From getting a good deal to figuring out insurance requirements, renting a car can be a complicated, pitfall-prone experience. Here are some best practices to follow, from reservations through returns.
Compare prices and convenience of airport vs. nonairport locations
Prices vary widely based on the vehicle model and the location of the agency. Airport rentals, subject to extra taxes and fees, are generally more expensive.
Some cities are now charging similar fees if an agency is within 20 miles of the airport, according to Jonathan Weinberg, the founder of AutoSlash, a car rental platform. “Always check both,” he said.
If you’re flying and choosing an off-airport rental location at your destination, factor in the cost and convenience of transportation to the agency. Most have more limited hours than airport-based outlets, which could be important if your flight is delayed.
Many agencies offer discounts for prepayment. But prepaid contracts often incur fees if you cancel.
Most unpaid reservations are flexible, allowing you to cancel anytime with no penalty. Experts advise reserving early and then using the time before your trip to check prices. If they go down, you can cancel and rebook at the lower rate. Many agencies, including Budget and Dollar, offer best rate guarantees, meaning if you find a better rate on their cars elsewhere and they can verify the claim, they will rent you the car for 10 percent below that price.
The website AutoSlash will track your reservation at no cost and alert you to any price drop.
Maximize your memberships
Use memberships at the retailer Costco or the organizations AAA or AARP to get a discount at specific companies. Payoffs vary. If you’re strictly joining Costco to rent cars, it may take a few rentals a year to recoup the $60 membership fee.
If you join loyalty programs at Avis, Hertz or other major rental companies, which are usually free, you are entitled to express pickups, which means you can skip the line at the counter and go directly to your vehicle.
Consider alternative companies
Turo and Getaround act like Airbnbs for rental cars: Owners offer their vehicles to rent through company websites or apps. Turo, available in 11,000 cities in the United States, Britain, Canada, France and Australia, requires renters to work out where and when to pick up cars from their renters, though some owners will bring the car to you.
Available in more than a dozen cities in the United States, the app- and internet-based rental company Kyte, which has no brick-and-mortar locations, will drop off and pick up its cars, which are competitively priced, wherever you specify, at no extra charge. The contactless and app-based UFO Drive rents E.V.s in more than 20 cities in the United States and Europe.
At the counter, understand upgrade policies …
At traditional agencies, when the car you’ve reserved is not available when you arrive, it’s a common practice to give you the next-best available car at no extra charge. This may not always be made clear, and agencies have been known to ask if you want to upgrade for a fee. Before accepting, request your original class of car. If it is not available, you are entitled to a free upgrade.
Watch out for “manager’s specials,” which tend to be bargain leftovers. As agencies transition to electric cars, renters have ended up with surprise E.V.s that they didn’t necessarily want, according to Mike Taylor, the managing director of travel, hospitality and retail at the market research company J.D. Power.
… and know your insurance coverage
If you already have auto insurance, in most cases that coverage extends to a rental. Many credit cards also provide coverage against theft and damage as long as you use that card for payment. Check on both before buying additional coverage at the agency.
“Credit card insurance is only collision, not liability,” Mr. Weinberg said, noting liability insurance will add roughly $20 a day.
If you do not have insurance and are relying on a credit card’s coverage, pay attention to exclusions of certain kinds of car and peer-to-peer rental agencies like Turo.
“You want to avoid duplication of coverage, but you don’t want to go in thinking you’re fully covered when you’re not,” said Chuck Nardozza, the managing director of sales at AAA Northeast.
Most personal auto insurance will not apply to driving abroad, with some exceptions for Canada and Mexico.
Before driving off, document the vehicle’s condition
Look for damage, including dings and scrapes and upholstery tears. Take photos or a video to establish the vehicle’s condition at pickup. If there is damage, ask the company to document it in your paperwork.
Take photos again when you drop off the vehicle. Even if an employee reviews the car and gives you a receipt, you’ll have a record of its condition should a deeper review find any damage.
Before returning the car, buy gas
Fuel options include returning the car with a full tank or having the company refill it at what may look like attractive per-gallon rates. However, in the second scenario, you must buy a full tank.
“If you use three-quarters of a tank, you’re giving the rental car company a quarter tank of free gas,” Mr. Weinberg said.
When you return the vehicle, take a picture of the gauge showing a full tank. Companies have been known to tack on extra gas charges, and photographic proof usually wipes those charges away.
Return the car on time
A rental car day is usually 24 hours from the time you leave the lot. Anything later might incur another full day’s charge.
Even if you reserved a car from noon on pickup day to noon on drop-off day, if you arrive early and take the car at 11:30 a.m., you’ll be expected to return it by 11:30 a.m. on the due date. “They might give you a little leeway, but that window tends to be short, like 60 minutes or less,” Mr. Nardozza said.
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