How do I rent a car?
January 2, 2013 1:00 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know to rent a car?

I don't own a car and am not listed on anyone's car insurance. So presumably this is the situation where you actually want to say yes to the added insurance they try to sell you. But say yes to what, exactly? And somehow my credit card may play a role in the answer to that?

Is there anything else I need to know that I probably don't, as someone who has never rented a car and never owned one? (I use a Zipcar-esque car share scheme, so I do actually drive once in a while. I'm not really worried about the driving part.)
posted by hoyland to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you pay for the added insurance when they offer it. And you need to use a real credit card (not debit) if possible. You may also want to show up pretty early to pick up the car, as I've been told it usually takes awhile to process real car rentals (as opposed to Zipcar).

I've only rented a "real" car once and that was about how it went for me. Pretty low hassle.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:05 PM on January 2, 2013

Are you over 25? That's a stone cold stopper for a lot of companies.
posted by Etrigan at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2013

You can call customer service for the credit card that you intend to pay for your rental with and ask them what if anything they cover for you.

Alternatively or in addition to that you can check the box and pay the extra fees perday.
posted by mmascolino at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2013

While you're at the counter, you may be asked whether or not you want to pay for the gas ahead of time, which basically means that if you return the car with anything less than a full tank of gas, you'll get billed an obscenely high per gallon charge to fill it back up. Unless you're super-pressed for time when you return the car, it's usually cheaper to top it off on your way back to the rental lot.
posted by jquinby at 1:09 PM on January 2, 2013

Bring a credit card. Car rental places don't take debit cards. This proved to be an extra fun lesson one time at the Nashville airport at midnight.
posted by mochapickle at 1:10 PM on January 2, 2013

You should say yes to offers for collision insurance (covers damage to the rental vehicle) and liability insurance (covers damage to other vehicles, property, and people). I doubt they'll offer gradations, just a standard package. Take it, by all means.

Also jquinby is right on the gas. Always better to fill it yourself if possible. (EXCEPT watch out if you're using Enterprise -- they sometimes won't give it to you full, and ask you to bring it back at the level it's at. Which is ridiculous -- you're spose to stop every fifty miles and squirt a few gallons in?
posted by LonnieK at 1:11 PM on January 2, 2013

So the process is more or less the same. You'll want to reserve a car in advance, if at all possible, through their website. If you're under 25, there's only a couple places that'll rent to you and it'll cost more (Enterprise will rent to you if you're under 25). You show up to their office and they have you fill out a bunch of paperwork. The exact insurance varies, but it tends to run from collision-only (you hit something, it pays, not you) to full coverage (anything breaks with the car or you hit someone or, well, anything, it pays, not you). Usually, they'll take you out to the lot and walk you around, noting any damage to the car or letting you note it. This is pretty important, because if there's a big dent in it but it's not on that form, guess who pays for that dent? (You do). If it's National, you may just get a bunch of paperwork, then walk out to whatever car you want. Usually, they have information on roadside assistance somewhere in those piles of paperwork in case the car breaks down, but make sure to ask if it's not there.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2013

Response by poster: Yes, over 25. (For other people's future reference, Enterprise charges more (but not outrageously so, as I recall) if you're under 25. But I wasn't the one who rented the car that time.)
posted by hoyland at 1:14 PM on January 2, 2013

I have a story about this! American Express has a thing where they "cover the insurance" if you have a wreck in a rental car. A guy I worked with used his corporate Amex to secure a rental car from a company that did not have an agreement with our company. He declined the insurance because he vaguely remembered something about the credit card and insurance. Within 6 hours he had totaled the rental. The company had to pay $10,000 to the rental car company.

Check this out, but most credit cards will cover the deductible on your insurance. If you don't normally carry Comprehensive, BUY THE INSURANCE!

Also, you need to be over 25 years, old and have a driver's license.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2013

Best answer: Just working on our travel and expense policy right now... There are 4 main types of insurance -
1. Collision Damage Waiver or Loss Damage Waiver (CDW / LDW). The collision damage waiver or loss damage waiver protects the rental car only against theft or damage, sometimes with a deductible. Also covers loss of income to the rental company if the car is out of service.
2. Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI) or Liability coverage. Having this insurance protects you when you cause damage to other people or property in a car wreck, i.e. damage to other cars or property.
3. Personal effects coverage (PEC). This coverage applies to theft and damage to personal belongings in your rental car.
4. Personal Accident Insurance (PAI), Personal injury or personal injury protection. This type of insurance covers medical expenses for you and the passengers in your rental car in the event of an accident.

If you do not have your own insurance then I would suggest CDW and SLI, take your belongings out of the car at night - you don't need PEC, if you have health insurance then you do not need PAI.
posted by Disco Moo at 1:21 PM on January 2, 2013

There are more than 2 types of insurances, but the big two are collision and liability. Call up your credit card and find out exactly what part of the collision they cover (you will probably want to know the deductable and the max coverage, but probably it'll be sufficient). Your credit card will not cover liability, so you will need to purchase that. Roadside assistance may or may not also cost extra. I've never purchased it.

Some companies also let spouses be added as extra drivers for free. I know that enterprise does this in all states except hawaii and one I'm forgetting and hertz does not do it at all.

Have a valid driver's license (duh), and a credit card, and you should be fine!
posted by Phredward at 1:23 PM on January 2, 2013

When you pick up the car at the lot, take photos of the exterior before you drive off, especially if there's any scratches/dings pre-existing. That way if the rental company tries to bill you for damage to the car that you didn't cause, you have an easy way to prove it.
posted by reptile at 1:26 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you over 25?

Also, you need to be over 25 years old

Sorry to be super nitpicky, but these should be "Are you 25 or over?" and "Also you need to be 25 years old or older". The above kind of wording implies that if you are 25 years old, you are hit by the young driver fees, which is not true.

(As someone who is turning 25 in a couple of months, this is a big difference for me!)
posted by andrewesque at 1:30 PM on January 2, 2013

Best answer: When you pick up the car at the lot, take photos of the exterior before you drive off

This is useful. Take quick photos of all sides of the car, make sure you note any obvious issues with the person who checks the car out to you and note anything weird about the inside as well. I've done a lot of random rentals at random places and some places are totally chill about this sort of thing ["Oh don't worry about that minor scrape, we just mostly care about dents and damage"] and some places totally aren't [marking down that I put scratches into the bumper that were there when I picked the car up - you can always appeal this stuff, but it's easier if you have photo proof]. I've found that sometimes they'll have the car already running when you get there to sort of zipzip hustle you through the check out process and I always turn the car off so I can take my time.

Other things you might not be expecting

- some places may offer either upgrades or a "pick anything on this part of the parking lot" option, no matter what you've reserved. So if you're absolutely hellbent on driving a subcompact you may need to get over that. I have, twice, driven off with a Fiat 500 because no one in the midwest seemingly wanted to drive one. Woo!
- make sure you are clear about the rental periods. You may have a $X/day for Y days deal that automatically goes up to $Z/hour after Y days. Make sure you understand exactly when the car needs to be back and what the penalties are for late return [especially returning after the place is closed, if you have to leave the car there and have them check it in the next morning]
- airports often have higher rental rates because taxes at airports are nuts. If you have the option of renting from an airport or from within the city, the city rates will often be cheaper but check ahead of time. Rates are highly variable for a number of different reasons.
- as with the above, discounts - you can often get discounts for AAA membership or other random things, check that in advance. I sometimes cruise just to see if there are specials, and I check to compare prices. Occasionally you can get a cheaper deal with Priceline esp if you need something weird like a pickup truck, so good to check them.
- make sure you know how the damned thing works before driving it off! The adorable Fiat500 I drove had some sort of flip shifter craziness that was turned on which I didn't notice when I was tooling around on the lot but as soon as I tried to get into second gear I was all WTF!! So try the wipers, get the mirrors adjusted and turn on the radio before you really get on the highway.
posted by jessamyn at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2013

Jessamyn has a good point about negotiating. In Alaska, we upgraded from a claustrophobic subcompact to a shiny, roomy SUV for +$10/day (negotiated down from +$30/day).
posted by mochapickle at 2:24 PM on January 2, 2013

Best answer: Depending on where and when you're going, try Priceline's "Name Your Price" option. When I am out of town for multiple weeks, flying home on the weekends, I typically rent a car for the weekend rather than parking a car at the airport. Priceline gives me these "airport shuttles" for typically around $12/day.

Drawback: you need to pay in full ahead of time, nonrefundable.

The MN Department of Commerce offers this.

If you can possibly be added to someone's car insurance here in MN, that will give you full coverage on rental cars. I have $500 deductibles on my own cars, but if I wreck a rental car it's covered from the first dollar.
posted by chazlarson at 2:57 PM on January 2, 2013

Two unexpected rental car incidents that you can hopefully avoid:

1. We gave the rental company our flight details instead of specifying an arrival time. Our flight was subsequently moved several hours earlier, but we didn't think to tell the car rental company. Since they weren't expecting anyone for ages, they closed their desk, so we had to wait until our original flight time until they came back. Oops.

2. Another time, our flight was delayed. It was a Sunday afternoon so they got to closing up time..... and closed their desk for the weekend. If we'd thought of it we'd have booked with one of the other companies whose desks were open much later.
posted by emilyw at 2:58 PM on January 2, 2013

If you're planning on driving the rental car out of the state you rented it in, be careful about the rules for this. Some rental companies have a higher fee for using the vehicle beyond a certain zoned area, and they are obligated to inform you of this. I know of rental companies in the NY/NJ/CT tristate area that will hit you with a fee for driving in (for instance) Pennsylvania, if they find out. Not sure if these companies put a GPS tracker on the vehicle, or if it's basically an honor system *until* something like an accident occurs out of the zoned area, at which time they will hit you with abominable surcharges.
posted by RRgal at 7:17 PM on January 2, 2013

I've had a good number of bad experiences with rental cars in Hawaii. First, get the insurance. Get all of the insurance pertaining to the car they'll sell you. I had a mishap in a parking garage (the guy at the hotel who watched me do it didn't bother to let me know there was valet parking, but hey) that resulted in a crunched door. I felt all panicky about it, and in the morning, when the agency opened, they were incredibly blase about the whole thing, told me not to worry, since I had the insurance.

Worse, though, was when our bags were stolen, and I stupidly left the car key in the bag, which meant the car was stolen. In the fine print, all insurance is void if you don't have the key to return. The car can be totaled, as long as you return the key. Because we didn't have the key (again, due to my stupidity) we had to hope and pray the car would be found. In the end, we were liable for some minor damage to the car, but our insurance (theft, etc) was void.

So be careful with the key.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:09 PM on January 2, 2013

Best answer: In addition to looking at the car for damage (yes, do that,) make a car controls checklist that you can quickly run down to make sure you know how to operate everything. I'd suggest at least:

turn car off and remove key (there's a trick to removing the key in some cars)
remote key-fob lock/unlock (good to know if it's going to make an obnoxiously loud sound or something, too)
start car
lights and high beams
windshield wipers
trunk release
hood release
(I always also check which side the gas cap is on, too, while I'm looking.)

Now's the time to ask the attendant if you can't figure something out. Usually, you can figure it out with only some minor head scratching and trial/error, too, but what I hate is trying to figure something out while driving in traffic or in the dark/cold.
posted by ctmf at 10:53 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't sign the damage report until you've inspected the vehicle.

Ask: Is there a [rental company] employee in the car park who can go through this inspection record with me? If not, ask that somebody accompany you now to inspect the vehicle. If they say no, say that you're not signing the damage report until somebody inspects the vehicle with you.

Once you're at the car, start at the driver-side headlight and move slowly around the car. Every scratch, ding, bump, scrape - point it out, mark it on the report. Yes, you know they accept fair wear and tear. Yes, you understand they're not going to come after you for every little mark. Record it all anyway. Do three passes on each panel - high, medium, and low. Step around so you can see if any dents or scrapes catch the light.

Make them give you a copy of the revised report.

The one time you don't do this - the one, lousy time you think 'eh, it'll be OK, and I'm in a hurry, and I have insurance anyway' - that's the time you'll get a nice call from the nice person at the nice front counter claiming you put a nice dent in their nice car and they've just hit your credit card up for a nice $3,300 until it's all sorted out.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:13 PM on January 2, 2013

ctmf's list is excellent, but I'd add in "horn". Even though I use the horn about once a year, it's one of those where when you need it, you need it RIGHT GODDAMMIT NOW, and even not knowing where it is on the steering wheel may keep someone from backing into you in a parking lot while you're ineffectually smacking the air bag.
posted by Etrigan at 6:45 AM on January 3, 2013

Hotwire is useful for getting good rates here, and, unlike w/ hotels they don't actually hide relevant information from you.

Also, my experience is that airport rentals can actually be cheaper than in town, at least in LA. So always worth checking both.
posted by paultopia at 8:04 AM on January 3, 2013

They will probably ask if you want a GPS unit for some additional fee. (So decide if you do, or if you want to use your phone or print up maps in advance.)

They'll ask if you want to gas it up before returning, or have them do it. (Cheaper if you do it.)

Agree about inspecting carefully before leaving, and figuring out how the lights, wipers, etc work, and if there's anything weird about the shifter before you leave the lot.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:22 PM on January 3, 2013

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