Most of the time, car rentals are not part of my travel planning equation.  When the husband and I travel abroad, we often rely on trains, subways, buses, and our own two feet, and when we travel domestically, it’s usually a road trip in our own car. A quick look at my travel journals reveals that of the nearly three dozen trips we’ve taken since 1997, both domestic and international, only seven have involved car rentals.

A closer inspection, however, reveals that all seven of those car-hire experiences were within the last five years, most recently on my trip to Phoenix. It was in the weeks after this trip that I realized I’ve learned enough about the process to actually offer some advice, so buckle up for a ride down rental road.

Not a rental – Cousin Brian’s mini.

Timeless advice:

  • Take a photo of the license plateYou’ll almost certainly be asked for it by your accommodation, and there may be other instances when you need the info handy as well. No more running back to the parking lot.
  • Take note of your rental keys. I just happened to look down at my keys in Phoenix and saw that one of the fobs had a phone number for local roadside assistance.  Had I failed to notice that and later had car trouble, there’s no doubt I would have been doing a panicked Internet search by the side of the road . . . keys with helpful phone number dangling uselessly from my finger.
  • Also take note of your gas gauge, and do it before you set off. Another Phoenix car rental mini-event was that the gas was about 1/8 of a tank empty. Because I had just gotten on the highway when I noticed this, I let it go, but had I seen it in the rental garage, I would have brought it to someone’s attention and asked them to top it up. Since you have to return it full*, you want to get it full, too.

*Unless you want to pay through the nose for the convenience of returning it empty.

  • If your pickup location is at your arrival airport, know that “at the airport” is a relative term. Palm Springs was the epitome of close, quick, and easy: while the husband stood by the luggage carousel waiting for our bags, I stood a mere 20 feet away signing car rental paperwork.  Contrast this with places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, where the rental building is several miles away.  In Phoenix, this necessitated a 20-minute shuttle ride (followed by an hour-long wait in line, but more on that later).  Still other airports have their rental desks in the same building(s) as the terminals, but they may be a fair distance away from the baggage area.
Castle-hopping in our massive rental van on our UK road trip. It seems that size really does matter.
  • Whether you pay extra for an additional driver depends on where you’re renting. In California there’s no charge for an additional driver, and the rental folks told me that’s codified in California law.  In Arizona, Minnesota—and, near as I can tell, the other 47 states—it’s up to the rental company. Most will charge (a not insignificant amount) for that extra driver, so if that’s something you want to avoid, look carefully while booking. Internationally speaking, we’ve booked rentals in four European countries—France, Italy, Spain, and the UK, and always through Sixt® or Budget®—and additional drivers were always extra.
  • Get the nuts and bolts all set before you drive off. By this I mean adjust the mirrors and seat, program your radio stations, pair your phone with the car, etc.  Sounds almost too obvious to mention, I know, but I, for one, am always so eager to get to my destination after the flight that I forget to do these things. (Besides, your phone won’t pair while the car’s moving.) What’s more, I knew someone in college who was fiddling with the radio dials of his brand new car as he drove it off the dealer lot and ended up getting hit by an oncoming car.  He wasn’t hurt, but the pain was real.
  • When possible, pick up and drop off at the same location. Prepandemic, for a trip that ended up getting cancelled, we were scheduled to pick up our rental in Barcelona, Spain, and drop it off in Toulouse, France. I knew there would be a surcharge, but I had no idea it would be hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  We had already booked our flights into and out of these two cities, so I was stuck.  In a rare instance of a COVID silver lining, the trip cancellation saved me. When I reschedule this trip someday, I won’t repeat that mistake.
Not a rental – my first new car.

COVID-era advice:

  • Book early. There’s a shortage of cars all over right now—to buy, to lease, to rent, and even as loaner cars at dealership service garages. If you wait until the last minute to book your rental, you might be hoofing it around your destination instead.
  • Expect long lines. Though we didn’t have this problem in Palm Springs in March or California Wine Country in June, October in Phoenix was a different story. After the 20-minute shuttle ride from the airport, I got into Budget’s line, which zigged and zagged for a while (like those roped lines at the airport) and then shot straight out to the front door of the cavernous building.  All the car rental companies had lines like this, but Budget’s was the longest. In all, it took an hour to get my car, and that was with ten of Budget’s desks staffed by employees. At one point they reassured waiting customers that the delays were not due to a car shortage, but rather to a timing mismatch, by which they meant they could process the rentals faster than they could get the cars cleaned to COVID specifications, causing backups. So expect long lines, and if you mentally prepare for this and it doesn’t happen, then you’ll already be starting your trip on a win.

What car rental tips have I missed? Comment away and happy renting!


Related post: Near Misses & A Direct Hit: Driving in France

30 thoughts

  1. These are such fantastic tips especially about the pick-up location not always being at the airport! It is also important to meet your rental agent’s offer of “special fuel top-up rates” with the firmest, no, nein and non, merci. Returning your motor with an empty tank can cost you up to double the pump price. A solution: scope out the closest petrol station to your rental office before departure, or consult apps like GasBuddy for the nearest and cheapest options. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely festive season 🙂 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, and good advice about the gas stations. If you do return to the airport, the gas stations near there will be the priciest. It takes a bit of finesse to find a gas station close enough to the airport that the tank will still look “full” when you drop off the car, but far enough away that the prices are a tad cheaper. You have a great holiday season as well!

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  2. What a great list of tips! Really helpful, especially the times of Covid tips! If anyone has a kiddo- I would say to NEVER rent a car seat to go with the rental car. Not only was it as much as the car rental but it was not nearly up the same safety standards as your own. Airlines let you bring your car seat for free so bring your own and avoid the rental car seats. Have a great weekend 🙂

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  3. All good points, some of which I had to learn the hard way! Also, it’s always more expensive to pick up and return your car from an airport. If you are visiting someone and can get a ride from the airport to another location, it could be hundreds of dollars difference. When my son visits, he wants his own wheels. I pick him up and bring him to a convenient office that he’s booked in advance. We did the same recently in Massachusetts, so I could wander around while he worked.

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    1. That’s great to know. I’ve mostly picked up at the airport, but when I haven’t it was always because I had to (for logistical reasons) pick up elsewhere. This means I’ve never had reason to “comparison shop” for airport/non-airport prices. Very good to know. Thank you!!

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  4. It’s been a while since we rented a car, but I did try a month ago. I was visiting my mom and her town is 2 hours away from the airport. The nearest rental car that was available was a 60 km drive in the opposite direction! I guess there’s a shortage here too. Maggie

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  5. Your tips are good ones. The only thing I’d add that we do [used to do?] was take a photo of the rental company’s name. Sounds crazy but it has helped resolve arguments about who we rented from, especially when dropping off a car in the dark very early in the morning and both of us KNOW FOR SURE which company it was.

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  6. The last time we rented a car, two years ago in Reno, we made a HUGE mistake and forgot to return the car with a full tank of gas as the contract specified. They ended up charging us something like $10/gallon – and that’s when gas was cheap! Talk about a very expensive lesson to learn.

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  7. Thank you for the great advice. We always rent with full comprehensive insurance and liability insurance that covers at least 1 million euros. If you look around a bit it does not have to be much more expensive and will free your travel from worries. Once when I had a minor accident in Jordan I only had to pay a small fine to the police and nothing for the damaged rental car and the other driver’s vehicle.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning that. I’ve never been certain about that. I’d been told that my car insurance will cover rentals – or at least domestic ones – so I’ve never gotten the extra coverage. Fortunately, I’ve never been in the position of finding out whether or not it was a big mistake! 😉

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  8. Great tips. I would like to add four.
    Just this past September I rented a car to be picked up at Eppley Field in Omaha. I was planning on taking a multi-state road trip. Just as we were wrapping up the rental the agent asked me where I was going and I rattled off a list of states.
    It turned out that this particular agency does not allow the car to go beyond states that border Nebraska. It’s a franchise and is not supported by corporate.
    Had I taken the car beyond the bordering states I would’ve been charged a hefty fee.
    Make sure that the agency is not a franchise and verify where you are allowed to take the car.

    Related to above. Read the entire contract. Many of us, me included, don’t. Though the website for the above agency said unlimited mileage it wasn’t really so. Anything over 3000 miles would incur a mileage fee and in the end I put 8500 miles on the car that I’d rented (When I found out that the original agency was a franchise I went to a different agency).

    Read reviews, particularly the one star reviews. I’m not a big fan of reviews but in the case of a car rental a review can reveal otherwise hidden problems.

    Check on agencies outside of the airport. Airport fees can sometimes add up. A cab ride to an agency outside of the airport can be worth the time and the expense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for adding these tips. Your experiences are really educational. Those contracts are so long, boring, and full of legalese – I’m sure they make it so because they know nobody will ever read it and if they do, they won’t understand it anyway!. I’m with you on reviews. Bad reviews about a restaurant or shop might mean bad customer service or something annoying, but bad reviews about a car rental company could mean you’re more likely to be stranded with a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere, and that’s much worse than some poor customer service!

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  9. Great tips! Especially checking the fuel gauge. In Iceland, we noticed round the corner that there was only half a tank of fuel. We took photos, but we’d already faffed about for ages waiting for the car, and then the key didn’t work and they were having to fix that, so we didn’t go back. I then worried about it and my friend couldn’t understand why! I don’t think she realised how strict rental places can be about things like that. In Vancouver, we filled up down the road and returned it and for some reason it was very slightly off the full mark, and they threatened to charge us! Luckily the place in Iceland accepted our photos without querying it.

    Also re: the surcharge for different locations. Jeezy peeps, we were gonna road trip from Brisbane to Cairns one way, and it would have been an extra $1000 or something crazy!! So we just did a return trip as it was actually cheaper haha. Plus more adventure!

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  10. Actually just to add, one tip for cheap one-way rentals is looking out for companies needing to move cars from one location to another and offering them for like $1! I can’t remember the websites now, which is helpful lol. The only downside is you usually have limited time to get them from one place to the other.

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    1. That could come in really handy. When you recall the name you should do a blog post on it! I’m researching car rentals now for next December (we’re spending Christmas in Death Valley) and prices seem to have come down a bit from their ridiculous high this past summer. It’s $300-something for a week. For 11 days this past summer it was $900! I suppose there are other factors, such as region of the state/country and stuff like that, but sheesh!

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