11 common rental car mistakes — and how to avoid them
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.
There's one rental car cost that only age can help with: Once you turn 25, it's a lot easier (and usually cheaper) to rent a car. For everything else, smart planning can help you avoid unnecessary hidden fees and costly oversights.
Like many travelers, I've made some serious mistakes throughout my journeys, and when it comes to renting cars, I've made almost every one of these on this list. Over time, I've learned the error of my ways, and you can, too (minus the expenses and headaches).
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Going over the maximum miles per day
It came as a surprise to me to find out (the hard way) that not all rentals come with unlimited mileage. When renting with U-Save, a budget rental car company based in the Northeast, I discovered I had a hefty fine to pay for going over the stated policy for that location, which only provided unlimited mileage in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Outside of that coverage area, the location I rented from charged 35 cents per mile for any mile driven beyond 100 miles per day.
Not paying tolls yourself
There's no such thing as a free toll payment, especially when it comes to your rental car company. Ever driven through a "cashless" toll in a rental car without your own EZ Pass or another transponder to pay the toll and wondered how the fee would be paid?
I found out the answer the hard way: My rental car company covered it at a premium to me. Dollar Rental Car even charged one TPG contributor $59.99 for a single toll. It turns out most companies charge anywhere from $3 to $10 per day, either in administrative fees (not including the tolls) or in admin fees plus the cost of tolls.
As part of its e-Toll program, for example, Budget charges rental car drivers in Florida a convenience fee of $5.95 per day up to a maximum amount of $29.75 per rental period (not to exceed 30 days), on top of the toll amount. To opt out, drivers have to make sure the toll transponder included in the car is closed and that you pay for the tolls directly at the booth or online.
Paying for insurance
If your own car insurance company or credit card will cover rental car insurance, then paying for additional insurance with your rental car company could be yet another extra hidden cost you don't necessarily need to pay for — one that added up to a $200 mistake for one family that already had primary and secondary coverage through their credit card and personal car insurance.
If you're considering using your credit card for coverage, make sure your company offers a primary collision damage waiver (CDW); that the type of car you're renting is covered (luxury and off-road vehicles are often not included, for instance); and the country you're in is covered as well (to avoid repeating this reader's rental car mistake). Just remember, credit card CDWs do not cover personal injuries to you, your passengers or pedestrians involved in the accident.
For more, check out TPG's in-depth coverage of the best credit cards for rental car coverage and the guide to choosing the right card for worldwide rental insurance coverage.
Picking up and dropping off at different locations
A quick search of rental car company Thrifty's website shows how changing your rental car's drop-off location from the pickup location can easily drive up the total cost.
When I searched for a one-day compact car rental, changing the location added up to about triple the rate, whether the two locations were within easy driving distance — as in two different airports within the same metro area (Boston Logan International and Manchester-Boston Regional airports, for example), or two major cities (Boston and New York City).
In this search, I was surprised that, at $92.34, the Boston to New York City rental car cost less than the Boston Logan Airport to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport ($101.37). But, by and large, the best deal was simply picking up and dropping off at the same location ($37.28) at Boston Logan International.
Dropping off at a different location may be more convenient for you, but it's almost always not for the rental car company, and they'll impose a hefty surcharge for the trouble.
Paying extra for a later return (and returning your car late)
Rental car companies like Avis define rental car periods by the day (24 hours), not by the hour, which means if your return time is later in the day than your pickup time, you're essentially paying for a whole additional day, even if it's just a few hours difference.
When I searched Kayak, I noticed the price increase for the lowest-price rental car option kicks in once the drop-off time is two hours later than the pickup time, as opposed to one hour later.
There's a reason to think twice about running late as well. Rental car company Budget explains in its policy that it offers drivers a 29-minute grace period, after which hourly rate charges and taxes apply, and after 90 minutes, full-day late charges and taxes may apply.
Booking through an OTA
Of course, booking with a third-party site like Kayak comes at its own cost. Booking directly with the rental car company allows you to earn points or credits and save the hassle of having to go through an OTA (Online Travel Agency) if you need to alter your reservation.
Booking directly with the rental car company can also help you avoid some of the aforementioned late return charges. If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, and book directly through Hertz, you can get a four-hour grace period. That's often enough extra time to keep you from having to pay for a full additional day, which could translate to significant savings.
Paying for extras
The cost of that add-on car seat, GPS and other accessories can really add up.
With car seat fees adding up to $8 to $13 per day, you could easily pay for the cost of a brand new car seat over the course of a multiday rental.
For a fun (and pricey) hypothetical, I tried adding all of the available "extras" Alamo offers through its website — including SiriusXM, a navigation device, carbon offset credit and various children's car seats — to a one-day full-size car rental from Los Angeles International (LAX). Doing so upped the daily base rate from $69.55 to $237.53, a nearly 242% price increase!
You can also save on these conveniences by booking through a provider that won't charge extra. With Silvercar, for example, add-ons like a car seat or ski rack are free of charge. You can even add a surf rack at Silvercar's San Diego location without paying extra.
Not being smart about your rewards
Traveler beware: Earning frequent flyer miles instead of points or credits through the rental car company's loyalty program isn't always free. Yes, they'll sneak in a surcharge that costs anywhere between 75 cents and $1.50 per day.
On the flipside, joining a rental car company's loyalty program can help you avoid extra charges, like second-driver fees, and you could work your way to earning free rental days.
Check out TPG's points, miles and loyalty guide to Hertz car rentals and the points, miles, and loyalty guide to National car rentals to learn more about these companies' loyalty programs and perks for frequent drivers.
Driving away without checking the vehicle
Sometimes, all you want to do is grab the key and hit the road. But it's important to give your rental car a thorough inspection before taking off. You want to check that the car has a full tank of gas (and if it doesn't, be sure it's noted so you don't have to pay for more gas than you used). You want to take photos of any damage to the car, including scratches and dents, and make sure they're documented with an agent. Otherwise, you might be on the hook. And you may also want to check the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) for information about the car's features and any recalls.
If you think you're renting a car with all-wheel drive, for example, you'll be paying a premium for that drivetrain. And checking the VIN (which should be on your rental car agreement) is a fast, easy way to tell for certain if you're getting what you paid for. Plus, if you encounter any issues with the vehicle during your trip, past recalls could be an indication that the problem isn't your fault.
Returning the car with an empty tank
Travelers should always return the car with the gas tank filled to the level it was upon pick-up. Otherwise, the car rental agency will charge a special rate, which will cost more per gallon than carving out a few extra minutes to fuel up at the local gas station. Also, never prepay for gas. You could pay more per gallon and you won't get refunded for any gas you don't use.
To really come out ahead, be sure you're paying for gas with a credit card that earns bonus points or extra cash back on purchases at the pump, such as the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express (3% back at U.S. gas stations.) or the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card (3x points at gas stations). The Wells Fargo Propel card is no longer available for new applicants.
Not considering alternatives
Depending on your itinerary, a combination of public transportation, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft and even car alternatives like Turo and Getaround may be more cost-effective. So, if you only need access to a car once or twice on a trip, consider forgoing the rental car and choosing a different service instead.