Farewell Brain Dump: Everything I Know about Renting a Car

Hell on wheels, Malta-style
Hell on wheels, Malta-style

As I said two weeks ago, I’m shutting down this blog. This is my last post ever! Thanks for reading, lo these 12 long years.

As a guidebook author, I have rented a crazy amount of cars, in lots of different countries. Two of my most popular posts ever were about renting cars in Mexico.

I’m sure I still don’t know everything. But here are the basics for anyone looking to get a better deal.

1. You probably don’t need to buy extra insurance…except when you do.
[NOTE: the following applies to rentals made via US websites, using US-issued credit cards. I can’t vouch for what rules apply to Europeans.]

You’ll get pressure to buy insurance. But if you’re renting with a decent US-issued credit card, one of its perks is probably rental-car collision insurance (covering the damage you might do to the car). Most MasterCards come with 14 days’ coverage; Visas usually offer 30.

But don’t take my word for it! Definitely check your card’s terms before your trip. Also ask whether the coverage is primary (you can claim on it first) or secondary (you’d have to first claim with your personal car insurance, if you have it). Once you have that sorted, you can confidently “decline the CDW” (as the collision coverage is usually abbreviated on contracts) at the rental counter.

Note that you can go without collision insurance completely (at least as far as I know re: US and Mexico; laws may be different in other countries). That means you’re taking all the risk yourself, and of course you have to be OK with that risk.

If you decline the CDW (whether because you have coverage through your credit card, or you’re just a risk taker), the car company will want to guarantee you don’t wreck the car and never pay up. So it will usually put a hold for several thousand dollars on your credit card until you return the car.

As for the other key insurance, liability insurance (what you might do to other cars/people while driving): it is required pretty much everywhere in the world.

In the US, most states require the car companies (not you, the customer) to pay for the liability insurance. This is called primary liability insurance, and even if it’s included in the rate, the staff will probably try to sell you supplemental liability insurance at the counter; you can safely say no, thanks (unless of course you are genuinely concerned about your liability risk).

But in some states, car companies are not required to pay for the liability insurance. In these states (California is the biggie), you must pay primary liability insurance at the counter (and, nastily, it’s not usually flagged up in the rate you’re quoted online). However, if you own a car in the US, your own personal car insurance will probably cover your liability, and you can “decline the LDW” without worry. (Again, check before your trip.) If you don’t own a car, alas, you do have to buy liability insurance in the states it’s required.

As for other countries, most also require rental companies to pay for liability insurance, but there are exceptions–such as Mexico. And there, I learned, some companies (such as Hertz) carry the insurance themselves, while others don’t, and pass the fee on to you. But even if they provide primary liability themselves, they will cheerfully try to sell supplemental coverage–so you need to read the fine print. See here (point #6) for more.

2. Start your search wide.
Run a quick search at Kayak.com to get an idea of the range of rates for the trip you want. Target the lowest prices from the international chains (Hertz, Avis, etc).

Avoid Enterprise where possible. They nickel-and-dime to a sometimes excruciating degree, in my experience. Although in smaller cities, they are sometimes the only option, and can be perfectly great.

3. Join the club.
Whatever company you’re considering renting from, join their frequent-renters club. It comes with automatic 10-15% discounts.

You can also set up preferences for airline discounts (below), and also request not to be given the insurance hard sell when you pick up your car.

4. Get discounts from airlines.
Most airlines–and Amtrak–offer significant discounts at car rental companies. For this, you have to book through the airline’s engine or get a code to punch in at the car-rental website. (For both, go to the frequent-flier part of the website, look under ‘earn miles’ then ‘car rentals.’)

Try a few different ones–they vary a lot depending on the time of year and where you’re renting. (It’s easier to just try the search with the code/engine, rather than parsing the fine print and deciding whether the rules apply.)

I usually check American, United and Amtrak. And because I’ve signed up at a couple of different car companies’ clubs (step #2), I can store the discount codes there.

5. Try an off-airport location.
Some airports charge crazy fees for car rentals. Going to a “suburban” location in the same city can save a ton of money, more than the cost of a taxi to that location. And there’s usually no added fee for returning the car to the airport (but double-check).

6. It costs nothing to cancel a car reservation.
If you see something good, book it. You can always cancel it later, with no penalty.

(Obviously don’t book the prepaid option!)

7. Rental rates change all the time.
After you make your booking(s), check back a few times before your trip. You will probably be surprised, horrified or indignant about how much the rates change, and often for the lower.

Console yourself by feeling smug when you book the new, better rate.

8. Choose prepaid only close in.
When you’re within 4 days or so of your trip, and you’re pretty certain everything’s a go, then you can choose a prepaid discount, if you see a good one.
Now’s also the time to check www.hotwire.com, which does “blind booking” for car rentals, where it shows only the price, not the company. If you see a crazy bargain here, be sure you’re checking the price with all fees and taxes. If it’s still lower than what you have lined up, then go for it.

Honestly, I barely mess with prepaid deals, because it makes me feel all jinx-y about my trip! But sometimes I’ll check the day before I fly and switch to prepaid if it’s better.

9. It’s fairly easy to claim on insurance, if you need to.
I’m not saying you should be a cavalier driver or anything, but at least don’t fret too much if you do damage your car somehow. The paperwork, in my experience with both Visa and American Express, has been pretty easy, and the settlement happens within about four months.

If you do have some kind of incident, don’t move your car without making contact with your car-rental company. It will send an adjuster to document the situation.

10. If your car needs towing, don’t call the rental company.
Well, OK: if you car has some kind of mechanical failure, then yes, call the phone number on the rental agreement. This is the car company’s responsibility, and they should deal with it first.

But if you, for example, follow bad GPS directions and wind up stuck on a sandy forest road, don’t call the car company. In this case (as the tow-truck guy advised me), you should look first online (if at all possible) to find the closest (physically) tow-truck company. Call them directly.

Towing companies charge starting from when they start driving toward you…wherever they are. (Keep this in mind when you hear the hourly rate.) That’s why you want someone close.

And your car rental company charges a service fee ($75, in the case of Hertz) to connect you to a local towing company. Which is why you don’t want to bother getting them involved.

I haven’t looked into it (but probably should), but of course AAA is an option. Even if you don’t own a car, membership may be handy if you rent a lot.

11. Don’t take your car on dirt roads (if you can avoid it).
Car rental companies tend to think this is so blindingly obvious, they don’t mention it. But often they have clauses that say the insurance is voided if you’re on a dirt road. (Check with your credit card’s collision insurance too.)

Happy, cheaper driving! Any questions? I know I said I’m killing off the blog, but of course I’ll answer comments!

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