How to Rent a Car: Tips for Saving Time and Money

Car — By on January 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm

By Kristen Putch
LG North American Travel Editor

While we would all love to consider ourselves jet-setters, the truth is, sometimes driving is necessary—and if you’re using your own set of wheels, it can actually be convenient and cost-effective. However, there is often a need to rent a car as local transportation once travelers reach their destination by plane or train, which means paying for the cost rental on top of a flight.

Renting a car can be tricky, with add-ons, insurance questions, and mileage. Here are a few basic things you should know before you sign your name on the dotted line:

How old do I have to be to rent a car?

Depending on the state in which you are renting your car, age limits range from 18-25. If you find yourself somewhere where you can rent a car under the age of 25, be prepared to pay an additional fee, usually between $10-$20 per day. Check with your local rental car agency to find out the age limit in your state.

Picking Up Your Rental Car

When you go to pick up your rental car is the time to ask questions, even if they seem minor. Questions asked before you drive away can save you some headache and money later. Make sure you understand all restrictions to your travel with the vehicle, and what fees may be incurred after drop-off.

Dropping Off Your Rental Car

When returning your vehicle, make sure your tank is filled (or returned to the same level it was at the time of pick up, as some companies require). If you don’t fill the tank, the rental agency will charge you their rate per gallon to refill, which is often significantly more than you would pay at the gas station (sometimes as much as $7 per gallon!). Also, make sure all of your personal belonging are removed and the car is clean, as you can be charged an additional fee for cleaning.

If you are returning a car after hours, make sure there is a drop box available for you to leave your keys.

If you’re renting your car for one-way trip, or will be returning it to a different location than where you picked it up, be sure to ask if there is a drop-off fee.

Mileage on Rental Cars

Depending on where you are traveling, and how long you will have the vehicle, some companies will give you unlimited mileage between certain states. Others may give you a mileage limit, and charge you for each mile over (usually about $0.20 per mile). If you get unlimited mileage, it’s not uncommon for rental companies to have a GPS on the car, and will know if you travel outside of the designated ‘unlimited miles’ states, and will charge you accordingly.

Do I Need Insurance on a Rental Car?

This is a big one. Rental car companies will try to get you to add insurance to your rental for an additional daily fee, usually between $20-$30. Before you sign up, check with your own car insurance company, most of which will cover rental car damage as part of your overall coverage. Don’t have auto insurance? If you are paying with a major credit card, such as a Visa or MasterCard, your credit card company will often have built-in rental car insurance. Also be aware that the insurance offered to you by the rental company is often supplemental, with the expectation that you have another form of primary insurance.

Damage to the Vehicle (Before you leave the lot)

Most rental car agents will do a once-over of the car before you drive away. Don’t take this lightly. When they walk around the car to check for scratches or dents, walk with them and point out any prior damage you see, and make sure it is noted on the contract before you sign it. This includes windows (sometimes there are small chips), lights and windshield wipers as well. If the damage is not noted prior to you driving away, when the car is returned, you may be charged for damage you did not cause.

Roadside Assistance for Renters

You may want to discuss the option of Roadside Assistance with your rental company in the case of an accident or breaking down and make sure that the company has locations in all the states you will be traveling through. Again, you will mostly likely pay a daily fee for this coverage.

If you have AAA, bypass the rental company’s option, as AAA covers the driver, not the car, and can be used in any vehicle. If you don’t have AAA, it may be worth investment and piece of mind. For an annual fee, AAA offers a variety of packages that covers service calls for towing, flat tires and running out of gas. AAA members can also get deals on travel and hotels.

Payment for Rentals

When you pick up your rental car, you will have to use a credit card as payment. Many companies will NOT accept a debit card, and if they do, they will put a large hold on your card to cover the cost of the card and any additional fees that may be incurred. When you pay with your credit card, the rental company will put a hold on your card for the estimated cost of the rental (based on the length of rental and daily cost).

Scoring a deal on a Rental Car

The biggest difference in cost with a standard rental will depend on the size of the vehicle. Economy or compact cars are much less expensive per day compared to a full-size or an SUV. Evaluate your needs and pick a car based on that.

Several rental companies will offer weekend deals, as that is when their business tends to be the slowest (business people and families on vacation tend to use cars during the week). Enterprise offers a weekend package for as low as $9.99/day with up to 300 miles, if you rent a vehicle from Friday-Monday. If you need more miles for your weekend excursion, they offer unlimited mileage (with state limitations) for $19.99/day.

Smoking in Your Car

One additional note: don’t smoke in your rental. Most companies will charge an exorbitant fee for cleaning if the car was smoked in. If you must light-up, pull over to a rest stop and get out. Losing a few minutes is worth saving a couple hundred dollars.

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