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By Julia Glum
March 18, 2021
Woman in rental car going for a vacation
Rangely García / Money

There’s nothing like driving on the highway with the windows down and radio blasting, especially when you’re on vacation. But the actual process of renting a car for a trip can be extremely stressful.

From figuring out the perfect vehicle to answering detailed questions about insurance, it’s not a relaxing — or inexpensive — experience. To save and stress money while renting cars, experts like Mel Dohmen, senior brand manager for Orbitz, Travelocity and CheapTickets, recommend doing some homework.

“You’ve got a lot of different avenues to explore; no need to make it a wait-and-see,” she adds. “Know what you’re going to do before you get to the counter.”

Here’s exactly how to do it.

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Book the reservation

Dohmen says it’s best to book your car as early as possible. When planning a trip, a lot of people start by nailing down a flight or finding a hotel, but that’s not advisable. You shouldn’t wait, especially because many car rental companies have free cancellation and/or “pay later” options where you don’t get charged until pickup.

“There’s really no reason not to grab it in advance,” she says. “You’re just putting it off and making more decisions for yourself later.”

Next, you’ll need to choose a company and location. When picking a chain, Dohmen says familiarity is key: If you previously had a good experience with a specific service, then you might want to use it again. If you’re shopping blind, you can check customer reviews for info.

During the pandemic, pay attention to cleaning practices, too. Many companies are allowing extra time between rentals, enforcing social distancing, sanitizing vehicles and providing Clorox wipes. The company will probably advertise these virus prevention practices, but if it doesn’t, Dohmen says to inquire.

You’ll also want to see if you’re affiliated with any organizations that have partnerships with certain chains. For example, if you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you could score a 30% discount off Avis cars.

As far as location, Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, says to look at “neighborhood offices,” or non-airport rental car counters. By selecting a location that’s around the corner, you could save a lot of money. And there’s probably a free shuttle service to and from the office, anyway.

Prepare for the trip

Once you’ve got a reservation on the books, it’s time to get ready. No, we’re not talking about attempting to cram every piece of clothing you own into a carry-on — instead, you’ve got homework to do.

Twidale suggests researching your insurance before you’re physically at the counter. Most companies require customers to pay using credit cards, and therefore most credit cards offer rental car protections. The American Express Blue Cash Preferred, for example, covers theft or damage of a rental car up to $50,000… but only if you decline the full collision damage waiver offered by the company and use that specific card to pay and are on the rental agreement and don’t rent certain luxury cars. Whew.

Twidale says to call your credit card company to get these details. You should also check to see if your regular car insurance offers any rental coverage. Then you can read up on what the company itself has.

“The challenge is if you’re not covered through them, they’re going to say, ‘Who are you covered with?’” Twidale adds.

There are different kinds of insurance for different purposes. Laura Smith, Hertz executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience, points out that credit cards may not “cover third-party liability claims or may be supplemental,” only offering partial reimbursement. (Hertz offers its own liability insurance supplement, which provides protection from bodily injury and property damage claims stemming from accidents.)

You don’t want to totally blow off insurance, but you also should be careful not to overdo it. You may also be covered by state law. The New York Attorney General’s Office explicitly says on its website that “car rental companies are prohibited from refusing to rent you a car unless you purchase the additional insurance. The coverages are all optional.”

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Pick up the car

Knowledge is power here. When you’re informed, you can feel confident turning down the extra features suggested by employees. And if you do decide to buy insurance through a travel site or rental car company, it’ll likely be cheaper if you purchase it at the time of booking.

That applies to gas, as well. Usually the rep will ask if you plan to fill up the tank before returning the car or if you want to pay them to do it. The latter is almost always more expensive, though the upcharge may be worth it for the convenience. It’s just another thing to think through.

Ditto what make and model you need.

“If you rented a compact, they want you to go to mid-size,” Twidale says. “Like when you go to a restaurant for dinner, they want you to get a drink or appetizer.”

Sometimes, the employee will have you choose which car to rent out of a lineup. Dohmen says to walk around the vehicles and inquire about mileage. (Generally, the lower the better.) Then you’ll want to snap a few time-stamped photos of its condition to save for later.

Finally, you should take a second to understand how it actually works.

“Before you leave the lot, ensure you can find and operate all controls, know where USB ports are located, connect your cell phone to Bluetooth and turn on the radio for your upcoming drive,” Smith adds.

Now it’s windows-down, radio-on time.

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