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18 Things Rental Car Companies Won’t Tell You

There's a lot of verbiage in car rental contracts. Do you really need insurance? Should you add a driver? We asked travelers what's really under the hood of car rentals—here's everything you need to know.

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Book now, pay later

“Renting a car is one of the last remaining travel reservations you can make with no prepayment; in most cases, it doesn’t even require a credit card,” says Bill Androckitis Jr., Owner, Touring Central Florida. “Book the best rate you can find, then keep checking your preferred rental company for better rates.” The same company may offer different specials or change prices based on the rental location. “It’s not uncommon to see greatly reduced rates in the weeks right before your desired rental period as the company wants to rent out as many vehicles as possible,” says Androckitis. (Find out the 11 secrets travel booking companies don’t want you to know.)

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Don’t book on these days

When you’re traveling for leisure, you’re competing for car rentals with business travelers. “I definitely try to avoid Sunday and Monday, as these days may have limited inventory because the regular corporate clients have a standard contract that guarantees them a car,” says Annette White, travel blogger at Bucket List Journey. If you’re having leaser’s remorse, know how to get out of a car lease. 

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Don’t rent from the airport

Renting a car from an airport location is terribly convenient, which is why it’s usually the most expensive. Instead, hop on a hotel shuttle to get closer to town, then rent from a non-airport based location, suggests Charles McCool, travel expert and blogger at McCool Travel. In some cases, paying for an Uber to a nearby car rental company is still cheaper than booking at the airport location. These are the 15 things you should never, ever buy at the airport.

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Rotisserie chicken and car rentals

If you thought Costco’s $4.99 rotisserie chicken was a great deal, wait till you check out their car rental deals. McCool says their rates are typically lower than anywhere else. When you search for deals, Costco Travel makes it easy to compare too. Plus Costco won’t charge you for an additional driver, like most car rental companies. Here’s everything you can do at Costco without a membership.

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Membership privileges

Their reputable roadside service draws millions of us to sign up for AAA membership, but did you know you can rent some wheels for up to 20 percent savings with Hertz in the U.S. and Canada and up to 10 percent savings on international rates (where permitted by law)? Other noteworthy perks are a free child seat with rental and up to four free additional drivers who are AAA members who meet rental qualifications.

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Perks if you’re 50+

The AARP Advantage website is available to AARP members (membership is a mere $16 dollars a year) and holds a trunk load of car rental deals, such as a free weekend day with Avis or Budget-Rent-A-Car and 43 percent savings on a Zipcar membership. (If you’re not familiar with Zipcar, it’s an easy way to rent a car if you just need to get around town for an hour or the day. It operates in 40+ states and six additional countries.)

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Put your search in park

If you don’t want to mess around with trying to find the best car rental deal, park it and try AutoSlash. “They compare rates from several companies so you can make a better choice. Even better, they track the rate continually and will rebook when the rate lowers or notify you so,” says McCool. When you enter the necessary criteria, it also asks for memberships you have, like Costco or AARP, and applies the applicable discounts to the quotes you receive via email. From there you decide which one is best for you.

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Do you really need to buy insurance?

That depends. Before you book, check out your personal auto insurance policy and find out what it covers. If you have sufficient limits and coverage while driving a rental car, then you probably don’t need it. But there is another issue to ponder regarding an accident. “The consumer needs to decide whether they want a potential claim on their own insurance policy,” says Trevor Chapman, manager of external communications, Farmers Insurance Group, Inc. If the consumer files a claim for a loss with his or her own insurance company, this claim could result in higher premiums down the road. “If the customer purchases insurance or a collision damage waiver through the rental car company, the claim will not be paid by the consumer’s own auto insurance, thus avoiding potential premium impacts,” states Chapman. Speaking of insurance claims, these bizarre excuses will blow your mind.

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Your credit card may cover your back

Some credit card companies offer some rental car insurance, but you have to read the fine print. First off, credit card companies, like American Express and Discover, stipulate that you decline the loss/damage waiver offered by the car rental agency and that you reserve the car in your own name, pay the full rental price, and sign the rental car agreement. Second, credit card companies generally provide secondary insurance, which means it isn’t all-inclusive. It usually doesn’t cover injuries to other people in your car or other cars involved in an accident or cover damages to other vehicles or properties. Carefully read your guide benefits or Google “car rental damage and loss” with the name of your credit card to learn more. Upgrade your vacation with these credit card perks.

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Who’s driving?

This gets a little complicated because some car rental companies charge for an additional driver and some don’t. A spouse, partner, or employees on official business may be free with one company, but an additional cost at another. “I always add the additional driver, fee or no, to prevent getting into a sticky situation if there was an unfortunate accident,” says White. Read the contract thoroughly. Here’s exactly how to handle 11 scary driving scenarios.

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Pay at your own pump

It may be convenient and a time saver to return the car on empty and have the rental car take care of refueling but some companies charge a hefty price for this service, well over nine dollars a gallon. “If the price of gas is low and you are in the city, fuel up yourself before you return the car and be sure to keep the receipt as proof because you get charged more if you don’t return with a full tank of gas,” says Anshula Varma Travel Writer/Blogger, Passport to Eden. Find out the 11 things your car is revealing about your personality.

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Should you prepay for gas at the car rental company?

The good thing about prepaying for gas is you don’t have to worry about filling up the car before you return it to the lot. You can return it half-empty or drive in on fumes. The downside to this is that you don’t get credit if you return the car with unused gas in the tank. “If you know you will use the full tank, and have a tight return time, like coming straight from a meeting and there isn’t a gas station near the airport or you know it won’t be open, use the prepay option,” says Stump. While this option is more expensive than refueling yourself, opting in it may be worth it, depending on the car rental company. For instance, Hertz prepay policy says their fuel price is competitive with local pump prices. Compare the fueling policies with your travel itinerary before signing the contract.

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For whom the toll charges

Nasreen Stump, a veteran business traveler and writer at Traveling Mom always brings her own toll pass. Rental car companies charge a daily fee for using their toll pass, which according to Stump, could easily add an extra $30 charge to your rental. Check out the tolls required on your expected driving route and buy your own pass online or just pay tolls as needed.

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Car seats

A car seat is essential when you’re driving with kids in the back seat. Some car rental deals, like the one from Hertz offers one free car seat for AAA Members when you use the club’s discount code. If you need more than one, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a break in the fee, which is normally between $10 to $15 dollars per seat. However, you can lug your own on the plane, as most airlines don’t’ charge a fee to check a car seat. Traveling with kids? These tips will save the day—and your sanity.

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Extended road trippin’

You would think the longer you are renting a car, the cheaper it would be but that’s not always the case, according to Lisa Marquardt, travel blogger at TheHotFlashPacker. A recent inquiry Marquardt made through Enterprise confirmed that renting weekly was cheaper than renting the entire four weeks she would need the car. The monthly charge was $591 versus the total of renting four separate weeks at $489, saving her $106.

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Pimp my ride

“Reserving the lowest car class and hoping for a better vehicle at pickup is a common strategy,” says McCool. The early bird gets better wheels in the morning too. “There is less availability as most people haven’t returned the car yet and most rental car companies will give you a free upgrade to a bigger or better car,” says Varma. Don’t get too hopeful though. If you have a car full of people or a lot of baggage, don’t opt for a compact car, hoping to get a mid-size car. Upgrades aren’t always a sure thing.

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The enticing pay now feature

When you’re shopping for car rental deals, you’ll often notice a Pay Now option featuring a lower price for reserving and paying upfront. McCool doesn’t fall for it. “I shop around until finding more flexible rates, which for me, have always been lower.”

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Take a pic, it will last longer

Taking a picture could be just the proof you need to avoid paying for damages that occurred with a previous renter. White learned an expensive lesson while traveling abroad.”After an incident in France where I was left paying damages from a previous driver, I never leave the lot without taking photos of the car inside and out,” says White.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.