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How to Rent a Car When You’re Travelling

Car parked outside the Colosseum in Rome.
Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock

Often, the best way to get around when you’re traveling is to rent a car. It gives you a lot more flexibility to get out and explore. Here are some things to think about when you’re going to rent a car.

Remember Your License and a Credit Card

The International Driving Permit (IDP) website.

First things first—you’ll need to have your driver’s license with you. Leave it at home, and you can kiss your dreams of driving a convertible around the South of France goodbye.

Depending on where you’re traveling, you may also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). This doesn’t replace your driver’s license, but rather, supplements it by translating it into different languages. It’s handy to have one, as it can smooth over any issues with local law enforcement. IDPs cost $20, and AAA is authorized to issue them, so check out their website for more information on how to apply.

Another quirk of rental car agencies is they generally need a credit card in the name of the person driving to secure any deposits. They won’t accept debit cards or a credit card in someone else’s name. This tends to crop up as an issue when a group of friends is renting one car for all of them.

Check Your Insurance Options

To drive a rental car, you will need some kind of insurance. The most important is Collision Waiver Damage (CWD) coverage, which covers you for damage to the rental car. There are a few ways you can get it:

  • If you have a comprehensive insurance plan on your own car, you might have CWD coverage. Check with your insurer.
  • Some travel insurance plans provide CWD coverage.
  • Many rewards credit cards offer CWD coverage as a perk. See if yours does and, if so, double-check the terms.
  • Some insurance companies offer CWD coverage plans. Contact a broker to find out more.

With any of these options, make sure to check any terms and exclusions. Your credit card might offer coverage in the US but not in Europe, for example.

If you don’t have CWD coverage from another source, the rental company will sell it to you. Their plans, however, are usually costly and often have high excesses. If you can get it elsewhere, do so.

Book a Car

AutoSlash's website.

When it comes to choosing a rental car, it’s best to do your research on websites like AutoSlash and Kayak but to book directly through the rental company. While aggregators are a great way to compare dozens of quotes, booking through them can create problems later.

If anything goes wrong, customer service is much easier to deal with if you’ve booked directly with the rental agency. You’re much less likely to have issues with your booking like, for example, being given a manual car when you requested an automatic. You also get loyalty points, which can lead to better rates and upgrades down the line. Aggregators also tend to offer a very low price that excludes charges (like insurance) you’ll have to pay when you pick up the keys. If you book directly through the rental company, you’re less likely to be hit with extra fees.

There aren’t really last-minute deals on rental cars, so it’s best to book a few days before you arrive—especially if you want a specific class of car, like a convertible or a van.

Watch the Extras at Pick-Up

When you pick up the keys for your rental car, pay attention to the extras they try to tack on or upsell to you. If you don’t have CWD coverage, the company will offer it, and this is where things can get awkward. The base insurance coverage provided by a rental car company often includes a hefty excess of around $2000. Some agencies will insist you leave this as a deposit or put a hold for that amount on your credit card if you don’t pay for one of the more expensive insurance plans that have a lower excess.

Another common charge is prepayment for a tank of fuel. If you return the car with a full tank, they’ll refund you. If you don’t, they keep your payment. Rental agencies try to make this seem like a benefit because you don’t have to fill up the car with gas before you return it. It’s not—the rate they usually charge for fuel is exorbitant.

A GPS device or satellite radio service are some optional extras you might be pushed to purchase. Additionally, if you have children with you, there might be a charge for any car seats. You’re better off skipping the ridiculous daily fees on all of these. Use your phone as a GPS and bring your own car seats for the kids.

Check the Details

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Here are a few things you should check before you drive away.

  • The cleaning policy. Smoking is rarely allowed in rental cars now, but what about making a mess? Different companies have different policies when it comes to things like sand and dirt. If you’re planning a beach trip, make sure to check you won’t be hit with a hefty cleaning fee on top of the rental.
  • The toll policy. Toll roads are a pain when you’re in a rental car—especially if there’s not an option to pay with cash. Check with the rental agency about how tolls are paid. Some charge a ridiculous “administration fee,” while others require you to pay using an app.
  • The specifics of the car. Diesel and manual transmission cars are common in much of the world. If you didn’t check the details of your booking, you might be in for a bit of a shock. Before taking the keys, confirm with the agent that you’re getting the transmission you want and know what fuel the car takes.
  • The return process. Where and when do you have to drop off the car? What if it’s after-hours? Get the details before you take off, so you don’t have a panic at the end of your trip.
  • Whether your insurance covers you internationally. In Europe, it’s very easy to drive across international borders without noticing you’re doing so. This can create a problem: you might not be covered by your insurance. If you’re planning a trip that might take you to a different country, make sure you’ll be covered there. There’s almost certainly a surcharge.

Document the Car

Several video still shots of a rental car on a phone.
Take a video of the entire rental car in the parking lot.

Alright, you’ve got the keys, and you haven’t been (too badly) overcharged. Now, it’s time to get the car. Before driving off, there’s one crucial last step: record the condition of the car.

When you rent a car, the rental company almost always assures you there’s no damage. You sign the forms accepting that, often before you’ve even seen the car. The thing is, the post-rental check a car receives can vary widely in quality. The person who last checked it in could easily have missed a small ding or scratch. Of course, if you return the car with a ding or scratch, and the paperwork says you agreed it had no damage when you drove off, you’re liable for the fix.

The best way to prevent this is to record a video while walking around the entire car. Point out any scuffs or scratches in the video. Do this visibly in the rental lot, preferably with a rental company employee nearby and in the video. This way, you have an independent record of the condition the car was in before you drove away. If they claim you caused a scratch or ding, you can prove you didn’t.

Now that all of that is in the rearview, you’re ready to drive off into the sunset and enjoy the freedom a car gives you. Have fun!

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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