Whether for travel or personal use, renting a car can be both simple and budget-friendly.
Travel in the United States is big business.
In 2018, people traveling domestically spent $933 billion, an increase from 2017 of 5.8%. Those numbers include both leisure and business travel.
One of the most significant segments of the travel industry is vehicle rentals. For 2019, total revenues for car rentals are expected to top $21.8 billion, encompassing almost 35 million renters.
When it comes to business travel, car rentals are the third-largest expense for companies, after airfare and hotels.
It's not just traditional travel where car rental companies are looking to make an impact. Some firms are expanding into areas that include ride-sharing, on-demand transportation, event planning and tourism experiences, even car sales.
While it may be a bold new world for the car rental industry as a whole, for those seeking out the core service - renting a vehicle - the basics remain surprisingly traditional. For many, they are also confusing.
Let's clear up some of those finer points, and make a little more sense of the car rental process.
Of course, renting a vehicle goes well beyond the desire to road trip across the country or get from point A to point B during an out of town business trip.
Perhaps you and your car was involved in an accident, and you need a temporary set of wheels while your main ride is in the shop.
If your needs are highly specific, a different car than the one in your driveway might prove a better option. You're getting married, and you want to ride away from the reception in a vehicle suited to the occasion.
Or, if you have family visiting from out of town and an SUV is more practical transportation than your two-door coupe. And of course, we must not forget needing a truck or van to move.
Ultimately, there are many reasons to rent a vehicle. However, because we never think about those reasons until the moment is upon us, we are often left scrambling to find the right vehicle and end up paying a lot for it.
Regardless of the need, a bit of knowledge and planning goes a long way to renting the right car and doing so without breaking the bank.
What to Consider When Renting a Car
While the overall process of renting a car is straightforward, there is a bit more to it than picking a car, paying a fee, then driving off into the sunset.
Here are the major items to think about before ever engaging with a rental agency.
Type of Car
One of the first considerations you make when it comes time to rent a car is what kind of car you need. As evidenced above, based on the situation, you'll already have an idea of what may be best suited to your situation. From there, determine a budget and any intangibles that require accommodation.
To keep your search and rental process simple, narrow your car type down to one or two segments.
For example, if you need to save money and only require space for yourself and one other person, keep your search limited to small or economy cars.
Need to haul several folks for a few days, including luggage? First decide if a full-size, SUV, or van fits closet to your needs and then keep your search focused on the best-suited segment.
You want to find a car that meets your purpose, but you also want to ensure its both comfortable and budget-friendly.
Inventory, availability, and the price of a rental can vary quite a lot from company to company. Other factors include the location of the agency and when you need the car. To get the best deal and ensure a car will be available, do your homework.
Third-party aggregators like RentalCars.com and Autorentals.com are excellent starting points as they focus solely on rental cars. General travel booking sites such as Expedia, Hotwire, and Priceline are good options when combining your rental vehicle with airline or hotel reservations.
Don't neglect the car rental company sites themselves - Enterprise, Alamo, Budget - as they will, at times, offer better pricing if you book directly through them.
Location of Car Rental Agency
In certain instances, it may be unavoidable where you rent your car. You might live in a remote area, or the airport rental location is the only game in town. Research if other sites exist.
Airport locations many times include airport concession fees, increasing the overall cost of the rental. Off-site locations may charge rates up to $25 less than the airport but could negate that by being too far out of the way.
If you need a rental vehicle for something other than travel, again options may be limited, so consider that when choosing who to rent from.
One final aspect regarding location is where you plan to drop off the car. One way rentals are considerably more expensive than if you pick up and drop off at the same store. Keep this in mind when planning and budgeting for where to rent the car.
So that's the where, what about the when? Be very aware of your timeframe in renting a vehicle. Don't expect to head to a car rental agency last minute and get a great deal or the exact vehicle you're looking to rent.
Likewise, be mindful of popular times. Weekends, holidays, or when a city or region hosts a big event all have a considerable impact on availability and price.
Always aim to rent at least 24 hours in advance, if not further out.
The two most widely known requirements for renting a car is that you possess a valid driver's license and be 25 years of age or older. The common myth of being at least 25, however, is a bit of a misnomer.
Even with restrictions on those under 25 - you can't rent higher-value vehicles, like an SUV, for example - most major rental companies allow persons 21 to 24 to rent a car for an additional fee. Two states - Michigan and New York - set the age minimum at 18, but the fee still applies.
Beyond age, your chances of renting a car decrease if you have a poor driving record or a DUI conviction. Though contract language may differ between agencies, the most common restrictions include a DUI conviction within the past 48 months or three or more major traffic violations from the previous two years.
The Costs of Renting a Car
Much like every other segment in the travel industry, there are many different price points and fees attached to renting a car. The phrase "know before you go" could have been coined at the time of history's first car rental.
Here's a list of some common fees and charges associated with renting a vehicle and how to navigate them to stay within your budget.
Upgrades and Discounts
Rental companies often tout upgrades between different model types or styles. Don't be wowed by them but also don't outright ignore them.
It may seem attractive to rent an SUV at an intermediate price, but that bigger vehicle might also come with higher gas costs, negating any deal. Conversely, if the price is right, the larger ride may come in handy, especially if you have to handle passengers or luggage across multiple days.
Also, look for discounts from membership programs such as AAA or those offered by frequent flyer programs. The daily discount might be nominal, but the savings quickly add up if you rent for multiple days.
Inspect, Inspect, Inspect
Before you drive the car off the rental lot, inspect the vehicle and note any prior damage you may find, including any nicks, dents, or scratches. Most importantly, take photos.
Don't assume the place you rent from is consistent about checking and charging returned vehicles for damage. You may not be the person responsible for a dent, but if an associate notices one after you return the car, without proof, you will be the one charged.
Even if filling up or topping off a tank of gas seems like a huge inconvenience, not handling this simple task yourself might cost you quite a bit. Rental agencies add a premium to the gas charge if you return the tank at a lower level than when you left. Prepaying for gas also brings the agency out ahead when divvying up the cost of fuel.
Unless you are certain you will be pressed for time and can't top off the tank prior to returning the car, the extra charges are not worth it. Particularly for something that takes fewer than five minutes to do.
To purchase additional insurance or not to purchase, that is the question.
Seriously, it may be one of the most commonly asked and misunderstood questions when renting a vehicle. So, should you purchase the extra insurance when offered?
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer is no. The reason is two-fold.
First, your automobile insurance should cover you as most policies recognize the rental as a replacement vehicle for your regular car. Your insurance, whatever its coverages may be, extend to your driving the rental. It's essential though to double-check with your carrier to ensure your policy does not contain any exceptions or exclusions.
Second, what your insurance doesn't cover, your credit card most likely will, including loss of use. You need to reserve and pay for the rental with said credit card, but in most instances, the insurance the card offers is equal to or better than your regular insurance.
We've already touched on fees if you're under 25. Charges also apply if you choose to add a second driver. If traveling in a group, keep your costs lower by identifying a single driver for the duration of the trip.
If you have a smartphone, then you have access to some of the most robust mapping systems available. Most car rental agencies will ask for anywhere between $5 and $15 more per day to use a GPS they provide. Save your money and use the one you already own.
Renting a car isn't the confusing exercise it's often made out to be. In fact, with just a little work on your end, the whole process is incredibly simple.
Remember, determine your needs first and then set a budget. From there booking the perfect vehicle and avoiding unnecessary charges will be a breeze.