August 20, 2023

What You Need to Know Before Renting a Car

Whether planning a road trip or heading to a destination with few transit options, there’s a strong chance that a rental car will figure into your travel plans.

With many companies to choose from and fine print to sort through, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re getting before you head to the rental counter. When should you book? Should you prepay for gas? What about insurance?

USA TODAY spoke to experts about what you should expect and some of these common questions, and here was their top advice.

When should I book a rental car?

It depends. If getting a good deal is the most important thing to you, then waiting may make sense. But if having your pick of cars is a priority, then sooner is better.

“If you book at the very last minute, you can typically get the best prices,” said Hayley Berg, lead economist at the booking website Hopper. “If you have a lot of flexibility, definitely consider waiting until the last minute. The risk you do run is they do sell out.”

However, Elie Michaels, vice president of operations at Advantage Rent A Car, said waiting until the last minute isn’t always a good idea.

“The sooner, the better, as is the case with any type of service provider,” he said. “We are typically aggressive on the rates 2-3 months out, but we always keep a close eye on holiday weekends or things that could increase demand.”

Berg added that if you don’t want to wait, it’s a good idea to reserve a rental car when you make the rest of your travel plans.

“I would book your rental car when you book your flight, assuming you’re taking a flight and picking up your rental car when you get to the airport,” she said.

How much do rental cars usually cost?

Car rental prices have decreased significantly since spiking last summer and earlier during the pandemic.

“The average rental car is about $50 a day, and that’s down 20-25% compared to this time last year,” Berg said. “Those travelers who are renting cars are going to see relief both on the rental cost and on the gas prices.”

Should I prepay for gas on my rental car?

Berg said it’s almost never worth it to prepay for gas, and renters are usually better off filling up the tank before returning their vehicle.

“Never prepay for gas. This is a big one. It is tempting when you’re signing all the paperwork when you pick up your car to say, ‘Oh, just fill up the tank when we get back and charge me for it,’ but you’re going to pay a huge premium for it,” she said. Rental car companies charge as much as $7 per gallon if you don’t return the car on full according to Berg.

Should I get rental car insurance?

Both Berg and Michaels said this is a matter of renter preference.

“The best advice will be for the customer to contact their personal car insurance company to understand directly from them what is covered, what is not covered, what is covered in the state they’re traveling to,” Michaels said. “Understanding it directly from their insurance company would give them enough information to make a dedicated decision at the time of rental.”

Berg added that it’s a good idea to research your own policy in addition to what the rental company will offer ahead of time.

“Always do your homework to figure out if it is relevant for your specific travel needs but in general, it’s a big ‘it depends,’ ” she said. “You don’t like paying for it when you don’t need it, and when you need it, you’re glad you paid for it.”

Do I need additional insurance for a car rental?

This, too, is a matter of personal preference. The additional insurance that a rental agent offers is typically to cover the costs of damage to the vehicle (collision), whereas the base insurance covers injuries (liability). If you choose not to buy the additional insurance, and your own insurance doesn’t cover damages, you may be on the hook to pay out of your own pocket.

What else should I know about renting a car?

Michaels said it’s important to read all the terms and conditions of your rental to understand everything you need to do and are responsible for.

Some car rental companies, for example, put geographic restrictions on where you can bring the vehicle or may have rules about paying with a credit card versus a debit card.

He added that it’s crucial to ensure the pickup and dropoff time on your reservation is as accurate as possible.

“Planning ahead is very important and knowing exactly when the car is needed and being specific about when the car is needed and at what time,” he said. “Make sure the date and time are as accurate as possible, and if there are any changes as the date approaches to make sure they contact or go online to edit their reservation to adjust to the right time.”

Because car rentals are typically charged in 24-hour increments, he said, a late return, especially, could result in the renter paying more money. But, if your flight is delayed, Michaels said, it’s a good idea to update your reservation, too.

“It would be best if the consumer takes the time to get online to contact the company to make sure there are no surprises when they arrive,” he said.

Berg pointed out that many car rental companies charge a premium for drivers under the age of 25, and that it’s a good idea to compare prices on different booking platforms.

She also said that airport locations tend to be better-stocked than neighborhood pickups, so it’s usually a good idea to take advantage of those whenever you can.

“Something to keep in mind is that where you go is going to influence the availability of vehicles and the prices as well,” Berg said. “Places that are a little off the beaten path are going to be less well-stocked.”

What is the minimum age for car rental?

Most rental car companies will charge a premium for drivers under the age of 25. Various state laws and rental car company policies cover those under the age of 25. For example, in New York, rental car companies are required to rent to any licensed driver age 18 or older.

What documents do I need to rent a car?

You’ll typically need a driver’s license and proof of payment, and some rental agencies may require proof of insurance if you’re providing your own.

Can I rent a car with a debit card?

Most rental companies prefer if you rent with a credit card, but alternative payment methods can be an option. Michaels said this is another thing where researching your options and reading the fine print is key. Some companies require extra steps when renting with a debit card, for example.

Are there any hidden fees with car rentals?

There can definitely be unexpected fees when renting a car, like extra charges for company-provided toll transponders, airport fees or others. Michaels’ advice continues to apply: you should ensure you understand the terms of your rental and what you may be charged for before signing.

How does the car rental deposit work?

It’s similar to the security deposit when renting an apartment or the incidental charges at a hotel. A car rental company will hold some money (typically by charging your credit card) while you’re renting. If you return the car damaged or especially dirty, they may use some of that money toward cleaning or repair fees. Otherwise, the company will typically return the deposit to your credit card in about 15 days, according to

Can I rent a car one way?

Yes, but it’s important to note your pickup and dropoff location on the reservation and be prepared to pay a premium for that option.

Copyright 2023 USA TODAY. All rights reserved. From By Zach Wichter.

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