One often-overlooked extra when renting a car is a fee for additional drivers on a car rental contract. Whether you plan on sharing the driving, or you're just looking to have the flexibility for a spouse or fellow traveler to get behind the wheel if needed, adding another driver your rental contract can be quite convenient. However, at $10 and up per day, these charges can add up quickly. Policies and fees vary greatly by company, location and situation though, so it's important to educate yourself beforehand to ensure you don't end up overpaying.
Before we go any further, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that it's essential to add any additional drivers to your rental contract. If you skip this step, and a driver other than the one whose name is on the rental contract gets into an accident, you could be in for a rude awakening. Any insurance or other damage waiver that you may have had in place could be voided for failing to officially list the other driver, so be forewarned. It's not worth taking the chance and being socked with a huge bill for totaling a car after the insurance company refuses to pay.
Location, Location, Location
If you rent cars only in the state of California, you can probably stop reading now since we have some great news for you. There are no additional driver fees in California at all by law. This goes for all companies, regardless of whether the additional driver is a spouse or someone unrelated to you. (You still need to list the additional driver on the contract, though.)
In addition to California, where all drivers are free, state law in Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin allow the spouse to be an automatic authorized driver without a fee.
If you are renting in New York, state law caps the additional driver fee at $3/day (not quite as good as a free ride in CA but certainly better than the exorbitant fees charged elsewhere), while in Nevada the fee is supposedly capped by law, but adherence to the statue by the various rental companies seems to be uneven. In all other states, there are no limitations by law on what the rental companies can charge, so if you can't avoid the additional driver fee using one of the strategies below, then be sure to check with the rental company on how much they charge.
Policies Vary by Company
It's important to keep in mind the policies of each company, since not all are created equal:
Alamo: There is a per day charge for all additional drivers. Alamo used to allow spouses as an additional driver for no extra fee, but as of 5/12/14 they have removed this benefit. Alamo now charges for any and all additional drivers regardless of relationship.
Avis/Budget/Enterprise/Fox: There is no additional driver fee for a spouse or domestic partner. Other individuals will incur a per-day fee. Avis and Budget currently charge $13 per day at most locations but cap the fee at $65 per rental.
Dollar/Thrifty: Both companies typically charge per day for all additional drivers (including spouses).
Hertz: There is a per day charge for all additional drivers, but if you are a member of Hertz #1 Club (free to join), the fee is waived for a spouse or domestic partner.
National: There is a per day charge for all additional drivers, but if you are a member of National's Emerald Club (free to join), the fee is waived for a spouse, domestic partner, or immediate family member who has the same address on their driver's license as the Emerald Club member.
Sixt: There is a charge per day for all additional drivers (including spouses).
Others: For any companies not listed above, please contact the company directly to confirm their policy on additional drivers. What you may save with a discount company may be wiped out by a fee for an additional driver, so it's important to take this into account when comparing rates and options.
Benefits of Membership
The other way to get around having to pay a fee for an additional driver is to use a discount code for an organization you are a member of. The following organizations allow for an additional driver at no charge to their members if booked with their discount:
AARP: Members get a free additional driver at Avis and Budget when booked with the AARP discount code at participating locations.
Costco: Members get a free additional driver at Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, and Budget when booked with the Costco discount code at participating locations.
BJ's: Members get a free additional driver at Alamo when booked with the BJ's discount code at participating locations.
USAA: When booked with the USAA discount code at participating locations, with Hertz, there's no charge for the spouse or (adult) children of the USAA member. With Enterprise, there's no charge for spouses and USAA family members. With Avis and Budget, there's no charge for spouses or other USAA members.
As shown, with a little bit of planning and research it's possible to avoid paying a fee when you need to add a second driver to your rental contract. Renters in California get a free pass regardless of company, as do spouses or domestic partners when renting from Avis, Budget or Enterprise. If that doesn't apply to your situation, then you can often avoid the fee by joining one of the frequent renter programs or using a membership discount code.
Dollar and Thrifty, which are both owned by Hertz, seem to be the only major brands that don't offer a way around the additional driver fees (unless you are a AAA member and the additional driver is as well as per above). The same holds true for Sixt as well most if not all of the discount companies as well, so it pays to do your homework before renting. Be sure to calculate all costs before making a decision on which company to rent with.