Top 7 essential car rental tips for travelers

Car rental may be confusing and overwhelming. And it might end up being a lot more costly than it needs to be. It comes with that knot in the stomach about driving something that isn’t yours, concerned that every bump or scratch in a foreign land will lead to arguments and losing a lot of money, together with a world-weary skepticism about car rental fraud and the cost of not reading a fine print on the rental agreement.

If you’ve never rented a car before, but will soon have to, then those feelings of apprehension combined with worry and a little uncertainty are completely natural. Even if you’ve already been on a few road trips with you at the wheel, you’re probably still paying more on renting a car than you should.

That’s where I’ve added to this travel article every car rental tip that matters. I want to share the lessons I learned over time about car rentals, even when I wasn’t necessarily the one behind the wheel. Road trip experiences (and mistakes, too) will help wash away some of your biggest fears by reassuring you with hard facts and steps to take in the hardest of moments. Also, with these car rental tips, you’ll escape hidden costs and save a lot of money, beat the scammers, and happily ride off into the sunset!

Disclosure: Some of the banners below have affiliate links. This means that at no extra cost to you, The Travel Bunny will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Thank you!

Car rental tip #1:

Analyze lowest rates vs. a good bargain

The argument is that the airport car rental industry is very competitive and the price gaps between similar quality and service are relatively small, often as small as $10 or $20. These minor price disparities will disappear quickly as you weigh long queues and wasted time at the cheapest car hire register, drop charges for distant destinations, late return fees, and inflated fuel prices, as well as other utility charges you didn’t care about when you got what looked like the better deal.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to pay higher rates any more than you do. I recommend that you shop around and check the different prices available, especially since it’s so easy to do it on the Internet.

What I mean here is that you should remember other factors besides the price before you make a reservation. Also, when you make that comparison, please compare apples with apples and not apples with pears. 😉

best car rental keys
The perfect car rental needs to fit all your needs, not just your budget.

Car rental tip #2:

Rent a car that fits your needs

Who will be using the rental car? Are you on a business trip by yourself, or are you traveling with the entire family? How much luggage do you have, is the car you want big enough for everyone plus all the luggage? If not, maybe swap to a minivan or a sedan with an extra-large trunk when you’re on the car rental website or at the rental car office.

Will you need a car seat or a child booster? Make sure you clearly specify it in your order. There is typically a shortage of these seats for rental cars and they are normally provided with extra charges. Also, check the rules of the place you’ll be driving. For example, a law in Denver mandates booster seats for all 4 and 5-year-olds that are not 55 inches tall.

Do you really need a car in the city or town in the first few days? If not, try taking a cab, a bus, the subway, or the hotel shuttle to the airport. And, when it’s time for you to get out of town to drive around, then choose a car rental agency with a city office and save up to 15% on airport charges and/or city parking fees.

Are you traveling to a really wet and humid destination? If yes, I strongly recommend renting a car with air conditioning. Normally, the price gap is small and they’re usually available in all destinations nowadays.

Will you travel a lot? Most major car rental companies offer unlimited mileage in the same country or state, but it’s a good idea to review their policy before confirming. Many smaller local independent businesses charge a mileage fee if you go over their specified daily amount. Pick up and drop off locations need to be considered too, in this case.

As mentioned above, the price is not the only consideration to be weighed when considering a car rental company. If you choose a very small, no-name car rental agency, don’t expect them to have offices available all across the country or continent. Consider what will happen if the car had to be replaced or serviced for whatever reason.

discover cars rental car deals
Best car rental deals to book a cheap rental car from Discover Cars

Car rental tip #3:

Take advantage of frequent/preferred renter programs

Frequent renter programs. Just like airlines and hotels, big car rental companies register their clients’ rental records and provide preferential service to regular customers. Many big businesses sell frequent renter services comparable to airline frequent flyer programs and hotel frequent-guest programs.

Preferred renter clubs. Most big car rental agencies often offer preferred renter services or have preferred rental clubs (for example, the Hertz #1 Club). If you are a member of one of these clubs, you can get special services, including automatic upgrades, when those cars are available. You can join these loyalty programs at any time, even though you are a first-time customer of that car rental company.

Though basic club memberships are always free on rental sites, the higher-level memberships (e.g. the Hertz #1 Gold Club, which helps you bypass the car rental counter) normally come with a price tag. What very few people know is that it is almost always possible to escape a subscription charge by merely calling or writing to the car rental company and telling them to waive it. They do that because the car rental market is really competitive and they want your company.

If you’re still faced with a steep fee, try to get discounts depending on your affiliations with organizations like AARP, AAA, or others. These deals for AAA members are typically not fantastic, but they’re better than zero and although they don’t increase safety by much, they definitely increase confidence.

In addition, always check the corporate rates, in case they apply to you.

Car rental tip #4:

Car rental insurance

Some of the car rental insurance lingo seems confusing, so let me help you with some terms:

  • CDW – Collision Damage Waiver
  • LDW – Loss Damage Waiver
  • PDW – Physical Damage Waiver
  • PAI – Personal Accident Insurance
  • PEC – Personal Effects Coverage
  • ALI – Additional Liability Insurance.

Many credit cards have most of these coverages, so it’s not mandatory to buy excessive coverage. It’s better to discuss this ahead of time with your travel agent, insurance agent, and credit card company. Some car rental companies also ask you to show evidence of insurance.

Please be mindful that your personal insurance can not extend on your rental car when you drive abroad. All of this is somewhat difficult and, at times, frustrating, since there are no industry standards for terminology, and regulations differ from location to location.

discover cars rental car deals
Find cheap car rentals and discount car rentals from Discover Cars

Car rental tip #5:

Do a quick check-up when you leave the airport

After a long flight and waiting in the queues for your baggage, and again for your keys at the car rental desk, it’s understandable that you just want to take the rental car and drive to your hotel. But wait! There are a few things you need to review first.

Unless you got full coverage, start by inspecting the car closely, searching for any little dents or scratches. If you notice any, go back to the car hire office and ask a representative to write down all these marks. Then, ask for a copy of that paper. Otherwise, you risk being held responsible for damages caused by other people.

Open the trunk, make sure you have a spare tire, a jack, and a set of tools. It’s more annoying to learn that you don’t have any of these when you’re in the middle of nowhere, trying to fix a flat tire.

If you ask for an extra key, some car hire companies will give you one. This can be useful for those of us who are absent-minded and have locked our keys in the car one too many times. 😉

It is also advised to spend some time to get familiar with the features of the vehicles and the switches. Make sure you know where the switches are, how to control the windshield wipers, the air conditioner, and even configure your favorite radio channels as well as your side mirrors. It can be a little difficult to struggle with the switches when driving, especially when it begins to pour suddenly.

Make sure you’ve got a map or a navigation app. It’s easier if you take a few more minutes to plan your route before driving off.

Last but definitely not least, if you’ve got a lot of bags, don’t leave the car in a parking lot and go for lunch. In a lot of countries, that’s very risky, because you become an easy target for thieves. It’s better to buy some snacks and drinks at the airport or to stop anywhere on the way to refuel, but never leave the car unattended.

rental car accident

Car rental tip #6:

Be prepared in case you get involved in an accident

These are the most relevant details to be obtained from the individuals concerned: full name, postal address, contact number, insurance specifics, and driver’s license number. Try to get the names and contact details of those who witnessed the accident, too. Make a note of the car model, color, brand, and license plate number.

Try to pinpoint the precise time and location of the accident. If the police are involved, please make sure you get a copy of their investigation report. Don’t forget to contact the insurance provider promptly and to alert the car rental company. They’re going to let you know what is their procedure for accidents.

If you bought insurance from the car rental company, they’re going to have to file a claim. If the rental car is damaged, there will be a lot of paperwork to do.

Of course, make sure that all the people concerned are ok. Any injuries should be taken care of ASAP.

Call the police and/or the ambulance (if necessary), and then call the car rental service. Be as cooperative as you can. The car rental company will have its own accidents procedure.

Exchange information with all the parties involved. Try to record everything on scene. Your notes should contain specifics of the crash, the identification of the vehicles and the parties involved, and the names and badge numbers of all emergency personnel.

If possible, take photos. If you’re on holiday, you’ll have a camera handy, even if it’s the one from your phone.

File an accident report with the police and report the claim n to your own credit card or insurance company.

discover cars rental car deals
Best deals on car rental prices and great car rental deals from Discover Cars

Car rental tip #7:

Return your rental car on time

Make all the appropriate preparations to return the car on time, including looking at the car rental locations on the map, particularly if you return the car to a foreign city.

Late return rates are high and arbitrary. Also, if you’re late, you actually won’t have the time to fill the car with fuel yourself, and the car rental company will charge you exorbitantly priced petrol charges.

If you return the car to a city location on Sunday, it can happen to find the parking is deserted. You might have to go in through an automatic gate, so make sure you take the card and leave it on the dashboard. This will be your reported time of arrival.

In addition, lock the vehicle, take up the keys plus your car rental contract and insert them into the designated box.

Car rental tips by…

Mirela Letailleur The Travel Bunny

Mirela Letailleur is a Romanian travel blogger living in the South of France. She writes on The Travel Bunny travel blog about affordable travel in Europe, creator of unique free travel guides, local travel expert. Problem solver. Wannabe coffee guru.

Read more about Mirela Letailleur

Other travel articles you should read on The Travel Bunny
Airport parking tips to save money and time
Three of the best road trips in Europe
How to travel Europe on a budget