Car Rental 101
January 23, 2015 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I've managed to make it into my 30s without ever renting a car. However, in May, my SO and I need to rent one for a road trip. What's your advice for getting the best deal and what are things we should make sure we do and/or make sure we avoid? Details:

Both of our cars are getting up there in years/mileage and we've decided that for peace of mind, we'd prefer to go ahead and rent a car for this trip. We'll be driving round-trip from St. Louis to the Florida panhandle (about 1,650 miles total) and need the car for 6 or 7 days. We both have AAA memberships and her insurance is through AAA (mine is through Progressive) and we both have clean driving records. I also, technically, have status as a student (part-time Masters program - although my school ID says "Staff" since I also work full-time at the University, but I can produce enrollment status if needed).

Mainly my question is - since we know the dates and logistics in advance, how do we time it to get the best deal? What are the potential pitfalls that aren't obvious? What should we make sure we do or don't do? Is there one company that provides better services or are less dickish than other companies? Am I over-thinking a plate of beans and we should just walk over to the Enterprise across the street from our neighborhood a week ahead of time and make a reservation?
posted by Ufez Jones to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best deal:
Use priceline and rent your own price-start with $10 a day (check taxes and fees)
Use Car Rental codes to see if there are weekly deals (6 days is usually more expensive than one week--stay at 1 week, 1 week and 8 hours is 8 days)
If you don't use priceline, remember that most rental cars reservations are refundable/cancellable up to last moment.
Decline all insurances or any add ons
Always return to same place

Guy who travels for work and rented a car 50 times.
posted by sandmanwv at 11:36 AM on January 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

One thing to watch out for is millage and what is included/covered. For the holidays we rented a larger vehicle to fit all the gifts/pets in for a NC to CT trip. Enterprise was initially cheaper but they only had unlimited miles for the states surrounding NC....after that it was per-mile driven charge, budget was a little more but had unlimited miles no matter where we drove.
posted by Captain_Science at 11:38 AM on January 23, 2015

Check if any of your credit cards provide insurance coverage for rental vehicles - if so, pay for the rental with that card and then you won't need that extra insurance. If you can't afford repairs on a car, don't risk it - get the extra insurance if your own car insurance doesn't cover rental vehicles.

Always do a walk-around of the vehicle and take pictures of all areas BEFORE AND AFTER. Occasionally a company will blame you for damage that didn't happen while you had it, and it's up to you to prove otherwise.
posted by lizbunny at 11:38 AM on January 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sometimes switching cars partway through the trip can be beneficial.

I did a roadtrip through CA, AZ, UT, and CO a few years back. Renting one-way from CA-CO was expensive. But Hertz was running a "drive out of Arizona" promotion where one-way rentals originating in AZ and ending in a number of neighboring states were $5/day. We rented one car in California, drove it to AZ, returned it, and then [::two seconds later::] picked up another rental (same exact model, different car) at the same location.

Likewise, renting from NYC is expensive, renting from, say, Buffalo is not. If you need a car for a week or something, it can be cheaper to do a one-way from NYC with one company for the day of the drive to Buffalo, then switch to a one-way from the same or a different company from Buffalo to NYC for the duration.

The deals are often listed on a separate page than the main reservation page, and require a coupon code. You can search for CDP codes as well prior to booking (e.g., Google: "Hertz CDP codes").

Decline all of the insurance they offer, since you (presumably) have car insurance. If you don't have collision coverage, up your policies to include that for the week of your trip (assuming that your policy covers you while you're driving a rental; not sure if that's a state-by-state thing).
posted by melissasaurus at 11:39 AM on January 23, 2015

If you use a debit card (rather than a credit card) they will usually want additional documentation (at Enterprise it's a current utility bill with your address showing no past due balance) and they'll want to put a hold (for me it's been in the few-hundred-dollars range) on that card for the duration of your rental.
posted by enn at 11:42 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're concerned about insurance, I have auto insurance for non-owners from USAA that is a negligible fee each month and covers any time I am driving a car that is not my own. I can't remember exactly the difference between the credit card coverage and the added coverage but I think it's something to do with the credit card coverage covering actual property damage but the non-owner's policy covering medical liability.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 11:46 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Always do a walk-around of the vehicle and take pictures of all areas BEFORE AND AFTER. Occasionally a company will blame you for damage that didn't happen while you had it, and it's up to you to prove otherwise.

Amen to that!!! Use the date and time stamp on your camera.
posted by jgirl at 11:54 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't prepay for gas, but be sure to return it full (if they gave it to you full). If you are unfamiliar with the area, find at least two close gas stations so you can fill up the car before you return it. They may not give you a full tank when you pick up the car, so make sure your agreement notes the tank level and fill it back up to that level plus another gallon or so. The only thing more expensive than prepaid gas from a rental is what they charge you for gas if you don't prepay and return it with less.
posted by soelo at 11:56 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your AAA membership can get you a discount with Hertz.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:58 AM on January 23, 2015

Best answer: If you have a Costco membership, I've found Costco prices to be as good or better than Priceline. (Costco Travel website)

If you have an American Express card, use that to rent, since their insurance is better than MC/Visa.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:03 PM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you are not married to each other, it costs extra to add another driver, like 15/day. If you book using your AAA Hertz discount, this fee is waived if you add other AAA members as drivers.
posted by holyrood at 12:12 PM on January 23, 2015

Best answer: If you have a Costco membership, I've found Costco prices to be as good or better than Priceline. (Costco Travel website)

This was what I came in to say. Notably better price than anything else I tried, including AAA and my USAA benefits.
posted by phearlez at 12:13 PM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I use AAA and find that they offer a significant discount on multiple agencies - not just Hertz. I also find that the price varies daily or weekly. Frequently I will make an initial reservation but if I'm not satisfied with the price I will keep checking and can usually score a better deal a few weeks or a month later. I'll cancel the first one and keep the better rate. You need to plan in advance for that though.

Some rental agencies offer a cheaper myster car option - I gave it a go once because what the heck and scored - a minivan - in Hawaii. Which I did not want. So - beware the mystery option.
posted by rdnnyc at 12:25 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Costco also allows you to add another driver to whom you are not married for free. I have always found their prices equivalent to or better than Expedia, Priceline etc.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:28 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've also found Costco Travel to have the best deals, including when adding coupons and corporate discounts to other deals. Also remember that you can cancel and rebook your rental car up until the last minute, which sometimes means even lower prices.

Also, when you pay for gas, you're paying for a full tank, even if you only use a quarter tank. This is the catch when they tell you that you're only paying $2 per gallon and the stations around you charge $3. Don't pay for gas.
posted by cnc at 12:35 PM on January 23, 2015

I'm going to go against the grain and say consider the fuel option (i.e., prepaying the gas). It depends on what fuel prices are like in the area where you'll be returning it vs. the price the agency is charging, plus how inconvenient it is to fill the tank on the way to dropoff. For example, when gas prices were nearing $4/gallon and I flew into Denver, the rental agency's price per gallon was no worse than (and often better than) any gas station I could find in town; plus the Denver airport is way far out and only served by one gas station, so to return it with a full tank requires filling up at that station, which is always jammed and which charges above average rates. I've never regretted the fuel option.
On the other hand, as fast as gas prices have dropped in recent months, I doubt the agencies have dropped their prices fast enough to keep up. If I were renting right now I'd probably just return it full.
And again, Costco is fantastic, especially for the free second driver.
posted by katemonster at 1:03 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also -- if you're making reservations and not prepaying, there's no downside to making the best reservation you can right now, then rebooking later (with the same or a different agency) if a better deal comes along. So you don't really need to worry about timing the market like you do with airfare.
posted by katemonster at 1:04 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: N'thing Costco Travel. I had the best rates I've found via their website. You don't need a membership to find the prices, but to get the Costco additional discounts, you do.
posted by blob at 1:29 PM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Make a reservation now with the company that gives you the best price. You can change it at will and there is almost never a cancellation or no-show fee. Check it once a week or so to see if rates have gone down. You can rebook your existing reservation to take advantage of a reduced rate, or you can book with another company and cancel the first one if you find a better price elsewhere. If you don't have experience and a lot of data to rely on, do not prepay through a blind booking agency (e.g. Priceline), because you're unlikely to save much money.

As for second driver fees, the agencies are really inconsistent with this. Before we got married, my wife and I rented a number of cars and sometimes got hit with a second driver fee by one location, but not a second location of the same company (this was Dollar; the one that charged us was Buffalo, the one that didn't was Las Vegas). At one Enterprise location they told us that if we had the same address on our driver's licenses they didn't bother to check marital status. It really seems to vary not just by brand but individual location.

Insurance: you will probably want to waive all the coverage they provide, but it's not all the same. The first thing is the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW): check with your credit card company, but they will probably tell you specifically to decline the CDW since they will offer that sort of coverage as a standard benefit of the card. The second bit of coverage you need, though, is liability coverage (same as for the cars you own now). Your current policy probably covers you, but you should confirm that with a phone call ("do we have liability coverage if we're driving a rental car?"). Depending on the rental car company they may offer roadside assistance for a nominal fee, but since you have AAA you should be able to waive that as well.

It probably won't make much of a difference to you, but some rental car companies give priority check-in service to people who are members of their loyalty programs. The programs are free, so it's often useful to sign up for the loyalty program when you reserve the car. You'll get a card in the mail a week or two later, but all you need to make or update the reservation is the number. Then if you cancel the reservation because somebody else has a better price, sign up for the new loyalty program and store the cards wherever you keep such things.
posted by fedward at 1:31 PM on January 23, 2015

If you are not married to each other, it costs extra to add another driver, like 15/day. If you book using your AAA Hertz discount, this fee is waived if you add other AAA members as drivers.

However, if you join Hertz Gold rewards program (free to join) and live together, you can both drive for no extra fee. I rent through Hertz almost exclusively, use my local (non-airport) location, my boyfriend also gets to drive for no extra charge, and I rarely pay more than $20 a day INCLUDING taxes -- last summer I got a 3-day holiday weekend rental for $38 out the door as well as a 10-day rental for a cross-country road trip for about $200. Go straight to Hertz's website, do not pass Go, etc.

If for some reason Hertz in insane in your area, you want to go to Hotwire or Priceline, put in your dates, find the cheapest car, and then get to the screen where it tells you who you'll be renting from (I think both sites do this, but maybe not Hotwire?). Then go directly to that company's website and plug in the same dates, most likely it will be considerably cheaper. Also play around with different locations. There are about 10 Hertz locations within 10 miles of me, and a few-day rental can be double in cost at some locations vs. others. I have no idea why. Also consider picking up an Entertainment book or borrowing one from a friend. They are chock-full of rental car coupons which sometimes net me an even lower price.

I rent cars several times a year; getting them cheap is kind of my jam. Hit me up with any questions.
posted by jabes at 1:38 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've always reserved cars through Hotwire and I get great deals. Make sure it includes unlimited mileage and that you can take the car through multiple states.

If you don't have collision insurance, buy the insurance through the rental car company. It's expensive, but I know a guy who wrecked a rental car with insurance and it cost $9,000.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:19 PM on January 23, 2015

You have to shop all your options. Some times Costco Travel has the best price. Some times it's Priceline, some times it's some other service. For my next trip to Chicago, Costco was three times as expensive as Priceline, but I've also saved a few hundred dollars using Costco. The difference is frequently large. Be aware that Costco and most other 3rd party services include tax in their rental price, but Priceline does not- if you're renting near an airport, don't be surprised if the taxes are roughly as much as the rental itself, and don't bite on Priceline until you see the total cost.
posted by wotsac at 4:31 PM on January 23, 2015

Response by poster: Hey awesome. Thanks for all of the great advice. We do have a Costco membership, so I guess we'll start there, but I'll also be checking out going through AAA, Priceline, etc. I really appreciate it.
posted by Ufez Jones at 4:51 PM on January 23, 2015

I do the Priceline thing, but first I go to every other discount site that you can think of and check their prices. Then I go to Priceline and try to name my own price by offering about 50% less than the lowest that I found. If Priceline won't accept my offer, they let you try a few times, then if you are willing to switch up or down a level in the car type, you can try a few times on that car too. Priceline always gives you the total of daily rate plus taxes and fees BEFORE you commit to renting the car, so you can cancel at that point if Priceline's total isn't the cheapest, and it's no big deal because you can just go back to the one you found originally on your other discount site. The only caveat is that Priceline makes you pay up front and it's not very changeable or cancellable; most other sites are just a reservation and you pay when you get the car and there's usually no cancel fees.

Also, make sure you watch out for the taxes/fees before agreeing to anything. I have often found that the less I spend on the daily rate, the higher the fees are, so make sure you are comparing the total at all the places you look.
posted by CathyG at 7:51 PM on January 23, 2015

I've not owned a car for 4 plus years now and rent one 6-10x year, in addition to car sharing service I use at home. The rentals are mainly in the UK and the U.S.

To be honest, I always prepay fuel if I know I'll drive enough to return empty. In my experience it is rarely so much more expensive that it is worth the hassle to find the nearest petrol station on unfamiliar roads, especially if you have a flight to catch.

Be sure what insurance you have and waive anything you don't need. Consider one way fees, if relevant for your trip. Touch wood I've never been charged for tiny scratches or dents, even if the car only had 100 miles on the clock, when I picked it up (I'm thinking of you, white car I drove over Xmas).

If you have a portable sat nav use that as opposed to renting one. It is surprisingly annoying to use one you're unfamiliar with, especially if it turns out you dislike it in some way.

Also, if you're not used to driving different cars regularly expect to take a bit of time until you're comfortable driving your rental.

Finally, be vary of the free upgrade, which is a lot more likely if it's later in the day and they have run out of the category you booked. Fuel mileage is a cost to consider.

The only car I ever took pictures of was a rental in Croatia last August, mainly because it was dented in a bunch of places when we picked it up and they made such a production taking down every minute damage on pick up. When we dropped it off there was nobody to take back the car at the rental parking area so I parked up, took a million pics and headed to their desk in the terminal building. They had somebody walk out to inspect the car, who called the desk agent, clearly excited about damage etc. the guy looked at the many marked up items on the agreement waived his hands in a dismissive way at the guy on the phone (they could not see each other) and just charged me for the additional driver, everything else being covered by the prepayment...
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:05 AM on January 24, 2015

If you have an American Express card, consider signing up for their enhanced rental coverage. For around $17 per rental it is primary coverage with a $75,000 limit, includes liability coverage, covers more types of cars than most credit card based insurance, and applies to much longer rental terms. Most cards have a limit of either 14 or 21 days. Their included coverage, like the vast majority of other cards, is secondary to your existing policy, which leaves you at risk of having your claims history dinged if something happens to the car, even if not your fault.

As others mentioned AAA and Costco get you good discounts with most companies. I believe with Avis AAA gets you a free additional operator. (Spouses don't have to be named to operate the car, and it is having a named additional operator that invokes the fee at most agencies) If using Avis or Hertz, sign up for Preferred or Club Gold, respectively, and domestic partners work the same as a spouse. Their definition of domestic partner is flexible enough that unmarried couples of any gender count as long as you reside at the same address.

Also, rent from an off airport location, as you will save a bundle in taxes and fees that are only charged at the airport, plus the rate is usually cheaper. The downside there is that the selection tends to be worse and you are more likely to get an older car actually owned by the agency rather than on lease from the manufacturer. Given the savings it is completely worth it, however.

Personally, I only rent from Avis/Budget or Hertz, since a bit of research into CDP/AWD numbers and coupons gets me a price comparable to Enterprise, who generally has a lower rack rate but doesn't discount much.

I typically pay $170 or less a week all in, and usually get either a full size or SUV for that. Other people have already covered the reservation strategies and the downside to using a debit card, so I'll stop now.
posted by wierdo at 11:12 PM on January 24, 2015

If you have a generic credit card (not shiny), call them up and ask about getting an annual travel insurance plan added to your bill, which should cover car rentals, if your card provider offers it. If this applies to you, it will save you a great deal of money.

Please don't drive without any insurance, of course.
posted by ovvl at 3:04 PM on January 25, 2015

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