Category: Travails of a Guidebook Author

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 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, 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!

Book News

Oh, hello there. I briefly forgot I had a blog! But the electronic record must show some exciting developments in the realm of words printed on paper.

Tiny hint of what might be on the cover, maybe
Tiny hint of what might be on the cover, maybe
1) The Crimson Sofa All Strangers Are Kin is delivered and accepted, as they say in the biz.

(In the biz, this also means I finally got PAID again. Writing a book is the most nonsensical “job” ever. Happy May Day, everyone!)

So that means (because this is printed on paper), publication date for my travel memoir about why it’s worth learning Arabic, despite the grief it can cause, is June 2016. Yes, that’s more than a year from now. No, I cannot tell you why it takes that long.

But production is moving along at a rapid clip (copy editing is in process; I’ve seen one cover mockup already), so there will be more news soon.

STAB42) Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque is out in a new full-color edition!

OK, maybe not at this moment “out” in stores, but I got a big box of them the other day, and they look lovely. If you’re planning a trip to fair New Mexico, pick one up.

(If you’ll go farther afield, remember there’s also Moon New Mexico, also now full-color, and only a year old.)

3) The beautiful New Mexico Farm Table Cookbook is out.

farmtableI have nothing personally to do with this except that you’ll see my name on back under a very excited blurb. It is a beautiful book! And, to quote myself, it does go way beyond the classic red and green chile dishes. Beautiful photos, and recipes from a huge variety of restaurants all over the state.

Try out the Los Poblanos Pork with Modern Soubise (p122), would ya, and tell me how it is?

I can’t do it myself now because I’m off to back-of-beyond Greece for a couple of weeks. Much needed hiking trip, because…

4) I’m updating the Lonely Planet USA guide.

Not the whole thing, just the NY/NJ/PA chapter. But even that involves a ton of driving and a lot of road food (hence the need for hiking). Man, America. You gotta get with the program on vegetables!

(Welcome exceptions: Moosewood and Stonecat Cafe. In a perfect world, I’d have a whole post about eating at Moosewood, finally, after living out of one their cookbooks for so long in Egypt. But I gotta go pack.)

I’ll be heading up to the Adirondacks and out to Long Island when I get back from Greece. More news then…

2014: The High- and Lowlights

This whole past year, I have been considering retiring this blog, and I still am. But…it is a helpful memory bank.

See, I’ve been mentally concocting this post for a couple of weeks. And it was not positive: 2014 felt like Groundhog Year, because I had to massively overhaul my book, despite having made special efforts in 2013 and even earlier to avoid such a thing (gnash, gnash).

But scrolling through this year’s blog posts, I see that some other things happened–and some of them even represented progress, of a sort.

Granted, it’s not a great sign that two of my posts were cranky rebuttals: one telling Marc Maron to lighten up on his cast iron, and another telling a New York Times reporter to lighten up in Mexico.

But then there’s something genuinely good: The new edition of my Moon New Mexico book came out–in fabulous full color! It reminded me that, in eleven years of working on these Moon books, I’ve learned a lot about photography, and I now have a body of photos that I’m proud to see printed in color. The writing ain’t bad either, if I do say so.

This reminded me of a couple of things that didn’t even make it to the blog. I wrote another story for the New York Times, “36 Hours in Santa Fe,” which turned out well. I can even call myself a published poet now, because the entry for Ten Thousand Waves includes a haiku!

And, perhaps my proudest accomplishment of the year, I wrote an article for The Art of Eating on a couple in New Mexico who are making traditional balsamic vinegar. I’ve been thinking this would make a good story since I first heard about the Darlands, at least five years ago; I learned a ton; and The Art of Eating is an excellent magazine. Writing the story was a great experience all around, especially in the editing, which reminded me how helpful and inspiring that process can be.

The majority of my 2014 posts were dedicated to my trip way back in January, when I went to Rwanda and Ethiopia (and then Thailand, for frequent-flier-mile reasons too dull to go into). It was fantastic, and I am so glad I went, but Peter and I came back fried. Too many destinations, not enough time in each and certainly not enough alone time. I still haven’t quite recharged–I have never wanted to travel less in my life, which is unsettling.

[REDACTED. There was some more blerghy complaining here, but we’re all pretty tired of that, aren’t we?]

In 2015, I am taking the advice of a thirteen-year-old friend, who recently said, with the wisdom of an eighty-year-old, “Consider it a hobby, and it will be less troublesome.” He was talking about something else entirely, but still.

Not coincidentally, this is one of my favorite photos of the year, from the Itegue Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa.

rwanda 371

Bad art? Refresh by rotating 90 degrees.

Hello, 2015. May you be different and perspective-altering.

Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

Book Update

“Can’t wait till your book comes out!”

“Let me know when your book is out!”

“Hey, when’s your book coming out?”

This post is for all my friends and acquaintances and great people I met while I was traveling, to answer their ever-optimistic questions.

First, the book (working title: The Crimson Sofa) is now scheduled for publication in fall 2015.

That seems a long way off, yes? This, alas, is the way book publishing works. And, you’re not imagining it, it has gotten further off since I started this whole thing. Thanks in part to my own failure to grasp how book publishing works. Despite having worked in the industry off and on for more than fifteen years.

Two pro-tips (which, in the spirit of all pro-tips, are screamingly obvious once you write them down and look at them):

PRO-TIP #1: In your proposal, don’t just guess what your word count might be.

It’s hard, right, that you have to say how many words a book will be, before you write it? And there’s no straightforward way to find out how many words there are in other, comparable books?

I understand, the publishing people have to do their own math, according to some arcane formula which mere writers don’t know. So when I first started writing, I emailed my editor as soon as I realized my estimated word count was way too low. Because I had, yes, just guessed in my proposal. (“Let’s see…Peter wrote a book that was 60,000 words? It could be longer than that. But what if nothing happens on my trip? Better be conservative… Um, 70,000? Yeah, that’s the ticket. 70,000.”)

Turns out, that was a problem. Turns out I should’ve been more careful at that stage.


PRO-TIP #2: 150,000 words is way too many words.

OK, I know it’s too many words. I mean, obviously some needed to be cut. I just didn’t know it was omg-my-head’s-exploding-I-can’t-even-deal-with-this too many words.

Which is a totally inaccurate paraphrase of my editor’s reaction, but an accurate depiction of the fallout. In order for my editor to be able to deal with my book, I had to cut it massively. My pub date got bumped, from next spring to next fall.

I spent the last few months alternately gnashing my teeth and cutting every fourth word of every single sentence. (Reading this post, you can perhaps sense how that kind of cutting would be possible, yes? Buh-bye, “just,” “really,” “perhaps,” etc. Buh-bye, parenthetical asides. Buh-bye, rhetorical questions.)

I spent a fantastic week in southern Utah, with no internet. I rode a train. In the end, I emerged with 92,000-ish words, which I just submitted today.

file name crimson sofa

Which is crazy to me, because I eat that many words for breakfast. The last Lonely Planet job I did, just the Cairo chapter of the Egypt guide, plus some front matter, was 82,950 words. (Maybe I should have considered this, at the proposal stage!)

So, long story short, the draft is on my editor’s desk. I have no idea if the short version is really tenable as a book. I’ve been stuck in the swamp of it so long, I hate nearly every word of it, and I can no longer remember what the point of writing it might have been.

I’m hoping a couple of months off, updating my Moon guide to Santa Fe (approximately 98,000 words), will restore some perspective. Time usually does that.

Which, I suppose, is the silver lining around book publishing taking so long–you need that time just to love your book again. And I hope you’ll all still be around, still asking about the book, when it does finally come out. Thanks for all the support, over this long haul.