Winter's approaching and travelers are beginning to think about rentals in areas with various forms of wintry weather. Planners think about contingencies and want to know what to expect from rental car companies when driving in areas that may encounter snow and ice.
How do rental car companies in North America handle winter weather driving by renters? While the answer is complicated, it's a fantastic question the rental car firms don't want to answer for you. Yet much of the region is susceptible to snow; some states officials can even mandate the use of snow chains on tires during inclement weather.
Rental car companies are usually clear on prohibited uses of their vehicles. Those prohibited uses include towing, pushing, racing, off-roading, as a taxi (but in limited cases as an Uber), to commit a crime, while intoxicated, or to intentionally cause damage. Those actions immediately violate the rental car company contract.
While not written, the rental car companies really, truly, do not want drivers in hazardous weather, especially weather that mandates the use of snow chains. Yet the rental car companies are not going to put in a policy that the "vehicle cannot be driven in poor weather".
Instead, the rental car companies make it difficult to reserve/guarantee 4WD and AWD vehicles outside of small specialty groups, provide vehicles with All-Weather tires instead of M&S (Mud and Snow) tires, and take actions such as banning the use of snow chains on rentals.
These snow chain bans exist for rental car firms even in areas where government officials can require the use of snow chains. It's a stance that has solid reasoning. After all, rental car companies are allowing the use of an asset that may cost more than $30,000 for less than 1/1000th of that value per day, and there's some liability borne by the firms from how customers use rental cars.
Ski Racks are OK but Snow Chains are a No-Go
The rental car companies are more than happy to provide winter "packages" of ski racks, often at a cost of $15 (plus tax!) per day. Yet there's no add-on available of the snow tires, snow chains, etc. that might be helpful getting to a location where skis might be useful. If rental car companies figured out that snow tires and tire chains would be profitable (given the risk), there would be many links advertising the option and the cost.
Snow chains, when addressed, are described as neither provided nor allowed on a rental vehicle.
The policies of the major rental car companies on winter travel, tire chain provisions, and/or ski racks are provided below. These policies are consistent, as almost every rental is made by one of three parent firms:
Enterprise Holdings: Alamo, Enterprise, and National
We should note that Budget is more than slightly disingenuous with their statement "m any local restrictions also prohibit the use of snow chains." AAA reports every U.S. State except Hawai'i currently allows tire chains in limited circumstances, while the Canadian province of Quebec* explicitly requires snow tires on all vehicle during the winter months.
* Of course, there's a rental car tax for the mandated winter tires, which get stored in the off-season.
Where are Snow Chains Required?
The California Sierra Nevada range is one area where we receive questions about snow chains on the mountain crossings of Interstate 80 or US-50, as well as Yosemite National Park. The State of California lists three different levels of Traction Control in Wintry weather short of closing the entire roadway:
Requirement One (R1): Chains or snow tread tires required. Snow tires must have a tread depth of 6/32" with an "M & S" imprint on the tire's sidewall.
Requirement Two (R2): Chains required on all vehicles except four-wheel drives or all-wheel drives with snow tread tires on all four wheels. NOTE: four-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles must carry traction devices in chain control areas)
Requirement Three (R3): Chains are required on all vehicles, no exceptions
Chains are a fallback - there are other conditions where either snow tires or a 4WD/AWD vehicle with snow tires is sufficient. The State makes a public determination that staying on the road is unlikely without exceptional measures; those are situations most travelers can avoid.
A vacation to Yosemite National Park in the winter may also result in chain restrictions between November and March. The National Park Service (NPS) notes that " rental cars companies generally don't provide chains" but rental cars are not exempt from chain requirements, even if they have all-season tires."
Should I Skirt the Rules?
We've seen too many examples of bad things happen to good people when the rules are stretched with rental cars. Those mistakes are costly. Drivers wrecking a rental car while breaking a rule often end up paying for the car - there are no insurance protections once the rental contract and conditions are violated.
Driving with snow chains can be a disconcerting experience. AAA describes the slow-speed experience as " driving on square wheels ". There's a learning curve to installation easily forgotten without practice. Chains can cause damage to tires, rims, wheel covers, fenders, and engine compartments if they are installed incorrectly, slip, break, or are the wrong size. If the rental car provider says no to chains, it's wise to accept that policy.
At AutoSlash, we also have access to individuals who have consistently driven on the snow - Alaskans by birth and by choice, even former rental car managers who have managed stations in Alaska. Some of their thoughts:
"I guess if you really need to get across a mountain pass during an active blizzard, having a set of chains along could be useful. Yet after 20 years, I can't think of a single time where I felt like I needed chains." - Alaska resident
"Honestly, the all-season tires that come standard on new cars are fine. Chains and studded tires aren't necessary." - Alaska resident
"Even studs aren't going to do much for you in normal driving or even in emergency handling unless you're on glare ice, and if you're on glare ice, you should be driving slow enough to deal with any emergency issues, anyway ." - Alaska resident
"For what it's worth, most rental companies in Alaska didn't even offer studded tires, and those who did added a hefty daily surcharge. None offered chains. I drove hundreds of different rental cars in winter conditions in Alaska without studs and never once felt like studs were necessary." - Rental station manager
Even Alaskans feel that driving conditions making chains a reasonable choice are situations to avoid.
* Ever see the television show "Ice Road Truckers"? How often do those drivers use chains when driving across the ice?
What if a Blizzard Occurs During my Rental?
We're all about safety here at AutoSlash. Rentals that have not yet started can always be canceled without penalty. Otherwise, a renter who picks up a vehicle might pay for one or more days when the vehicle's not being used.
And as frequent travelers ourselves, we've all been stuck with rental vehicles during inclement weather (blizzards, hail, ice, and localized flooding). Given the choice of returning a vehicle during a 2015 Kentucky blizzard or paying for an extra day, I quickly opted for the extra day after watching the City of Louisville struggle to clear major highways.
Requesting Chains When Reserving a Car
Some travelers may have noticed that other car rental services will allow customers to select a check box requesting tire chains for car rentals in the U.S. and Canada, then permit reservations with companies that don't allow chains. What happens to those requests? Well, it's very easy to take requests; the requests just won't be honored by the rental car companies.
Have a question about what's allowed (or not allowed) with rental cars? Drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include your query in a future article.