Renting a car for the first time can be simultaneously exciting and scary. A car rental opens up a world of possibilities when you travel, but there are some pitfalls you want to avoid. We're here to make sure you feel that sense of adventure without the downside.
For starters, know that simply booking a car reservation is usually a low-risk proposition more akin to booking a hotel room than booking an airline ticket. There are two kinds of rates: Those you pay when you pick up the car and prepaid rates. The first time you rent a car, you will probably feel more comfortable booking a Pay Later rate, which will have no cancellation penalty in case you need to change your plans.
3 Key Things to Know Before You Rent a Car
- Rates are significantly higher for young drivers. Renters under the age of 25 will commonly encounter daily, age-related fees on rentals that can even exceed the cost of the rental car. These are added at the counter by the rental car company unless the renter has booked under a specific rate code for a waiver.
- You'll need a driver's license and a credit card. The first thing the agent will ask to see is a valid driver's license and a credit card. A photocopy of a license won't cut it. And a prepaid credit card won't work either. You may be able to rent a car with a debit card, but it is likely to create some hassles.
- You can overpay for car rental insurance. A large portion of the car rental contract concerns what happens if the vehicle is in an accident, and who is responsible for covering damage costs. Before renting a car, you should do your homework and find out whether the car insurance you have on your own car covers rental cars, and whether your credit card includes coverage for rental cars. Read our Quick Primer on Car Rental Insurance before you arrive at the rental car counter, so you know your options.
How to Snag a Cheap Car Rental
When it comes to renting a car, there are many ways to land a good deal. Car rental companies use dynamic pricing, which is a fancy way of saying that prices go up and down all the time, based on supply and demand. These companies also offer promotions and coupons that offer discounts and perks, and you might be eligible for better rates if you're a member of a club or group, such as AAA or Costco.
At AutoSlash, we track rental car prices, coupons and promotions to help you get the best rate possible. Here's how to land a cheap car rental:
- Fill out an AutoSlash Quote Request. Our quote request form collects all the information necessary to search all the publicly available discounts for the lowest possible rates, whether you are looking for a round-trip or one-way reservation. The form also lets you specify any memberships that may result in lower rates. (If we find a great rate through one of your memberships, be aware that you will need to provide proof of membership when you pickup the rental car.)
- Lock in your rate. Once our servers find the best available rates, you'll receive an email for quick action. Rental car rates can change at any time, so you should act quickly to secure a good rate.
- Select your quote match. Our quotes for Pay Later rates are the cheapest prices available for the desired car classification at that time with Free Cancellation terms. Select the car company, car size, and price that matches your quote. (Be sure not to click on a prepaid, non-cancelable rate.)
- Sign up for the loyalty program before you reserve the car. Your first rental is a good opportunity to join the rental car company loyalty program, which typically come with perks such as the ability to skip lines, earned points toward free rental days, and even the ability to select a preferred vehicle at many major airports. You'll need to visit the rental car company's website to sign up for the program, and then enter your number when you make the reservation..
- Read the rules. Before confirming your reservation, read the rules provided by the rental car company. These rules include important information, such as the fees for products or services added at the counter, geographic restrictions, prohibited use, and details about the insurance on the rental car. In particular, it's important to know that a rental car may not be covered by liability insurance in a state like (California).
- Let us track your price. Even after you've made a reservation, it's possible to get a lower rate if the price goes down. AutoSlash can track this for you and send you an alert when there is a price drop. Just enter your reservation details and let our Price Tracking do the rest.
What to Do When You Pick Up Your Rental Car
- Bring your ID, credit card and confirmation number. The rental car company will ask to see your driver's license and credit card. And whether you'll be picking up at the counter or at a booth dedicated to the rental car company's loyalty program, it's always safer to have the rental confirmation handy.
- Respect pickup and return times. Rental car reservations are guaranteed for the pickup time assigned to you. Pick up early or return late and the rate might change. Be aware that the staff won't keep the office open for you if you're running late and can't return the car by closing time.
- Inspect the vehicle. Before you get into the car and drive off the lot, inspect the vehicle's exterior, glass, and interior. Take photos of any scratches or other damage that you find and ask the rental car company to record it before you leave.
- Reject pricey extras. The rental car company might offer extra perks such as toll passes, pre-paid fuel or satellite radio. Those conveniences may sound like a great idea when you're getting the sales pitch, but they come with excessive charges that are then subjected to various local taxes and fees. Our advice is to just say no.
What to Do When You Return Your Rental Car
- First, fill up the gas tank. The rental car company offered you the option to pay through the nose for an entire tank of fuel before pickup but you wisely rejected that option. This means you need to return the car with a full tank of gas. Do your research and find a gas station within 10 miles of the rental car location. Know that if you return the car with the fuel gauge at less than full, the refueling charge is ordinarily $7 to $10 per gallon.
- Return the car during operating hours. Some rental car companies allow you to make an after-hours or unattended return, where the renter parks the vehicle in the lot and drops the keys in a dropbox. We're not fans of this service, as the renter is responsible for the daily fees and the condition of the car until the office reopens and the vehicle is checked in.
- Record any damage. If the vehicle was damaged during the rental, the car company is going to require a Condition Change Report. Take photos so you have proof of exactly how extensive the damage is. Unless you have an accident report showing another party is wholly responsible for the damage, the rental car company is going to come after you for damages. Hertz is one company that allows customers to settle small claims (like chipped windshields) cheaply at the time of return; if the damage instead goes to an estimator, the amount billed goes up substantially. Even if the car was not damaged during your rental, it's always a good idea to take photos when you return the car as proof in case there is ever a claim.
- Get a receipt. Whether printed or emailed, a copy of the return receipt shows the vehicle was returned at a set date, time, odometer reading, and fuel level.
While there may seem like a lot of rules and conditions when renting a car, it's for good reason. New cars cost an average of about $36,000. When you rent a car, you are paying a tiny fraction of the car's value for the use of the vehicle. While it's important to have adequate car rental insurance in case something goes wrong, most likely your rental experience will be incident free.