Renting a Car for a Road Trip: Everything You Need to Know

From knowing how much it costs to rent a car for a road trip to finally understanding if you should accept the rental company's insurance, here's everything you need to know before renting a car for your next road trip.

While your vacation may first involve flying into a destination (think: arriving in Las Vegas before embarking on a glorious Utah National Parks road trip) and then renting a car, you could also be curious about a cross-country car rental, need to know how to find the best car rental prices, or simply want to know if it’s better to rent a car than take your own on a road trip. This ultimate guide for renting a car on a road trip has everything you need to know to save money, avoid expensive extras, and how to get behind the wheel of an exciting new vehicle that’ll fit all your people and stuff comfortably. Here’s everything else you need to know on how to plan a road trip and an American road trip guide to help you get started.

Car rental prices

Let’s take a look at car rental prices and factors that can increase (or decrease) your final bill:

  • Size. It probably does not come as a surprise, but the bigger the car, the heftier the price tag when it comes to rental cars. Another no-brainer, considering the name of this class of rental car, but economy cars are indeed the cheapest option when it comes to average rental car cost. That’s true whether you’re renting at the airport, downtown, or anywhere in between. These are the best cars to rent for a road trip.
  • How far in advance you rent. Experts say you’ll tend to find the cheapest rates on rental cars when you book ahead of time on a platform such as Rentalcars.com or Expedia. Third-party sites deliver the cheapest average rental car cost to consumers, more so than going straight through the rental agency and certainly cheaper than booking in person at the counter at the airport. Booking your car and your accommodations ahead of time is just one of the road trip planning tips you should consider before leaving home.
  • Finish where you started. One-way cross-country car rentals are convenient because you don’t have to worry about making the drive back home, but that convenience comes with potentially hefty car rental prices. When you can return your rental car to the same location where you rented from, more often than not, you’ll pay less. While that’s not possible on a one-way Route 66 road trip, just be aware that you’ll pay a premium.
  • Don’t prepay the gas. Car rental companies love to upsell you on the prepaid full tank option which offers the convenience of not having to worry about refueling before you return the rental. The issue is that, unless you roll in on fumes, you’re likely wasting money by prepaying for a full tank. Instead, use a gas price and gas station locator app to find one close to the rental car office (there’s always at least one gas station nearby) and fill it up yourself. Of course, if you’ll be dropping off during pre-dawn hours or expect to be cutting it close to catch your flight, the convenience may be worth it. If you want to plan your gas budget in advance, here’s how to calculate gas cost for a trip.

Best place to rent a car

Rental companies have locations on-site at the airport, off-airport with shuttle service, and in cities and suburban locations too. Let’s see which location is the best place to rent a car when you’re trying to balance cost and convenience.

  • Avoid the airport. Renting your car from the airport is undeniably convenient but it may not be the place to find the best price. Why? Many states charge an additional airport tax for cars that are rented near an airport. Even if you don’t have to pay an additional airport tax, a concession recovery fee and/or customer facility charge may get added to the bottom line. You may be able to save big by looking even just ten miles away. Be aware of these additional car rental hidden fees
  • Look to the burbs. In big cities, the going rate for a rental car can be much higher than in the surrounding suburbs because of supply and demand, with more people searching for rental cars in metro areas and smaller fleets in those locations. You may be able to save more than half of the cost of a rental by going even just a few miles away, outside the city limits.
  • From a car dealership. Did you know that many car dealerships rent cars? And there are a couple of unique advantages to skipping the traditional car rental location and renting from a dealership. The most useful benefit is that if you’re really attached to a specific make and model, there’s usually more availability at a car dealership than at a car rental agency which usually can’t guarantee the specific make, model, or even size of the vehicle you’ll be getting when you arrive. Additionally, if renting from a dealership near your home for a road trip, you can often get free perks like unlimited mileage and free 24-hour roadside assistance, because the dealer will want to sweeten the deal to form a long-term relationship with you so that you might buy a car from them someday!

Advantages of renting a car for a road trip

In some cases, it’s better to rent a car than take your own on a road trip. Let’s take a look at the many advantages of renting a car for a road trip.

Avoid wear and tear on your own car

One of the biggest reasons to rent a car for your road trip is to avoid putting the miles on your everyday ride, notes Caleb Chen of The Van Life Coach. Renting a car for your road trip may save you money by avoiding extra general wear and tear, and costly repairs, on your own car. While it may be costlier to rent a car for a road trip upfront, the savings down the line may be worth it. This is especially important if you lease your car and have mileage limits.

Try out unique vehicles

You might need a larger car than you have to accommodate more passengers, more comfortably than you do during your everyday driving. “Plus, it might be fun to drive a unique vehicle such as a 4×4 Jeep for a road trip that may involve more dirt roads than paved roads,” Chen shares. Your rental car will surely have Bluetooth capabilities so great ready for your road trip with these awesome audiobooks!

Leave the EV at home

If you have an electric plug-in vehicle and are concerned about range anxiety this is another reason to rent a vehicle for a road trip. Lauren Fix, The Car Coach® recommends you leave the EV at home and rent a gas-powered car when you want to get out there and see the country on a road trip. Here are the most fuel-efficient cars on the road this year.

The perfect car for winter driving

Fix also notes that if you don’t have the appropriate, winterized vehicle that will carry you and yours safely on a snowy, icy, cold, and potentially dangerous winter road trip, consider renting a truck or an SUV for your unlimited mileage car rental needs. Check out these remarkable winter road trips to plan right now.

Renting a car to drive cross-country

There’s nothing like the great American cross-country road trip but putting upwards of 5,000 miles on your own car is likely a deal-breaker. If you’ve never rented a car for a road trip, you are probably wondering, how far can you drive with a rental car? The answer, in most cases, is however far you want! Most U.S. rental car companies offer unlimited mileage car rentals, meaning there is no limit on how far you can go. If you’re searching for a cross-country car rental, simply make sure you’re booking an unlimited mileage car rental. Read about the craziest things people have left behind in rental cars.

Is it cheaper to rent a car for a road trip?

Not only won’t you need to double mask in a rental car, Jeff Miller, of Our Passion For Travel, says that because the average rental car cost tends to go down during longer rentals, renting a car for a road trip may be cheaper than even flying to your destination. Plus, you won’t have to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers while wearing one or two masks on an airplane. Miller reminds us to consider all of the costs when pricing a road trip vs. flying, saying that, “It’s not just the point-to-point cost. With a flight, there is transport to the airport, potential parking of your own vehicle, and of course the flight cost. If you’re worried about spending money on gas, don’t worry—here’s how to save on gas.

FAQs on Car Rental Insurance

Do you need car rental insurance?

Every car rental company will eagerly try to get you to accept their collision damage waiver (CDW), coverage at a cost of upwards of $35 a day. When you sign up for CDW you’re off the hook for even the smallest damage—with a few exceptions, such as tire damage or gross negligence—incurred during your road trip. That means you won’t pay a single cent, no matter how banged up the car is when you return it. Not even your own auto insurance, your credit card’s benefits, nor a third-party rental car insurance policy is as comprehensive. However, opting for CDW could skyrocket the average rental car cost. Here are your other options:

Does your personal auto insurance cover your rental car?

You’re likely covered without purchasing additional insurance from the rental car agency if:

  • You have full coverage auto insurance on your personal vehicle(s). This coverage should transfer to most vehicles you rent and your same deductibles will apply, says Melanie Musson, a travel and insurance specialist at 4AutoInsuranceQuote.com. You’ll be covered the same as if you were driving your personal vehicle. Of course, you should call your insurance company or local agent to double-check that your specific full coverage policy includes rental cars before your trip. It’s always better to be certain than sorry.
  • One exception: If you only have liability insurance on your personal vehicle, you may want to opt for supplemental coverage from the car rental company, Munson notes, because liability only pays for the damage you do to other parties and not the car you’re driving. She adds that because rental cars are typically newer, late-model vehicles, it may cost you a lot of money out-of-pocket to repair or replace if you cause a crash.

Does your credit card cover your rental car insurance?

Many credit cards offer some kind of rental car insurance, so check in with yours before your trip to clarify exactly what it provides and what it covers. “Some credit cards offer automatic rental coverage, while you must enroll in some programs for a fee; or your card may offer secondary coverage, meaning it kicks in to supplement your regular car insurance coverage,” Munson explains. While it’s less common, some cards even offer primary coverage, which provides protection before other types of insurance you may have.

Notable exceptions

While credit card car insurance coverage may be sufficient, your credit card might not cover every vehicle type nor will it cover you in every location. Be sure to double-check that the rental car insurance offered by your credit card provider will cover you, your rental car and driving in the area in which you’ll be road-tripping.

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Young Man Taking a Picture of His CarXiXinXing/Getty Images

Why You Should Always Take a Picture of Your Rental Car

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.