Renting a car
This article is a travel topic
Travelling by car can get you places which can be very difficult to reach by public transport or tour. It gives you the convenience of going your own way, in your own time, and it can often be cheaper than public transport alternatives, especially if travelling as a couple or a group.
The downside is that in some places, traffic conditions may differ wildly from what you are used to, and foreign conditions can add stress to your travels that you can do without. See Driving in China for one example. In some circumstances it may be better to rent a car with a driver. In countries where wages are low, this may not cost significantly more than the cost of the car alone.
Another disadvantage is that several countries still issue obviously different license plates for rental cars or do not expressly prohibit rental car companies from affixing their logos to the vehicles they rent. This is a problem because criminals sometimes specifically target tourists, knowing that they are less likely to testify against them (as that would normally require a special trip back to that jurisdiction).
Price is normally calculated by number of days. Usually the more days you take, the less you pay per day. Cars are classified according to a class, small to large, prestige and specialty vehicles, and there is a sliding scale of prices for each car class. When you book you are usually given an example of a car type in that class, but it need not be that type you are receiving.
Rental car companies normally permit a small amount of time, usually around an hour, for late returns. After that they can charge up to another full day rental for a late return. If you know you are going to exceed the rental period you can often call the rental company and arrange an extension. Normally the standard contract rate (without discounts) would apply.
Most rental companies have a one day minimum rental period. Price for durations less than a day normally are not regulated. If you need to return the car at significantly different time of the day, you can try haggling to get extra hours for free.
If the car is damaged or stolen, or if your car damages another or injures or kills someone, your liabilities (to the rental agency and/or others) can go far beyond the fee you agreed to pay for the rental. In addition to paying for any repairs required, the rental car company will charge you for administrative costs for managing repairs, plus any loss of revenue while the car is being repaired.
Usually when you rent a car you are presented with several insurance options. Some of these are:
You should take the time to consider the insurance options offered, how they affect your liability, their cost, and whether your personal car insurance, travel insurance, or credit card (that is, the one used to rent the car) provides partial or full coverage. Sometimes some of these insurance options and surcharges are compulsory, e.g., in foreign countries where your personal insurance doesn't offer coverage. Sometimes some coverages are built into the base rate.
If insurance or waivers are optional, consider the following before accepting the charge:
Rental companies tend to prefer bona-fide visitors rather than local renters when it comes to excess levels and excess reduction. Sometimes these are lower for international visitors booked in advance, for airport renters with a flight number, or for people using a corporate discount code.
Many insurance options are void if you use the car in a manner not permitted by the contract, e.g., driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or using it to commit a crime.
Some rental agreements may have a limit on how far you can travel per day or in total, and will charge for additional distance traveled. Others have unlimited mileage.
Even with unlimited miles, you may see limits that confine you to adjacent states or regions. Getting those limits relaxed may involve added fees. Violating them may generate stiff penalties. It's usually all in the rental contract.
Rental car companies are notorious for finding additional surcharges, sometimes not added until the point of sale. These can include location or airport taxes, improvement fees and other surcharges, admin surcharges, registration recovery surcharges and other local taxes. Sometimes local taxes are not just the local sales taxes, but also local vehicle taxes that are "recovered". At the Las Vegas airport, such fees can increase the cost of a rental by close to 60 percent.
This practice has become so notorious that some consolidators promote themselves on the basis they guarantee to offer a fully inclusive price, but check the fine print.
Choosing a car and optional extras
You need to choose a car to meet your needs.
Booking and haggling
The decision over whether to book in advance or whether to shop around on arrival can be difficult, and depends on the location and the time.
When renting with a major rental car agency at most airports, a reservation doesn't guarantee your rental. On their side, the rental car agencies overbook. On your side, you can usually make a reservation without any up-front financial commitment and cancel at any time with no penalty. Although a reservation will not guarantee you a car in this case, it will give you priority over someone without a reservation.
Some things to consider when choosing whether to book or turn up and try for a better standby rate:
If you book with a travel agent they often take a require prepayment in full, and will give you a voucher to present at the rental car desk on arrival.
You may also encounter somewhat better offers or treatment if you book through the agent/agency arranging your flight, or through or by citing your membership in clubs or large associations, e.g., AAA/AA, AARP.
Locations and business models
Rental car agencies operate at a variety of locations and through various business models, and seasoned travelers will eventually learn how to deal with all of them.
At some airports (e.g., Los Angeles), all rental car agencies operate independently on their own private parking lots outside of the airports, and each of them runs their own private shuttles into the airport terminal area (for which the airport usually levies a heavy tax). This is particularly important to know if you are dropping off a car at an airport other than the one where you picked it up. Such airports do not have "rental car return" signage since all rental car agencies are off-site. You must look up in advance the address of the local off-site office of the relevant rental car agency.
Some airports have a central rental car center, which is either in the airport terminal itself, in the main parking garage, or off-site with connections via tram or airport shuttle bus.
Some rental car agencies operate a private secure lot where they give you the keys and paperwork, then you go outside to the lot and find the vehicle yourself, and then you must present the paperwork to a security guard to get out of the lot. Others use the main airport parking garage (or parking lot) and give you a keycard or passcode for exiting without having to pay the regular parking fee. Some rental car agencies may walk out with you to the vehicle and do a walk-around with you to record all preexisting damage in your presence, then have you sign the form.
At some airports (particularly in the Caribbean), they bring the car for you around to an alley next to the rental car agency where you are expected to return it when done. Some airports (e.g., Tocumen International in Panama City) reserve a section of the main pickup/dropoff curb for that purpose but do not expressly mark it as such.
Car rental return procedures also vary widely. One variation is where a specially-marked return area is actively patrolled and clerks do the final walk-around with you as soon as you come to a stop. The other major variation is where you park in any available space in the same secure lot where you picked up the vehicle, remove your belongings and lock the vehicle, then take the key with you into the car rental center. Some places may take your word as to the condition of the vehicle while others will immediately hand off the key to another staff member who will examine the vehicle while you are at the counter.
Some rental car agencies offer an option to deliver a car to your initial hotel, and/or to pick it up in the hotel at your final destination. This option may be offered free as part of an extended period of rent (e.g., one week and more, as for Budget in Portugal). In this case, an agent comes with a full set of papers, everything is filled out on spot and may not need to visit rental office at all. The car rental companies would charge a minimal delivery fee, if the car is to be delivered at your location. Other rental car companies may pick you up in the car, and take you back to the rental car agency to fill out the paperwork. This is mainly so their driver has a way to get back to the rental car office, rather than being left stranded at a hotel without a car.
If your hotel has only paid parking around it, it is your responsibility to pay for parking time required for an agent to prepare papers with you.
Payment and security deposit
Rental car agencies invariably require a mechanism to have a security deposit in case of damage, fines or even failure to return a car.
Many operators require that they have a true credit card that they can impose charges or holds against, and will often reject debit cards that can have money withdrawn from them. Usually a hold will be placed on a credit card for a security deposit amount. They usually want to see a traditional credit card with embossed card text, like regular Visa or MasterCard, as opposed to debit cards like Visa Electron or Cirrus/Maestro.
Renting with cash only is unusual, and your should check with the rental car agency to see if that it is acceptable. If permitted it involves paying an amount of cash as a deposit roughly equal to your maximum liability which can be many times the cost of the rental. Some rental companies will accept payment for the rental in cash, as long as there is credit card available for the security deposit.
The security deposit amount held is not usually fixed in your contract. If a hold on part of your credit card limit may impact some other part of your holiday plans, you should check with the rental car agency. Most seasoned travelers travel with at least two credit cards for this reason.
Before you set out
Make sure you know:
And before you move the car, adjust your seat and all mirrors to meet your needs.
Frequently you will be provided with a free driving map of the region.
Checking initial condition
Before you go, check the exterior and front glass of the car and ask personnel to mark in the contract every scratch and dent you find, and sign the scheme on both copies of your contract, or even keep digital photos of the condition of the car and picture any damages at time of pick up and at time of drop off. When you return the car, it will be checked against the scheme you put in the contract. You can save considerable hassles at the end of the rental by just taking the time to note every scratch and dent.
Filling the tank
Normally, a rental car is expected to be returned with the same fuel level as when rented. Most rental car agencies in North America rent cars with full tanks and expect them to come back full.
Some rental car agencies offer a "pre-paid" purchase of fuel at a rate which is a significant discount below the company's regular refueling charge, but in many countries (such as the United States) still somewhat higher than what it will cost you to fill it up yourself. If you do select that convenience, make sure you are going to be driving enough to empty the tank, and that you can return it virtually empty. Many rental car agencies will charge for this service as if the tank were totally empty, not for the actual gallons/liters needed to fill it upon return.
Normally, the most economical approach is to agree to return the car full. Note that:
If the car breaks down
The rental car agency will provide a telephone number to contact in case of problems with the car. Make sure you contact this number first, because they usually will have agreements with service organisations to fix or move the car. If you incur costs of towing, etc, without contacting them you may make yourself liable for the cost.
If you have a flat tyre, or similar, and the cost won't be covered by the rental car company, it may just be simpler to get the tyre fixed then to arrange service through the rental car company, who may end up charging you more. However, if the repair will be covered by your travel insurance, you may want the rental company to arrange the repair so the paperwork is complete.
In case of any accidents, be sure you have the local police number as well as the car rental company emergency service center number, which would be mostly sticked in the dashboard of the vehicle.
Returning a car
Normally you return the car to a rental office at your final point in their working hours and have a final calculation done there.
At smaller locations, sometimes the office will be unattended, and have a lot to park the car, and a drop box for the keys.
If you arrive at the office when it is closed, and you can't return it when open, it usually works to leave the car in the lot, or nearby and place the keys, contract and the information about the car somewhere secure and obvious. You will remain liable for the car until the office opens, and will usually also be charged up until that time.
With a pick-up-at-hotel option (see "Delivering the car to your location" above), you only need to park a car (for paid parking, pay for the next 1 hour) and hand keys to an agent that comes to the hotel (with a cheque for parking payment if applicable).
If you damage the car
If you incur damage to the car, the car rental company will initiate their standard process for handling damaged vehicles. They will identify the damage, and you will be required to fill in and sign an accident report form. If the office is unattended at the time you return the car, they will contact you and advise you to fill in the form and return it to them.
They will charge or place a hold on your credit card for the full amount of any excess that was defined in the rental agreement, even if that is obviously greater than the value of the damage. They will obtain quotes for the repair, and advise you the cost of the repair, and their administration cost. This process can take up to a month to complete. If this cost is greater than your excess, then that completes the process. The rental car company retains the excess. Otherwise, your card will then be refunded for the difference.
This is usually clearly explained in the documentation that the company will produce when you return a damaged car.
Traffic and parking citations
If you receive a parking or an electronic traffic citation, it will be billed to the vehicle's owner, which in this case is the rental car agency. The agency in turn will bill this to your credit card. This may take several weeks or months or in some cases over a year to occur, and by then, you may have forgotten about the incident or been unaware of it altogether. If the agency for any reason is unable to bill your credit card, they will continue to seek this money indefinitely. The fines will never go away.
The agency will virtually always charge its own administrative fees in addition to the cost of the citation, which may be quite hefty, sometimes much more than the citation itself. Many agencies do not pay citations on time, thereby incurring government late fees, which may be far more than the citation itself. This all can be prevented by settling the citation yourself with local authorities prior to or soon after turning in the vehicle. Doing so can save you lots of money and headaches in the future.
Attempting to evade such fees by canceling your credit card or otherwise not ponying up the money is extremely unwise on your part and can have unpleasant consequences. These include:
Some media-reported cases have been quite extreme. One American woman was barred from renting a vehicle from several agencies until she paid off a debt of over $4000, all stemming from a $63 parking fine. Another American man was held in a Norwegian jail for six days after he arrived in the country due to a US $97 fine he received for illegally parking in Spain nine years earlier that he failed to pay off, and on which he now owed more than $6000. He was released only after funds were raised to pay off the fees.
The best way to avoid citations is to obey all traffic and parking laws and signs, and to study their meaning in advance. Avoid leaving your vehicle unattended for even a split-second without feeding a meter; in some places, there are officers waiting for the very moment you do that, and even if you return quickly, they are still authorized to write the ticket in your presence, and fleeing quickly and failing to allow them to do so can land you in more hot water.
Don't park in an illegal parking zone just because numerous other vehicles are parked illegally. Many police departments love when there are large numbers of illegally parked vehicles in one place, because they can efficiently write up lots of tickets and make large amounts of money in a short period of time.
Be aware of what the speed limit is at all times. In many places, photo radar speed enforcement cameras not visible to the naked eye will catch any and all motorists who exceed the speed limit by just a few miles or kilometers per hour. Motorists will be unaware they broke the law until weeks or months later when a citation is mailed, but the citation has full validity and is difficult to challenge, especially if you live far from the location.
Choosing an operator
Major global car rental companies have famous brands that operate in many countries throughout the world, for example Avis, Hertz, etc. Sometimes the regional operator can be an independent company using the name under licence, and often the local operator is just a franchisee. These major brands allow bookings through all the electronic booking services, and there is a seemingly endless amount of Internet booking services that allow you to do comparison searches between them. Alternatively you can visit any car rental comparison or review websites like kayak.com, travelauto.com, yelp.com, gotripy.com or travelocity.com to hire the car at cheaper rates from the right service providers reading the real-user reviews.
Using a global operator can have advantages. They often have priority "clubs", which record your details in advance, and can make renting a car as simple as just picking up the keys. You can generally rely on them operating out of prime locations, such as in the airport terminal, rather than in the shed down the street. They usually run cars for a short period of time before updating their fleet. However, don't think that because you are renting from a global operator you can rely on them to do the pre-rental car inspections correctly, or that their terms and conditions of rental are consistent.
The next level is the national or regional chain. Many countries have national operators, which may also operate out of a few neighbouring countries in the region. Sometimes these operators can also have prime locations, and sometimes they operate using shuttles or from less prestigious sites.
The next level is the purely local operator. It is unusual for these operators to have the prime locations, often they operate from less prestigious sites. The rental car industries sees its share of shady operators, and often they can be found in this category. This is unfortunate, as many of these operators can offer good value, and good service. It pays to seek out some local advice or reviews.
Often the choice is one between brand, price and convenience.