Renting a Car Whether you’re planning a weekend getaway, a cross-country road trip or a business trip, a rental car may be in your future. Comparing prices online can save you a bundle, but make sure you compare the total cost — not just the advertised rate. Added fees and options can increase the base price dramatically. Keep these things in mind as you start your search for a rental car.

Size Matters The size of the rental car can impact the price you pay. Terms like “compact,” “mid-size,” and “luxury” can vary across rental car companies. To illustrate car sizes, companies usually provide car models or suggest how many passengers the car seats safely.

Shop and Compare Search across several websites for the type of car you’re interested in renting. To get an idea of the best price you can get, search for rates at individual rental car company websites and price comparison websites.

Money-Saving Deals or Specials If your travel plans are flexible, you may be able to rent a car when price breaks are available. Try searching for specials geared to the length of time you need the vehicle. You may find better deals if you book in advance, or book in combination with a flight or hotel. Read any fine print about restrictions on special offers, including blackout dates when an advertised price may not be available. Some companies also offer special rates for seniors or members of particular organizations, like motor clubs.

Question the Price Comparing advertised rates for rental cars may not give you an accurate picture of the price you will pay. Try to make an “apples to apples” comparison of car rental prices that includes all mandatory fees and charges, as well as charges for options. Some fees may be quoted when you reserve a car online, though you may not find out about all of the charges until you go to the rental office to pick up your car. Read your contract carefully and look for fees triggered by specific events — like accidents.

Your Driving Record Is Important Many companies check driving records when customers arrive at the counter and reject those whose records don’t meet company standards. Even if you have a confirmed reservation, you may be disqualified from renting a car for recent violations, including:

  • reckless driving
  • seat belt law violations
  • accidents, regardless of fault
  • leaving the scene of an accident
  • convictions for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) or Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
  • driving with an invalid, suspended, or revoked license

Ask the rental car company in advance whether they check customers’ driving records.

Coverage Options Rental companies usually offer drivers additional coverage options — for a price. If you buy their coverage, they say you can minimize your liability while driving their rental car. However, you may be covered already through your own auto or homeowner’s policies. Read your insurance policies for specifics and call your insurers if you’re uncertain about the coverage. If you’re traveling on business, you may be covered under your employer’s insurance. Some credit card companies, and motor clubs provide members with free rental protection when you use their cards to pay for rentals.

Salespeople also may try to sell you a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), or a Loss Damage Waiver. These waivers guarantee that the rental company will pay for damages to your rental car. It’s not technically collision insurance — the company won’t pay for any injuries to you or damages to your personal property. Coverage under your medical insurance plan might offer protection that CDW coverage lacks. If you don’t buy CDW coverage or aren’t covered by your personal auto insurance policy, you accept responsibility for any damages — and could be liable for the full value of the car. Some rental companies hold you liable only for a portion of the value. If you purchase CDW, your coverage still could be revoked if you damage the rental car while:

  • driving in a negligent manner
  • driving on unpaved roads
  • driving out of state
  • driving while intoxicated
  • an unauthorized driver operates the car

Rental car companies may offer other coverage options for additional charges. Prices and policies for coverage vary among companies. If you decide to pay for extra coverage, ask for details.

Ask About Fees Ask about fees before you rent a car to avoid surprises when you pay your bill. Here are some common fees and charges you may encounter.

Taxes The rental company will add on the required state, city, or county taxes — and their own sales tax rates — to the price of your rental car. You may see other fees, too, like a “vehicle licensing fee” or an “energy recovery fee.”

Early or Late Return Fees Being early is not always a good thing. Some rental companies may charge a fee if you return the car more than 24 hours before your reservation was supposed to end. If you must return the car early, call the company to talk to an agent.

Running a little late? Many rental car companies have short grace periods that allow you to return the car without a fee if you’re late by less than 30 minutes. However, you still may have to pay a full day’s charge for optional items, like navigation systems and liability coverage options. If you’re running more than a half hour late, call the company to see if it’s cheaper to pay late charges or extend your rental.

Airport Surcharges If you’re renting a car at the airport, fees can increase the rental rate considerably. These surcharges can apply even when rental car companies shuttle you to their off-site lot.

Fuel Charges Most companies require you to return your rental car with a full tank of gas. If you don’t, you’ll be charged the rental company’s price for gas, which is virtually always more expensive than if you refill the tank yourself at a local station. Companies might give you the option of pre-purchasing a full tank of gas when you first take the car, so you can return the car without paying an additional fee to fuel up. There’s usually no refund for unused fuel.

Mileage Fees Most rental car companies now offer unlimited miles. But daily mileage caps may apply based on the type of vehicle you rent (for example, some SUVs or high performance vehicles). It helps to know about how far you plan to drive so you can select the company that offers the most favorable mileage terms.

Roadside Assistance Fees Ask whether roadside assistance is included in the price of your rental car, or if the company will charge you a fee for it. If the company charges for a roadside service plan, find out exactly what it will cover if you need help — for example, if you have a flat tire or lock your keys in the car. If you’re a member of a motor club, you may have free or low-cost roadside assistance through your membership.

Out-of-State Charges Before you head out on a road trip, check whether your rental company allows you to drive out of the state or geographical area in which you rented the car. Ask about the charges to drive out of state.

Drop-Off Fees Need to drop your car off at a location other than where you picked it up? You may have to pay a steep fee for that.

Equipment-Rental Fees If you’d like to include extra items in your rental car — like a navigation system or a car seat — you’ll have to pay a fee. Reserve these items in advance; availability varies based on the location of the rental.

Additional-Driver Fees Want to switch off driving duties? Some companies charge a fee to add another driver — even your spouse — to your contract.

Underage-Driver Fees You don’t have to be 25 to rent a car. Drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 are allowed to rent cars — for an additional fee.

Tolls Most rental companies offer ways to pay tolls automatically, but that convenience comes at a cost. What you pay depends on both where you drive and the rental company you use. That’s because different companies offer different plans. As you compare companies, think about whether you’ll be using toll roads, bridges or tunnels.

Debit and Credit Card Blocking Most rental companies place a hold — or a block — on your debit or credit card to protect themselves from possible charges beyond the authorized amount. They don’t process the blocked amount unless you fail to return the car as specified in your contract. Your spending limit on your card may be reduced by the blocked amount until shortly after you return the car.