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.
- Take a photo of the license plate. You’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.
- 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.
- 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