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January 23, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

How do rental car companies know where you drove their car?

My friend is looking in to renting a car to take a road trip across some states. Some of the car places have stipulations that the unlimited mileage only applies to some of the neighboring states, but not others. They say if you go outside those states, only 150, 200, etc miles per day -- depends on the rental company -- are free.

That's workable, but we were curious how, if you return it to the same place you picked it up, they would actually know where you drove it; do they have some sort of tracking installed or is it just on the honor system? If you have the car a couple weeks and drive 1000 miles, do they know whether or not you drove only the free miles each day, or are they going to try to charge for 800 miles out of the 1000?
posted by Nattie to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
posted by HuronBob at 5:57 PM on January 23, 2010

I have heard they have GPS tracking devices in them.
I have also heard that they can check your speed using them, and will charge you a fee for speeding in the car even if you don't get caught or given a ticket.
posted by Balisong at 5:58 PM on January 23, 2010

They've had those kids of rules in rental agreements prior to the days of GPS, Lojack, and other means of tracking available. Now they use GPS.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:07 PM on January 23, 2010

I've rented a lot of cars over the years and the only ones I remember that didn't allow me to go out of state was from Enterprise. And all of them, except Enterprise, would offer unlimited miles. Sometimes putting 1000 miles on them in a weekend.

But the Avis/Hertz/Alamo/etc would only say I couldn't drive the car into Mexico (unless I'd pay extra for Mexican insurance). I've taken cars from Texas to California and back. Even though one time I did drive one into Mexico, they never said anything (just momentarily around Reynosa). I'm sure if I wrecked it or it was stolen or impounded down there, they'd raise a stink.

I've heard rumors they'll charge you for speeding and such but I drive rental cars like they're stolen and never so much as a peep when I've turned the car in or anytime later. The cars may have lo-jack for finding them if they don't turn up, but think about how many cars are in their fleets they'd need to be tracking all the time.

I'm not saying they don't track me when I rent my cars, but they don't seem to mind. And you can always find rental agencies that are not as restrictive with the states you're allowed to go to or the miles per day.
posted by birdherder at 6:07 PM on January 23, 2010

Here's a picture I took earlier this week at Dollar Rental Car in Buffalo, NY. (And they wanted to know in advance if we'd be going into Canada.)
posted by rafter at 6:10 PM on January 23, 2010

Yeah, my money is on maybe. I'm sure the companies have the devices, but I'd bet almost anything they don't have them in every vehicle. Seems like a lot of money for not a lot of return. Or perhaps really dumb devices that only track GPS "dots" at a certain interval, and if you bring the car back after three days with 5000 miles, they might plug the laptop into it and see what they see.

I too have beat the hell out of rental cars (miles per day-wise) and taken them all over the place. If they didn't complain when the car I rented at BWI was in the Bronx for a week, then they weren't looking.

However, starting right about now, mobile data and mobile cell/gps devices are getting cheap enough that it might become cost effective to put them in every car.

(After all, nothing can be monitored by gps. It is a broadcast only service.)
posted by gjc at 6:23 PM on January 23, 2010

After all, nothing can be monitored by gps. It is a broadcast only service.

Well, they use an onboard receiver that uploads captured data upon check-in. Per unit cost is probably not all that much.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:26 PM on January 23, 2010

I don't think they do because I've broken those rules loads of times* and never heard a thing. OTOH, that was before onboard GPS became widespread.

*mostly the one about not driving on dirt roads.
posted by fshgrl at 6:36 PM on January 23, 2010

birdherder: for what it's worth now, Enterprise lets you go out of state. They do have some restrictions, though. I just reserved a car to rent in Philadelphia and the reservation says that if I take it into Canada, or west of the Mississippi, then I'm limited to 200 miles per day. (Then again, "out of state" doesn't have quite the same connotations of "far away" in the East, because the states are smaller.)

I'm guessing if you rent on the West Coast from them, they might say you can't go east of the Mississippi. (Your profile says you're in San Diego.) I don't know what they say if you rent from somewhere that's near the Mississippi.

Another question: let's say I rented a car on the 1st and drove it 500 miles that day, and drove back 500 miles on the 7th. That's 1000 miles in 7 days. Is this less than 200 miles per day?
posted by madcaptenor at 6:40 PM on January 23, 2010

I ask about these things when I rent cars. The folks have told me that it's "honor system
but I don't know if I believe the. I've definitely said "hey this says I can only go to NY, VT, NH and NJ, but I may have to go into PA as I'm driving to NJ. Am I going to get busted?" and they've always been fine, said it was no problem, and it has been no problem.

I'm aware that there are technical ways of checking these things, but it doesn't seem like they're being used for surveillance as much as maybe they'd like them to be able to be.
posted by jessamyn at 6:51 PM on January 23, 2010

After all, nothing can be monitored by gps. It is a broadcast only service

Right, they use the cell network to upload the location.

Something I learned that surprised me is that really low-end used-car places also put GPS trackers in all their cars. They have such a high repossession rate, and their customers tend not to keep the same address, so it's easier/cheaper to use GPS tracking to find the car than any other method. The people buying the cars usually aren't even aware the system is there, although I'm sure it's in the contract.
posted by smackfu at 7:01 PM on January 23, 2010

They also wouldn't have to track the cars all the time. You can get GPS units for as little as $200 that you drop in your teenager's car (they suggest hiding it somewhere, perhaps the trunk) and when they come home, you plug it into your computer and it will tell you where they went and if they went over a certain speed. I'm sure a big rental company would get these a lot cheaper, plus bulk discounts.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:40 PM on January 23, 2010

You can buy a GPS USB dongle for your laptop for $25; couple that with a cheap microcontroller and a GSM cellular radio and I bet you could sell these in bulk for $50. Outfitting an entire fleet at that price would probably pay for itself the first time someone stole one of your rental cars.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:00 AM on January 24, 2010

They don't know, except when you crash or have an accident you have to declare and discover that none of your insurance applies.
posted by A189Nut at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2010

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