Posted: Marcus Varner | August 17, 2016

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Top Rental Car Tips: 20 to Make Your Next Rental the Best Ever

rental car tips

On a cold February evening in 2009, a 25-year-old driver was taking a rental car to his grandmother's funeral when he hit a patch of ice and slid into a snowbank. The covering on the bottom of the car was shredded. The wiper fluid hose was severed.

Luckily, the driver had purchased insurance coverage through the rental company. At least, he thought he did.

Four days later, the renter received a call from the car rental company that he was being charged $2,500 for repairs. The caller informed him that "the damage was caused by a 'clearance issue' and the insurance I purchased from them was not valid."

In shock, the renter bitterly exchanged paperwork and phone calls with the rental company for weeks. So many headaches later, he was informed that the original caller had been transferred from the claims department. This horror story has a happy ending: the claim was closed, the insurance he'd paid for covered the repairs and towing, and the company was sorry.

Needless to say, car rentals can sometimes go bad, causing days and weeks of stress, often without warning.

rental car tips

So you get off your flight and head to the rental car counter to claim the vehicle you'll be using for the next few days. Usually within 30 minutes, you roll off the lot in some kind of vehicle. Considering that you've just been handed the keys-and the responsibility-for the vehicle by a complete stranger, the whole process is surprisingly quick and easy.

Unbeknownst to the unseasoned traveler, however, this "easy" process-from reserving your car online to driving it off the lot-is fraught with potentially costly pitfalls. Rental car companies have found increasingly creative and deceptive ways to take more money from customers' pockets and increase their own profits, in an industry estimated to reach a value of $81.2 billion in the next three years.

Fortunately, you don't have to go into your next car rental blind. There are 20 failsafe tips which, if followed, will save you from some of the biggest car rental nightmares, from paying too much to being left holding the bill for an accident:

1. Check out lesser-known brands

You know the names. Budget. Enterprise. Hertz. They pay a lot of money to be the first thing you see when you land at your destination or do a Google search for rental cars. And it pays off. These brands are all that would-be car renters think of when they start their rental car search. According to experts, however, you might be better off with a car rental brand you've never heard of.

"[D]epending on where you're traveling, locally owned companies could offer lower rates," says IndependentTraveler.com, before cautioning renters, "[B]efore booking, read reviews to be sure their companies are up to the standards of the majors."

TravelSense.org recommends that travelers not undertake this task alone:

"Ask your ASTA travel agent to help you find the right car rental firm for each trip. Different firms serve different cities throughout the world. A travel agent can save you the time and effort of calling several different companies to find the best rate and car for you. Also, a travel agent may be aware of promotional rates and special programs that may not be advertised to the general public."

2. Check out rental companies' websites

rental car tips

Third-party aggregator sites like Expedia or Travelocity are a great way to get an overview of what prices there are out there. But when it comes to searching for real deals, experts recommend that you go directly to car rental companies' websites, which have been known to offer discounts that you can't find on aggregator sites.

3. Google car rental discounts

As with so many other purchases, the Internet is overflowing with discount and promo codes to help you save money on your next rental car.

"Rental car companies are always offering special discounts for all types of things, from business rentals to AARP members," says Trav at travel tips site Extra Pack of Peanuts. "A simple Google search of '(Your Car Rental Company) discount code' will return a ton of hits. Look through the first few sites and see what type of codes there are. Then, use those codes to get up to 50% off your rental!"

4. Look for bundling options

You'll see them on aggregator sites and individual rental car, airline, and hotel company sites-and they can offer some bona fide discounts that you would be wise pay attention to.

For instance, search on Travelocity for car rentals in New York City this coming weekend and you see an economy vehicle at Enterprise will cost you $150. A stay at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan for the same time period will cost you $179. But a stay at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan bundled with a rental car will cost only $220, an overall savings of $109.

rental car tips

5. Book for longer than you need

Yes, it sounds like a clever ploy by the rental car folks to get us to spend more, but it actually works, using car rental companies' own pricing against them.

Ed Perkins at SafeTraveler.com actually confirms this:

"Rent a car for a week, pay $289 including tax. Rent a car for four days, pay $333. Rent a car for a week but turn it in three days early, pay $333. You have to keep it at least five days to get the weekly rental rate. Go figure."

6. Avoid car rentals at airports

rental car tips

It's so convenient to be able to walk off your flight and step right into your rental car-but that convenience comes at a price. All travel experts agree: to get the best price on a rental car, don't pick it up at the airport. Instead, they suggest picking up from car rental service that is reasonably close to-but not at-the airport.

"Many off-airport rental offices provide transportation to and from the airport," says Teri Gault, author of Shop Smart, Save More. "And it can be more convenient than booking at the airport and having to take a rental car shuttle and dealing with huge crowds."

7. Try to avoid overbooking

If you use car rental services enough, you're bound to come across this nightmare. You arrive at your destination only to find that the car you responsibly reserved is not on the lot. You don't have a ride-but it's not your fault. Your car rental company overbooked.

The first thing you should know about this situation is that you can minimize your chances of this happening to you. "[T]ry to avoid arriving at an airport late in the evening in need of a car," advises Perkins.

If you do find yourself in this situation, however, there are steps you can take to turn it to your favor. "When a rental company can't accommodate you with a firm reservation, its first move is to offer an 'upgrade' to a more expensive model for an extra fee if the agent thinks he or she can get it, or for 'free' if you're a savvy customer," explains Perkins.

The free upgrade will require you to stand your ground in the face of agents who are trained to upsell and are even paid commission based on their ability to upsell you.

In the end, if an upgrade isn't available, you may have to wait around the airport or wait for them to call you at your hotel.

8. Reserve an economy car and pick up at peak time

If you are willing to try your luck, you can make a lack of inventory work for you. Sophie-Claire Hoeller at Thrillist says that this strategy puts in you the very likely position of being able to get a luxury vehicle at an economy price. "Quite simply, the more likely the agency's out of the cheaper cars everyone's trying to rent, the more likely you are to drive away in a luxury midsize," she claims.

rental car tips

Anisha Sekar at Nerdwallet confirms this, explaining:

"Rental companies stock far more mid-sized cars than compacts. If they don't have a compact on site they will often give you an automatic upgrade at no additional fee. The caveat to this is that you have to hold your ground and not fall for the upgrade fee early on in the conversation. If you remain steadfast the company will have no choice but grant you a complimentary upgrade."

9. Check their age restrictions

Most people are aware that car rentals won't rent to you if you don't meet certain minimum age requirements, but you might not be aware that many companies in some locations also have maximum age requirements. Unfortunately, this information is not usually prominently featured on rental car websites.

If you're 70 or older, do your homework on the rental car company you're considering and make sure they'll still rent to you.

10. Prepay for the car

Every business would rather get paid now rather than later. Car rental companies are no different in this regard, and they're willing to offer discounts to those customers who will prepay. Michelle Higgins at the New York Times claims that rental car companies are "offering discounts of up to 20 percent to travelers willing to prepay."

A quick word of warning here though: these prepayment deals are usually locked in and even nonrefundable. Only get into a prepayment deal if you're sure you're going to go through with it.

11. The agent is not your friend

rental car tips

I mentioned how driven rental car counter agents can be to upsell, but the point can't be overstated. And this ulterior motive can put them in direct opposition to your own interest. They want to upgrade you (for a higher price, of course). They want to sell you their insurance (even if you don't need it). They want to talk you into saying 'yes' to every little vaguely named fee, no matter how much it adds up to. Why? Because when you pay more, they get paid more.

When dealing with self-interested agents, Sekar recommends, "Determine beforehand what kind of vehicle you are looking to rent. With a clear picture in mind and reservation in hand, you can resist the temptation of adamant upsells at the rental car counter."

12. Don't prepay for gas

What better way to save yourself some time when you're racing to get back to the airport, than to prepay now for gas? It makes total sense, right? Wrong. This is just one of a host of fees and tricks that rental car companies use to fatten their profit margins. You pay a high price for gas that the rental car company bought for pennies on the dollar.

rental car tips

"It's better to fill up yourself since you can usually find cheaper gas prices at a nearby station anyway," recommends money-saving guru Andrea Woroch. "But don't forget to fill it up because the cost to do so after drop-off can be a total rip-off."

13. Don't purchase additional insurance

Offers of insurance are a huge money-maker for car rental companies. What the guy at the counter usually won't tell you when he offers you that insurance is that your personal auto insurance or the credit card you're charging your rental to will cover you just fine.

Just for the sake of thoroughness, IndependentTraveler.com suggests, "If in doubt, ask your insurance agent or credit card issuer."

Jonathan at AutoSlash echoes this need for caution: "You might already be covered, but check with your insurance carrier, and be aware of the costs you'll be responsible for."

14. Know if you need to pay the additional driver fee

Want to add your spouse, sibling, or friend to the list of people who can drive your rental car? If you're looking at several days of this, things can really add up. Just how much depends on state law and your rental car company.

In most states, rental car services can, and do, charge whatever fee they want per additional driver. But some states have taken legislative action to protect customers in this regard:

  • In California, all additional drivers are free.
  • In Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Oregon, spouses are free to add as a driver.
  • In New York, car rental services can't charge more than $3 per day for an additional driver.
  • In Nevada, additional drivers cost $10.67 each per day.

Obviously, how much you pay for your additional drivers will depend on what state you're visiting. Educated yourself beforehand and avoid additional driver fee shock when you see your final bill.

15. Beware of those international taxes

In the U.S., individual states have their own particular taxes on car rentals, but none of them are as daunting as those found internationally. Even with a low initial rental rate, extra taxes might make a car rental not worth your time.

According to TravelSense.org, international car rental taxes can add 10-30% to your bill-and that's before the possible Value Added Tax seen in many countries.

How do you know if you're going to get hit with high taxes on an international rental? Read your rental agreement thoroughly.

16. Say, "No thanks," to GPS

rental car tips

It's unbelievable that car rental services continue to offer this as an added service, in hopes that someone out there has not caught on to the smartphone revolution. If you have a smartphone, pass on this outdated (and overpriced) offering.

17. Make the agent a deal they can't refuse

Yes, agents, as mentioned above, are motivated by commissions on getting you to buy extra stuff. But they're also motivated to keep cars moving off their lot. You can use this against them and get a great deal in the process.

"If you don't really care what you drive, ask the agent if there are any cars he or she needs to get off the lot," says Hoeller. "Sure, you might end up driving a Geo Tracker (yeah, yeah, we know they don't make them anymore), but $10 a day is still a pretty sweet deal."

18. Check for pre-existing damage before you drive away

rental car tips

Yes, your parents probably ran you through this one the first and second and third times you rented a car, but it bears repeating. Car rental services will get sneaky, sometimes even pointing out damage as they survey the vehicle with you, but then conveniently neglecting to record it on their form.

Experts recommend that customers take matters into their own hands by snapping photos of the exterior and interior of the car before rolling off the lot and then texting those photos to the agent right after they were taken. This way both sides have the same visual record of what the car looked like, instead of relying on an unreliable slip of paper.

Additional note: make sure you walk through the post-drop-off inspection with the agent. Many companies will wait until the customer has run off to catch their flight and then hit them up with charges for damage that may or may not have been the customer's fault.

19. Fill up at the cheapest price possible

This one goes along with #12. You've probably been taught that you should never drop off your rental car on less than a full tank. This is true. You never want to leave it up to the rental company because of their tendency to inflate the price of their gas. But, in your own best interest, any quality of gasoline will do. Car rental companies don't spring for the fancy stuff, so why should you?

20. Return your car right on time

Returning your vehicle can be a tricky business. If you bring it in too early, it might mess up the price you pay. For example, if the timing of your return will make the difference between a daily rate or a week rate, it could significantly increase your final bill.

But if you bring it in late, you might also end being charged more, this time in late fees or even a full extra day's worth. Sarah Schlichter at IndependentTraveler.com cautions, "While some may give a 29-minute grace period, you may be charged late fees - or for a full extra day - if you return the car past that time window."

Experts all agree that your best plan when returning your rental is to get as close to your planned return date and time as possible.

So how do the top rental car companies stack up to one another, as rated by real customers? Visit our Rental Car Companies page today and find out.

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Written by Marcus Varner

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