Car rental tips for the uninitiated

Here are some excellent tips on car rentals that readers have shared with us, as part of their own experience of moving to America:

  1. The minimum documentation you need to rent a car is a driver's license (also serving as a photo ID) and a credit card. So when you first move to America, ensure you bring an International Driver's Permit and an internationally accepted credit card from your home country, if you don't already have the US versions of these documents. Some rental agencies may allow 'work-arounds' and may rent you a car on the basis of a home country driver's license and cash payment, but with an extra security deposit.

  2. Try to rent a car from the larger, well known agencies - Enterprise, Hertz, National, Dollar, Budget, Avis, Thrifty, Alamo and so on. If you rent from a smaller agency, you might save a few dollars but they may not be able to support you as well, in a breakdown scenario, for instance.

  3. If you need to rental car for a few days (e.g. on a vacation) and are arriving and departing from the same airport, rent from the airport location - its very convenient. But if you're renting for a longer period and while at your home location, always AVOID renting from an airport. Airport rentals are always more expensive due to the addition of fees and surcharges, compared to renting from in-town locations.

  4. If you are employed in the US, check with the HR department at your employer's. Most companies have corporate tie-ups with car rental agencies and get preferential rates for their employees (both official and personal use).

  5. Notwithstanding the above, always comparison shop on the internet for car rentals. Many readers have reported 'internet deals' on certain days and during certain seasons that beat the preferential rates offered by their corporate tie-ups. While looking for a rented car online, visit not just the websites of the car rental agencies (examples mentioned above), but also travel portals like priceline and hotwire.

  6. If you need a car for a longer period, always go for a longer rate plan. That means, opt for weekly rates as opposed to daily rates, and monthly rates as opposed to weekly rates, where possible. I have had experiences (sometimes, not always) where I opted for a lower monthly rate, unfortunately had to return the car mid-month, and was yet charged pro-rata!

  7. All car rental agencies will offer you car insurance for the period you rent the car. Many will 'scare' you into it. Insurance usually costs a few dollars more per day. One of the most common questions asked is: should I take rental insurance or not? Here is some guidance:
    • Always do your homework. Many employers have a corporate insurance coverage for their employees and will cover loss on rental cars. Check if your employer has such coverage. Check if the coverage covers rentals on all use or offical use only. Then take a decision. You don;t want to buy new coverage if you're already covered!
    • If you are using a credit card to rent the car, check your credit card policy. Some credit cards (especially American Express) provide a level of coverage on rentals, as long as the rental is booked through the card.
    • If you already have a personal car insurance policy, chances are high it covers car rentals to some extent. Check the policy. Understand the terms - what is covered and what is not. Then take a decision.
    • If you don't have any of the above, or are not sure, or just want the extra peace of mind, go for it! Rental insurance is certainly OK for a few days but will start becoming an expensive proposition if you need the car for a week or longer.

  8. Remember, weekend rentals are generally less expensive than weekday rentals. So if you live in a big city like New York and travel on the subway throughout the week, you may even consider renting as a long-term strategy. I know many people who rent on weekends (for errands, vacations) and delay buying a personal car altogether. This will also help save on parking costs, which can be substantial in the city.

  9. Every time you rent a car, the gas level is recorded. When you return the car, ensure the tank is at the same level. Failure to do this results in an added charge for refilling at penal fuel rates. So remember to refuel before returning the car.

    Car rental agencies also give you the option of prepaying for a full tank of gas (you therefore don't have to worry about refueling and can return the car at any gas level). The cost of prepayment is less than the penal charge, should you forget to refuel. However, the most economical option is still to decline prepayment and refuel yourself.

  10. Do not necessarily go for the smallest car, in order to save money. The "subcompact" car (usually the least expensive option) is really small with very little trunk space and is not good value for money. The compact and intermediate options give a better balance between value and rental rate.

    Of course, if you're getting a free upgrade, take it! (agencies sometimes offer free upgrades if the car of your booking is unavailable)

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