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Renting a Car This Summer? Here’s What You Need to Know

Rows of rental cars in numbered parking spots at the airport.

Increased vaccination rates and decreased restrictions are a good sign that things are on their way back to normal, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still massive ripple effects from the pandemic. The U.S. car rental market is definitely still feeling the COVID crunch.

A few factors have led to the current low supply and high cost of rental cars. First, back when the United States went under lockdown, many car rental companies sold off large portions of their fleets to generate some income.

As the country is just beginning to open up, rental companies haven’t yet gotten back up to their original supply of vehicles. It’s also still on the early side for many people when it comes to getting back to normal summer travel plans. Many countries are still closed to international travelers and lots of people, vaccinated or not, still don’t feel comfortable flying.

So, what’s the next best? A road trip! However, when you combine an increased demand for rental cars with the low supply, you get limited choices and high prices for renters. Below are some tips to help you navigate this stressful car rental period.

Research the Companies

image of Trustpilot website

Although finding a good deal is hard right now, the cheapest car rental service isn’t always the best. It’s smart to do some preliminary research on car rental companies before you spend a chunk of time hunting down a deal.

If a company tends to receive lots of poor reviews from customers, you can omit it from your online search or just make sure you avoid booking there.

Some car rental companies also add a long list of fees after you book, making your total price much higher than you anticipated. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to go through the entire process of booking online to see all the extra fees. Still, it’s worth it to take the time to do this so you can see those before you commit.

You should also always read any fine print along the way. This is often where car rental companies hide extra costs for which you’ll be responsible when picking up your car.

Finally, check out some company reviews before committing. Many rental companies are trustworthy, but some are notorious for charging for damages after a drive or creating other headache-inducing scenarios.

Trustpilot reviews the overall trustworthiness of businesses all over the world, and it’s a great place to read reviews from past customers. The interface isn’t great, though, so you’ll have to look for a specific company via the search bar.

Consumer Affairs also offers buyers’ guides and reviews for established companies. You can also search for specific car rental companies, although the most well-established will be listed on the car rental homepage.

Compare Prices

an image of CarRentals.com website

Once you’ve ruled out any company you don’t want to rent from, it’s time to check multiple search services. Just like flights and hotels, car rental prices can fluctuate greatly between booking platforms. You can check a website dedicated to car rentals, like CarRentals.com, or a general travel platform like Expedia.

Once you find a car and price you’re comfortable with, it’s always worth going directly to the company’s website. You might find exclusive deals or promotions intended to entice customers to book directly through them.

If you’re planning your trip far enough in advance, you’ll have some wiggle room. It also doesn’t hurt to sign up for their promotional emails either to score advance notice of deals or discounts.

Below are a few websites where you can compare car rental deals:

Use an Alternative Rental Platform

image of Turo website

If you’re having a hard time finding a car for a decent price, you might want to consider some alternatives. Turo has gained popularity as the “Airbnb of cars.” It allows you to rent a privately owned vehicle for a much lower than what you’d find with a rental company.

Depending on how long you need a car and where you’re staying, the companies below might be useful, as they focus on short-term rentals:

The latter are great for weekend getaways or day trips after you get to your vacation destination. However, they’re not the best option for a cross-country camping trip.

Along with checking out alternative booking sites, you might want to consider alternative vehicles. Outdoorsy allows you to rent RVs and camper vans from private owners for $50-$275, depending on the vehicle.

Rent a Moving Van

A U-Haul moving van.

If you’re having trouble renting from regular companies or an alternative platform, it’s time to really think outside the box. Or, more accurately, about how people move boxes. Some people are actually turning to U-Haul to avoid paying sky-high rental prices on a car.

A cargo van might not be that pretty, but being open-minded about your transportation options could save you hundreds of dollars this summer.

However, you should keep in mind that cargo vans are designed for moving, not vacationing. They just have driver and passenger seats, and a protective barrier between the front and the empty cargo space in the back.

This means a cargo van might be workable (albeit, unconventional) for two friends or a couple, but it won’t do for a group or family trip.

But hey, on the upside, you won’t have to worry about fitting your luggage into a tiny compact car! And just think of all the fun you’ll have valet parking a U-Haul at your hotel.

Think Twice About the Rental Company’s Insurance

Purchasing insurance through a car rental company can add hundreds of dollars to your bill, depending on the policy you choose and the amount of time for which you’re renting it. It can also be especially difficult to decline these days, considering how tentative many folks’ travel plans are.

If you own your own vehicle, check and see if rental cars are already covered on your existing auto insurance policy, or if you can add that coverage. If so, it will likely be much cheaper than the rental company’s policy.

Many credit cards also offer car rental coverage if you book your rental with that card. You can usually find this information under “Benefits” or “Travel Benefits” on the credit card’s website. If you can’t find it online, just call the number on the back of your card to ask a representative.

Make sure you know exactly what coverage is offered and all the details about those benefits. You’ll definitely want a primary collision damage waiver. You’ll also want to make sure the type of car you want to rent will be covered—luxury vehicles, for example, often aren’t.

If you speak to a representative, ask him to email you the actual documentation or direct you to where you can find it on the website.

Document Everything Before You Drive

A woman taking a picture of a rental car with her phone.
Trismegist san/Shutterstock

You’re going to want to save everything related to your car rental. This is wise any time you rent a car, but it’s particularly relevant now. Given the demand for rentals and the fact that companies are keen to make up for lost profits and keep their reduced fleet on the road, you’re going to want to keep track of every penny.

Many people don’t think about their car rental after they return the keys, then find a nasty charge on their credit card later claiming damages. While someone from the rental company usually does a walk-through of a vehicle before handing you the keys, not every business is doing this now due to COVID precautions.

You should also always take pictures of any dents, scrapes, or blemishes on the vehicle before you start the engine. Take your time and really look over the car. It’s also a good idea to walk slowly around the vehicle while taking a video so you have even more evidence in your pocket in case something happens.

This way, if an issue does arise after you return the car, you’ll know it isn’t your fault. You’ll also be able to prove the damage was already there before you left the lot. This can save you a huge headache and a lot of money.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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