Renting a car for the first time ever. What should I know?
August 4, 2009 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Renting a car for the first time ever. What should I know?

I'm renting a car the weekend after next to go to the wedding of some friends. It's local, and I could get there by public transit, but it's an evening wedding so I'd have trouble getting back. (Plus I don't really relish the idea of riding Philly public transit in a suit and carrying a gift that's supposed to still look nice when I get there.)

I've never rented a car before. What should I know about How Car Rental Works? I'm 25; I have no car insurance of my own because I don't currently own a car. I do, of course, have a valid driver's license.

If it matters, this is with Avis, picking up at a downtown Philadelphia location and dropping off at a different downtown Philadelphia location thanks to the hours of the various locations. I'm using Avis because they inconvenienced my mother about something and so she ended up with some coupons for them that she won't have a chance to use. I already made the reservation; they didn't ask for a credit card number or a phone number, which worries me a bit.

Also, is there some other obvious solution to my transportation problem that I've missed? Since the rental car folks don't have my credit card info I can back out of the reservation. The distance is far enough that a cab isn't really cost-effective.
posted by madcaptenor to Travel & Transportation (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You show up. You show them your license and credit card. You drive off.

That's about it.
posted by wfrgms at 8:12 AM on August 4, 2009

It's not very difficult - you don't need your own insurance - they'll offer you car insurance for the trip, which you should get (at least the lowest level they offer you). Since you're 25 yrs old, you'll probably get a considerably lower rate than a 24 year old.

You might consider signing up at - for trips less than a day, it's usually cheaper. However, since they charge a (fairly modest) annual membership fee, it's probably not worth it unless you think you'd use the service in the future. If you do decide to go with Zipcar, I would sign up immediately, since it takes a couple days to process your driver's license, etc.

You could also try ridesharing sites like, but that probably won't work well for you since you want to go back at a specific time.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:15 AM on August 4, 2009

They'll take your credit card when you get there. Don't take any offer of insurance or nav devices or whatever.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:15 AM on August 4, 2009

Oh, be sure you ask them when and where you need to bring the car back - if it's after hours, you may need to return it to another location when you get back.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:16 AM on August 4, 2009

Don't take any offer of insurance or nav devices or whatever.

Hmmm....matter of opinion, I guess, but it seems foolish to drive around with no insurance coverage.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:17 AM on August 4, 2009

Response by poster: Salvor Hardin: the reason I've avoided zipcar up until now is precisely because they charge a membership fee. I very rarely find myself in situations where I need to get somewhere and there's nobody that can give me a ride, so the membership fee would hurt.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2009

With no auto insurance of your own, you will want their flavor of a "Loss / Damage Waiver". Basically it's a ~$30 a day charge for their insurance to cover anything that happens to the vehicle - accidents, theft, etc. Check your credit card plan details - some offer rental vehicle protections if you pay with them.

I already made the reservation; they didn't ask for a credit card number or a phone number, which worries me a bit. They typically don't, depending on the type of car. You can call be and confirm the reservation number with another agent.

The distance is far enough that a cab isn't really cost-effective.
When you factor in the rental cost, the insurance cost, fees and gas, you may be surprised.
posted by anti social order at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2009

Seconding getting insurance of some kind. If you get in a wreck, you really want to have insurance. It might seem like another way for them to milk you out of money, and it is, but it's best to be careful.
posted by elder18 at 8:20 AM on August 4, 2009

Seconding zipcar.

No credit card is totally normal for a reservation, I've never had a problem with a lost reservation.

If you don't have insurance, they give you (but don't tell you) that you are covered by the state liability minimums. If you use a visa or amex card to pay for it (not a debit card!), you will get additional coverage through your credit card company. That should be sufficient to cover you in case of an accident. Check with your credit card company to be sure.

You are going to get upsold. $3/day for a better car? $25/day for super insurance? $15/day for okay insurance? $7/day for other insurance?

This article at USA Today has a lot of good points about insurance.

Have fun at the wedding!
posted by bensherman at 8:23 AM on August 4, 2009

Double, triple check that you get your deposit back. It took me like 3 months.
posted by GilloD at 8:26 AM on August 4, 2009

The cost for the loss/damage waiver (also known as a CDW) varies, but I've never seen a $30 charge if I've booked in advance. The prices I see tend more towards $10 to $15 a day.

As for whether to get the CDW, get it if the price of the CDW is worth your peace of mind. I didn't get it for a trip and spent the entire weeklong, vacation-of-a-lifetime trip freaking out about a dented bumper.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:27 AM on August 4, 2009

regarding insurance, if you had your own the big flag in renting a car is to make sure you don't let them talk you into their insurance which can be pretty pricey. As you do not have your own insurance you may well be required to purchase their insurance (laws may vary), and I think it is a good idea even if not required, especially as it sounds like you do not drive all that much (lucky). As someone noted that is an extra ~$30 bucks a day, taxes and fees will also bump up your cost somewhat. I trust you when you say the taxi won't be cost effective, but also keep in mind extra time you will spend in picking up and returning the vehicle.
posted by edgeways at 8:31 AM on August 4, 2009

When you reserve a rental car, you're just holding a place for a car. If you used a deal that offers you $X for Y-type car, you'll pay $X plus all the insurance and crap for Y-type car or better, if they are out of Y-type cars (the most typical scenario is reserving an economy and getting a mid-size, or reserving mid-size and getting full. On a crappy day, you get a minivan.). One way or another, you'll get a car, they don't bother taking a card at reservation.

Take the basic insurance, which may be required by the state anyway since you don't have insurance yourself. Do not take the gas fill-up, they generally charge about $5/gal for this. Just make sure you can find a gas station in the vicinity of your drop-off and top off the tank there. At the gas station, idiot-check the car for any personal belongings you've dropped. Pull up to the drop off, and wait for the person with the clipboard to come check you out, then you're done.

A one-day rental is really expensive, when it's all said and done it's probably nearly twice what the rental rate is. You might make a few phone calls about reserved taxis or a car service, or Zipcar if that's an option in your area. Or find someone to share a ride with.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:36 AM on August 4, 2009

Check your credit card. I always use my amex to rent cars, because it has the car rental insurance included when I use it. Thus, I ALWAYS turn down all the insurance offers on rentals, since my card provides it for me.
posted by Grither at 8:37 AM on August 4, 2009

It's been a long time since I rented a car but maybe this still applies:

When they take you out to check the car for damage, the rental guy will point out a bit of previous damage, really fast and then push the clipboard in your face to sign. Don't sign until you've taken a second walk around again, pointing out every little scuff and smear. Wiggle the rearview mirrors to see if they're loose. Check the roof especially carefully because it might not be included in your insurance coverage. It only takes an extra 2 minutes and can save you a lot of grief.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Salvor Hardin: the reason I've avoided zipcar up until now is precisely because they charge a membership fee. I very rarely find myself in situations where I need to get somewhere and there's nobody that can give me a ride, so the membership fee would hurt.

A fair point, but in the long run it could save you money. The quote you get from car rental services like Avis is ONLY the cost of renting the car -- the insurance is NOT included in the price you're quoted. Sure, you could waive the insurance, but you're screwed if you waive it and get into a fender-bender. Plus, you have to fill up the tank right before you bring back the car, and you also have to return it during the normal operating hours. Finally, most rental services do NOT rent on an hourly basis -- if you only need a car for a half-hour trip getting you from point A to point B, you have to take the day's rate.

With Zipcar you can only rent it for an hour (although, you do have to return it to the same spot). Zipcar is available 24 hours, and also pays for the insurance and all the gas. If you can see yourself needing a car a couple times a year, the annual fee would be equivalent to the cost of the insurance you'd have to get from a traditional rental place.

But I digress -- because it sounds like for your case, a traditional rental spot is still better (the fact that you're returning it to a different spot is something you can't do with Zipcar). So more to your question: don't worry that they don't take your credit card information over the phone; that's for YOUR protection. They don't charge your card until you are walking off with the keys in your hand. Most places usually but a hold of about a hundred dollars or so when you pick up the car, and then when you bring the car back, they tally up all the costs of the insurance fees, the mileage charges (if there are any -- some charge you if you go over a certain daily mileage limit), any extra charges if you left the gas tank half full, etc., and then they either add the balance to that hundred dollars on hold and actually charge it, or if it's less they release the hundred and charge you what it actually is.

So you'll show up to pick up the car, and they'll give you a few forms to sign and initial in different places (a lot of those have to do with insurance of one kind or another), and run your card for that initial charge. Then they'll walk you out to the car and both of you will take a look at the car itself to have you both see where all the dings and scratches are, if any, and then you both sign a form describing the condition of the car -- this is so the guy who inspects the car after you drop it off can't slap you with an extra charge for "hey, there's a scratch on the door here," because now there's proof that "that scratch was there when I got it". Then you get the keys, and drive away.

Most places require you to return the car with a full tank, or as close to full as you can get it (i.e., you'll use SOME gas if you fill up at the Mobil station a block away and then drive to the rental station, of course, but they're not going to fuss over that). They hit you with a penalty if you don't, usually. Some places offer the option of letting you refill the tank AT the dropoff rental place, or signing some statement that says that you won't be bringing it back full and that you give them permission to fill it for you after you leave; but that doesn't save you all that much money, because it's usually an inflated price on the gas you could get at a normal gas station yourself.

Other than that, that's it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on August 4, 2009

whoops -- for "most places usually BUT a hold of about a hundred dollars", that should read "most places usually PUT a hold...."

When will we get three-minute editing?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on August 4, 2009

Insurance through cards like Amex, etc, may only kick-in AFTER your personal car insurance has been used. You should call your insurance company and your credit cards and get clarification before you show up at the rental place.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:56 AM on August 4, 2009

1. Be nice to whoever is behind the desk. Apart from anything else they normally have the power to upgrade you to a better vehicle. There is often a local map they can give you - get it. SatNav - either your own or theirs - will tend to make your driving less stressful and more fuel efficient.
2. Consider the problem of fuelling for when you return the car. It is usually more convenient to have the car hire place fill up the tank and then invoice you for this - but often the fuel is charged at an exorbitant rate. If you have to fill up yourself ask for a recommendation as to where.
3. Make a careful inspection of the bodywork along with whoever is showing you the car. Make sure that every single scratch or imperfection is marked as existing damage.
4. Spend some time getting familiar with the car: lights, windscreen wipers, reverse gear, hazard lights, window controls, etc. Then drive around the car park a little and test out gears, brakes.

Car hire companies make quite a big proportion of their profits from selling add-on insurance. If you are going to be hiring lots of cars for more than about two weeks of a year then it can be worthwhile arranging your own insurance policy to cover you for this CDW insurance year-round.
posted by rongorongo at 8:56 AM on August 4, 2009

Check with your credit card company to see if they provide PRIMARY insurance in your situation--you may not need to purchase it from Avis. Avis itself provides liability coverage as required by law so you could also call them and see what they provide (see here for their generic FAQ) and if it's enough for your needs. Between what rental companies provide and my credit card will provide on top of that, I don't buy insurance from the rental companies. Like you, I don't own a car and don't have insurance of my own.

Don't bother with any other upgrades or add ons. Fill up the car with gas a mile from your return location. Inspect the car for dings or damage before you leave the lot, and if you're paranoid like me, take photos of it when you return it.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:08 AM on August 4, 2009

Rent with amex and decline extra coverage, take the option of bringing the tank back full - that's generally cheaper - and take five minutes to sit in the car when you first get in, fixing the mirrors and the seat and the radio and checking where the headlights are. Then you just drive to the exit, show the guard your paperwork and take off. Easy peasy.

(I've rented a million cars in a dozen states and never had to worry about them blaming me for some scuff or ding that wasn't my fault. Don't get too hung up about the little inspection - it's pro forma. Just sign the paper saying the car is fine.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:09 AM on August 4, 2009

Also, I know you have coupons from your mom, but did you try to name your own price at You might get a much better deal from there--I usually get a price of about 1/3 the going rate. If your price is declined you have to wait a few days before you can try it again, but you should have a chance to try two or three times to get the car between now and the wedding.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:15 AM on August 4, 2009

Do check on the cab option again, if the venue is truly local. With the insurance etc, you might be spending $75 or more on the rental. Consider spending $100 for door to door cab service, which has the added benefit of you not having to worry about that extra glass of bubbly.
posted by beagle at 9:15 AM on August 4, 2009

Check to see what sort of rental insurance your credit card offers. If you don't have any auto insurance, it won't bridge the full gap, but it may mean you can safely go with something cheaper.

Do pay attention to the pre-rental inspection, don't just sign. It takes two minutes to walk around the car and make sure that the rental rep sees all the marks you see.

You'll often find that they won't have the car you were expecting, and, particularly at smaller lots, they won't even have the size you were expecting. Often they'll offer you something larger, probably at the same price. If they don't offer the same price, hold them to the original price.
posted by Good Brain at 9:22 AM on August 4, 2009

Don't assume that going with one of the more well-known rental places is the only option for getting good service at a good price. After doing some shopping around, I was surprised to find that some places will rent you a car for like 50% of what the big names will, and don't care how many states you drive through (I know Enterprise charges extra, can get expensive on the Eastern seaboard).
posted by ripple at 9:38 AM on August 4, 2009

I haven't seen this spelled out specifically, more just alluded to so here is my advice. Rent with a CREDIT card not a DEBIT card for multiple reasons, the extra insurance coverage listed above but also because it could take days (sometimes much longer) for the hold to come off the card. That is probably ok on a credit card but I know I would have a problem if they tied up the money in my checking account for a week.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:41 AM on August 4, 2009

The routine stuff is routine. But listen to everyone telling you to pay attention to the inspection. We got slapped with a huge charge because of dings in the windshield (~400 euro, to replace, not repair, the glass). The dings didn't happen while we drove, for certain, and were certainly there when we got the car, in the rain, on a busy street. That was from Avis in Germany.

And do make sure you are covered for collision damage on the car! You don't want to pay for the rental company's car, do you? In the event of a wreck, you'd be buying a car you couldn't drive. Yes, there insurance is a rip-off.

Besides, just consider those costs, and the fact you don't dare risk driving that car back to your drop off point if you've been drinking much at all, especially since you don't drive all the time. The risk of an accident is just as serious as the risk of a DUI.
posted by Goofyy at 9:51 AM on August 4, 2009

An alternative service: Philly Car Share
posted by maggieb at 10:05 AM on August 4, 2009

Oh, and yes, don't let them rush you through the visual inspection part. Spend as much time as you want, and point out every little flaw you find. This is very important.

I'm surprised so many people seem to feel this way. Has anyone here ever been wrongly accused of causing damage to a car and been screwed by having okayed the inspection?
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:32 AM on August 4, 2009

Um yeah. Should have read further. Sorry goofyy.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:33 AM on August 4, 2009

My only advice is to ponder what you'd do if you got a flat. If you're not happy driving on the spare (which might be a space saver) and you aren't in AAA you might want to pay for peace of mind. Unlikely I know, but it has happened to me on two recent rentals
posted by A189Nut at 10:41 AM on August 4, 2009

Check your coverage, but I'm pretty sure that if you rent the car using your American Express, it automatically gives you insurance coverage.
posted by np312 at 10:52 AM on August 4, 2009

Make a dot for every. single. thing. that isn't perfect.

I don't want to get into a derail and I'll shut up after this, but I have rented literally hundreds of times and never once was the condition of the car questioned after I returned it (except that time when I demolished the side window, which I 'fessed up to.) Once I even got one of those windshield stars that goofyy talks about, but I didn't mention it and neither did they. Often, at small airports, you return the car to a lot with no humans around at all, so they can't hold you to any damage anyway.
I'm not saying you should totally blow off the inspection, but I would argue that peering at the bumpers for every little scratch is a waste of your time. Then again, as a new renter, you might feel better dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:00 AM on August 4, 2009

Second using a credit card. Only some locations accept debit cards, and when they do they'll need an extra credit check, sometimes extra ID, and put a hold on your account for at least $500 that may last up to 30 days.
posted by miyabo at 11:51 AM on August 4, 2009

I agree. No one ever checks the car after you return it. At least Hertz doesn't.
posted by Zambrano at 11:57 AM on August 4, 2009

Not that this is precisely what you're worried about, but it throws me off every time. Car rental companies (at least Hertz does) park their cars with the parking break engaged. Since I never, ever use the parking break on my own car, I always try and dry off, and get a chiming bell that I can never immediately identify.

So, check the parking break.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:38 PM on August 4, 2009

Often, at small airports, you return the car to a lot with no humans around at all, so they can't hold you to any damage anyway.

Unfortunately, if they want to be bastards, they can. I dropped off a rental car at a small agency's lot after-hours and dropped the keys in the drop box. By the time the staff got there the next day, someone had dinged the car and broken a taillight, which the agency made me pay for.

Ask, ask, ask what their policies are about this sort of thing if you're dropping the car off and leaving it unsupervised.

And Nthing the "careful visual inspection" thing. Mom had to pay for windshield damage to a rental car for a chip so small you couldn't see it from most angles, but by God the agency found it.
posted by shiny blue object at 12:48 PM on August 4, 2009

Do not take the gas fill-up, they generally charge about $5/gal for this.

In my experience, this isn't true any more. It used to be. But now, often, the price is perfectly reasonable.
posted by Perplexity at 1:46 PM on August 4, 2009

Don't take any offer of insurance or nav devices or whatever.

If you don't have insurance, get (the cheapest) insurance.

If you don't know the area where you'll be driving, get the nav device. GF and I recently had to rent a car in an unfamiliar city, and the GPS we rented (for a measly $5 per day) was absolutely indispensable, especially when we hit major construction that had closed off several routes on our Google Map.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:20 PM on August 4, 2009

This might seem like a worrywart thing to do but I always take pictures of the exterior of the car if I return it overnight without the chance of a visual inspection. It paid off last month when U-Haul charged me $1100 for damage I didn't do overnight. The only thing that got me my money back was the time-stamped photos from my phone.
posted by 913 at 5:09 PM on August 6, 2009

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