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Car Rental Tips

Need wheels on your next trip? Renting a car can give you freedom and flexibility when you're traveling, and in some parts of the world it's the only feasible way to get around. But a rental car can also add complications to your trip -- like trying to find the best deal or sorting out exactly which insurance options you need. Read on for our practical tips on saving money, understanding your rental agreement and avoiding problems with your car rental.

car on road with flowers

Choosing a Vehicle

Think carefully about what kind of vehicle you'll need. If you're traveling with children or with a lot of gear, you may want a large sedan or SUV. If you're simply looking to save money on rental rates and gas, you'll want to reserve the smallest available model.

But size isn't the only factor. Looking for something environmentally friendly? Many car rental companies now offer hybrid vehicles. Can't drive a stick shift? Be sure to reserve a car with automatic transmission. (In many countries, a manual transmission is the norm -- so read the fine print before booking. Learn more with our International Car Rental Tips.) Also, be sure that the company from which you're renting offers any extras you might need or want, such as a ski rack, car seat or GPS system.

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Booking Your Car

You'll find major international car rental agencies all over the world -- think Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Sixt and Thrifty. But depending on where you're traveling, locally owned companies could offer lower rates; before booking, read reviews to be sure their companies are up to the standards of the majors.

Always shop around. Check the major booking engines and aggregator sites (such as Expedia, Priceline and Kayak) to get an idea of what rates are available, but you should also visit the car rental companies' websites as well -- they often offer exclusive discounts.

To lower your rate, ask about discounts for any major national organizations, frequent flier programs and credit card programs to which you may belong. They'll frequently offer deals on car rentals. (Those offered through AAA can be very good.) If you're employed by a company that frequently rents cars, they may have a negotiated rate. Make sure to check.

Before you book online, do an Internet search for coupon or promotion codes to put into the booking engine of your car rental company's site. Just type the name of the company followed by "coupon code" into the search field and you'll often find special promotion codes that could save you anywhere from 5 to 20 percent off the cost of your rental. For more ideas on saving money when you rent a car, see Cruising for Car Rental Deals.

If you haven't already, consider joining your car rental company's loyalty program when you book. These vary by company, but most of them are free and entitle you to certain privileges when picking up your vehicle; your information will be on file ahead of time, allowing you to jump into the car and go rather than standing in a long line or filling out paperwork. You could also be eligible for special discounts or free upgrades.

The newest way to save on rental cars is to hook up with a car share service. If you live near a major city or you're a frequent renter, you may save money by joining a car share such as Zipcar.

Understanding Your Rental

If you're booking online, read the terms and conditions carefully before confirming your reservation. If you're booking over the phone, ask the agent about restrictions. Be sure you understand the conditions of your reservation. Is there a penalty for no-shows? How long will the car be held if you're stuck in traffic on the way to the pickup station? Is there a fee for additional drivers and must their names be listed in the contract? Is your 20-year-old daughter old enough to drive the car? (For liability reasons, this is important.)

If pertinent, ask about any restrictions on travel across state or country borders. For your own protection in case of breakdown, be sure the company has offices in all the states or countries on your itinerary.

For one-way car rentals, ask about drop-off charges. They can be exorbitant.

Always get a confirmation number. For airport rentals, be sure to give the customer service representative your flight number and scheduled arrival time. This will usually protect your reservation if the flight is delayed.

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The True Cost of Car Rentals

Buyer beware: The rate you see advertised in big print may become so inflated with state and local taxes, airport surcharges, additional driver fees, insurance, gasoline bills and drop-off charges that you end up paying more than double what you expected. Learn more about these extra charges in Car Rental Hidden Costs.

Also, the advertised rate may be valid only during the off season or for a car size that you would find unsuitable.

In recent years, the major booking engines have become more transparent about rental car rates, and they now usually show you the total cost of your rental, including estimated taxes and fees, early on in the booking process.

Like the airlines, the major auto rental companies have adopted "yield management." That means that their computers can quickly readjust prices according to changes in the supply of cars available, and so the rental rate you are quoted is valid only at that moment. Unless you reserve immediately, the rate is likely to change.

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At Pickup Time

If your first drive will be from an airport to a hotel for the night, why not take a shuttle van to the hotel instead? Doing this may save you the price of a day's rental. Even if you must drive the same day your flight lands, you may not have to get the car at the airport. By picking it up downtown, you can often avoid hefty airport surcharges.

If you have personal auto insurance or charge the rental to a major credit card, you will probably be covered at least for collision damage -- so you shouldn't have to purchase the car rental company's collision or loss damage waiver (CDW or LDW) insurance. If in doubt, ask your insurance agent or credit card issuer.

Before you drive away from the pickup station, inspect the car carefully for body damage. Be sure the lights and turn signals are working properly, and check the mileage odometer. Report any defects at once.

Familiarize yourself with the workings of the car before you leave the lot. Check which side your gas tank is on, and learn how to use the headlights, windshield wipers and turn signal. It may seem obvious, but you'll also want to memorize the make, model and color of your car -- that way you won't lose it the first time you park in a crowded lot! For more tips, see The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental.

woman in rental car

Returning Your Car

Be wary of prepaid gasoline plans. Always fill the tank yourself before returning the vehicle so that you're only paying for the amount of gas you actually used. Try to avoid the gas stations right near the airport where you're dropping off your car -- the prices tend to be highest there. Instead, fill up a few miles away. Even better: Check GasBuddy.com before your trip to find out where the cheapest gas stations are in your area.

It may seem counterintuitive, but returning your car early may actually cost you money. You might have to pay an early return fee, but even worse, your rate structure might change, leaving you responsible for the difference. (If you're paying a weekly rate but return the car after only six days, you could end up paying a more expensive daily rate.)

Of course, returning the car late could cost you too -- many car rental companies only give you a 30-minute grace period before beginning to rack up the late fees.

Before leaving the vehicle, check to be sure you haven't left any personal belongings. Don't forget to check the trunk! The most common lost articles include cell phones, sunglasses and umbrellas.

Be sure that the check-in attendant inspects the car's body in your presence and that you agree about any damage. Examine your rental agreement carefully for all charges and make sure the agent credits any deposit to your account while you wait.

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--updated by Sarah Schlichter

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