full tank. Companies have been known to charge additional gas fees, and photographic evidence usually negates these fees.
Return the car on time
A rental car day typically lasts 24 hours from the time you leave the parking lot. Later bookings may incur an additional full day fee.
Even if you reserved a car from 12:00 p.m. on the pickup day to 12:00 p.m. on the return day, if you arrive early and leave the car at 11:30, you will be expected to return it by 11:30 a.m. on the due day Take over clock. “They may give you a little leeway, but that window is typically short, about 60 minutes or less,” Mr. Nardozza said.
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