Rental Car Do’s and Don’t’s
As someone who rents a car several times a year, I have found through trial and error that there are certain things I can do that will save me money -- in some cases, a lot of money; and certain mistakes that have cost me nearly as much.
• Do: Use travel websites
Rental car companies don’t like sites like Orbitz and Expedia, because they are the "court of last resort" to get cars out of the lot. For the same reason, they are great places to do some easy comparison shopping. Invariably, these sites offer better deals than the rental car sites themselves. There are also dedicated rental-car price-comparison sites like Carrentals.com and Vroomvroomvroom.com.
• Don’t: Wait until your destination to rent a car
A few times, I forgot to book a car rental and discovered the hard way that the price of on-site rentals skyrockets. That said,
• Do: Bargain with the on-site agents
Where there are several rental car agencies in one place, such as airports, I’ve found it’s possible to pit one rental car agency against another. It takes some time, and you’re tired. But it’s more than worth it to scurry between one desk and another. Don’t be afraid to tell an agent about an offer from a competitor. If there are cars sitting in the lot, you still have the upper hand.
• Don’t: Book a large-sized car
Often, an agent will offer an upgrade for little or even no money. I, say, you have ordered a compact car and there are several more mid-sized cars sitting in the lot, the agent will want to move those cars.
• Do: Research what insurance various credit cards offer
If you have a gold card, chances are that the insurance coverage will be much greater than a regular Visa or Mastercard. Amex usually offers the best insurance overall.
• Do: Use every available discount
If you’re a member of AAA, or AARP or work for a large corporation, make sure you research whether the organization offers a discount. Use the code offered when booking the car.
• Don’t: Buy more insurance than you need
This is always a hard one to figure out. As someone who does not own a car, I have to book insurance each time I rent a car. I’ve tried to research exactly how much insurance I would need in case of an accident in which I was at fault. Unfortunately, I’ve found through hard experience that the daily insurance can be as much as -- or even more than -- the cost of the rental car itself. You will need collision-and-damage waiver insurance.
• Do: Use a credit card
A credit card usually offers some form of insurance (see above). But a credit card offers another advantage: If you believe that the car rental agency has overcharged you or you discover hidden fees, you can contest the charge. This is much more difficult to do, if not impossible, once you’ve paid cash.
• Don’t: Neglect adding a rider to your car insurance for another vehicle
If you rent cars frequently, the cost of such a rider will more than make for itself very quickly.
• Don’t: Ask for extra options
These days, every standard vehicle has pretty much what you need. It’s highly unusual, for example, for a late-model car not to have a DVD player. If, however, you want Sirius radio, you’ll have to pay for it. Ask yourself: Is it really that important to be able to listen to Howard Stern when I can plug in a DVD or listen to the radio? Ditto for GPS. While it’s nice to have, is it really worth so much more than consulting a map -- which also helps orient you.
• Do: Be flexible in your dates
In the summer, the cost for renting a car for the weekend in New York City skyrockets, because so many carless New Yorkers rent cars to get out of town to the Hamptons or Fire Island. If you’re going to Florida, on the other hand, summers are far cheaper than the "R" months.
• Do: Consider whether you’ll really need the car once you’ve arrived
While driving from the airport to Midtown Manhattan or Miami’s South Beach is fast and convenient, once you get there, parking will be a nightmare. Check out alternative ways to get to your destination, such as van services or public transportation. If you’re traveling with a few other people, a taxi won’t be that expensive once you’ve split the cost. That goes for sharing taxi costs to and from your hotel as well. If you’re going to a big party weekend, often the event producer provides buses to local hotels.
• Don’t: Sign a "return empty" agreement
Car rental companies always make money from this, because, let’s face it, no one returns a car completely empty. If, on the other hand, you agree to return with a full tank, you can fill up several miles from the airport and it will still show up as "full" on the gas meter.
• Do: Give a liberal arrive time
If your flight is at 6 p.m., don’t put down "5 p.m." or even "5:30 p.m." as your arrival time. Unless you’re crossing over into another 24-hour billing cycle, give your return time as "7 p.m." just to give yourself some wiggle room in case you’re running late in case you’ve missed your flight.
• Don’t: Book at an off-site airport rental agency
Even if it’s a few dollars more over the life of the rental, it’s more than worth it not to have to hassle with a special van to pick you up or drop you off. I’ve used local cheap off-site rental agencies in cities like Miami, and have found them to be in such out-of-the-way places that you end up wasting time and sweating making my flight trying to find them. And often the pick-up vans arrive sporadically, they’re hard to find, it’s hard for them to find you, and they can be otherwise unreliable.
• Do: Make sure there’s no extra charge a separate drop-off location
Most car rental agencies offer no extra charge for dropping a car within a distinct geographic area, such as Metropolitan New York or South Florida. But some do. Make sure you are aware of any extra fees if you are dropping off at a location different from the one where you picking up the car.