Car Rental 101 (travel hacks to find the cheapest car rentals included)

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Renting a car can be an extremely budget-friendly, efficient way of getting around and fully exploring your travel destination. Whether you’re driving to the breathtaking H3 in Hawai’i or exploring the gorgeous Amalfi Coast, a car can help you explore on your time, avoid congested or inconsistent bus lines and schedules, and really make the best of your vacation. Not to mention, you don’t have to lug around your heavy backpack; you can just throw your bags in the trunk and drive from the beach to a restaurant to drinks and dancing at night; change in your car and you’re all set!

H3 highway in Hawaii
Driving the H3 highway in Hawaii: priceless

To that end, we put together this guide to help you get the best bang for your buck when renting your car. We hope you find it useful when planning your next holiday rental!

Book directly through the specific car rental agency or partner airline website

There are a lot of third-party websites out there that will compare rental prices for you across agencies. You can run a search, see the different prices offered by various agencies such as Budget, Sixt, Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, etc., and choose the cheapest option available for your dates. Going through these websites have several downsides:

  • There’s little to no communication between these agencies and the specific locations where you will obtain the rental. Costs such as airport taxes are usually not built into your reservation when you make it via third party websites and you’re usually in for a surprise when you actually arrive at the agency to pick up your car.
  • The lack of communication also means that if you do need to make a change to your reservation e.g. extend/change dates etc., you’d usually have to make a new reservation directly with the agency itself. The agency usually cannot make changes to a reservation made by a third-party.
  • If there is an issue with your rental (such as a price difference etc.) you’d have to contact your third party website instead of dealing with the agency directly in front of you. This can be a nightmare when traveling, especially if you just landed and have no phone connection!
  • You can arrive and not have a car reserved for you, due to the lack of communication mentioned above. Trust us, it happens.
  • Most importantly: we’ve found that it is cheaper to book via the car rental agency itself. Surprise: there are no hidden booking fees involved!

As you can see, it is cheaper and safer to make your booking directly through the specific website of the car rental company than going through a third-party website. The agency carries the full responsibility for your rental when you book it directly through them, so prices, availability, and upgrade options are much more transparent.

All you have to do is shop around: go on the websites of Budget, Avis, Enterprise, (on the cheaper end in the US), Sixt, Hertz, and Europcar (usually pricier in the US but sometimes cheaper in Europe), enter your dates and pick-up and drop-off locations, and compare prices yourself. The extra twenty minutes comparing prices yourself is worth the hassle-free pick-up experience you’ll enjoy during your holiday.

That being said, airlines that collaborate directly with car rental agencies can offer extremely competitive prices with the added bonus of extra miles with your car rental.

We’ve earned 1000 miles for every day of our car rental on top of the cheapest online rental rate available for certain trips via the American Airlines AAdvantage program.

Don’t worry: you don’t have to have a specific number of miles to enjoy the coupon deals they offer!

In addition, their deals aren’t exclusive to the United States; we even found some of the cheapest car rental options via their website for a few upcoming trips through Europe! Click here to visit their car rental website, which can help you compare prices and access coupon codes. You can even use these coupon codes to book your car directly through the specific car rental agency as we recommend above. It’s really a win-win situation!

We strongly recommend that you subscribe to the email newsletters of airline frequent flyer programs. These programs do sometimes offer fantastic deals and coupon codes for upscale travel on a downscaled budget! (We hate email clutter too but it’s worth the deals in the end, in our opinion!)

We’ve found that Easyjet also offers fantastic deals for car rentals once you book your flight through them.

In conclusion, shop around: check out the websites of the specific car rental agencies AND your airline website for coupon codes and discounted prices for the best rates.

airline deals for car rentals
Airline frequent flyer programs can offer great car rental coupons!

Make the booking in the name of the driver

If you are traveling with others, make sure you make the reservation under the name of the person who will be driving the car. This is especially important if you are pre-paying for your reservation and locking in a discounted rate. I once made a reservation under my name when Christian was driving and we had to call in to make a whole new reservation at the airport. Some agencies can be flexible with this but to avoid running that risk and hassle during pick-up, make sure you make the reservation under the name of the driver.

what to know when renting a car

There may be associated fees if the driver is below 25 years of age

Agencies usually levy an extra charge for drivers below the age of 25 for insurance purposes. The specific age varies by country (sometimes its 23, 24 etc.) If you’re a driver below the age of 25, it may be worth checking up on this beforehand! Make sure you make your age clear when booking online, so that you’re not surprised by the additional charge at pickup (and yes, they do check on your age when they go over your license! ;)) The charges for drivers below the age of 25 vary across countries and agencies.

You can add a new driver during your rental period by visiting any agency location on your route

You don’t necessarily have to add all additional drivers at pickup. You can add an additional driver during your trip by visiting an agency location along your route. There is usually an additional charge for every extra driver. This is of course only possible if there are agency locations on your route during your holiday, so it is worth checking up on this beforehand if you’re unsure of whether you want to pay for additional drivers or have one person drive the entire time.

You’ll need a credit card in the name of the driver

The charges associated with the reservation usually need to be made on a credit card in the name of the driver. In certain locations, prepaid reservations can be paid for by separate card under another person while the (refundable) safety deposit for the reservation has to be made on a card belonging to the driver (the latter is non-negotiable due to insurance reasons). Other locations (e.g. Puerto Rico) insist that all payments associated with your rental must be made on a card in the name of the driver only. It is better to play it safe and make your reservation with a credit card under the name of the primary driver.

A majority of agencies don’t accept debit cards as a form of payment or in making the deposit for the rental. It is difficult to check up on this beforehand so if you only carry a debit card and plan on being the primary driver, you may want to invest in a great travel credit card (if only for the great perks they offer!)

Tips and tricks for your next car rental
Driving around Puerto Rico

Print out a copy of your booking

In today’s modern world, everything works via your phone, right? So having a copy of your reservation downloaded onto your phone will always work… right? Not always – we once arrived in Faro airport in Portugal and faced the issue of not having a printed version of our reservation – even though we had our confirmation number and reservation handy on our phone. Most places will accept reservation confirmations displayed on your phone or simply your name or confirmation number upon arrival (mostly the case in the US), but it is worth printing out your confirmation in advance, just to play it safe, especially if you’re traveling internationally.

Check the location of your rental agency

Most agencies have their offices located in the airport itself. However, some agencies are located away from the airport, so you’d have to walk a considerable distance or take a cab to get to them. It’s worth checking on this beforehand to avoid any surprises. Note that certain agencies may even have their location named as an airport pickup, but be actually situated a kilometer or more away from the actual airport.

Check for airport taxes/fees

Car rentals via certain airports come with hefty airport taxes/fees (e.g. Newark airport). It’s worth considering renting from a nearby city to avoid these taxes/fees if the cost of renting away from the airport + getting to the agency away from the airport is less than renting directly from the agency located in the airport. It easy to check this when booking; search for the nearest city to the airport and compare prices when renting at the airport and in the city (through the same company).

Check the agency’s policy on mileage and refueling your tank

Make sure you check whether you have unlimited mileage and whether it is cheaper to refuel your tank yourself or bring in the car for the agency to refuel. We’ve found the former to be almost always true, but considering that gas prices can vary between $2.50 and $10.00 per gallon only within the US and its territories, it is important to check on this during pickup.

Extending your reservation: it is possible!

There are a number of ways to extend your reservation if necessary.

  • If you booked your rental at a discount, you are usually given a specific discounted rate for every extra day you keep your rental in the contract you receive during pickup. Remember that there is usually a one-time extension fee levied if you do choose to keep your car for a few extra days (usually around $10-20). This fee is usually also mentioned in your contract. It is worth checking on these during pick-up.
  • Always check the rate for an extension on your contract before asking your agency associate how much it would be. The rates an associate will tell you will sometimes differ from the rate on your contract, and this could be due to commission fees. You’re better off checking the rate on your contract which is the binding factor. If it is not mentioned on your contract, go ahead and check with the associate.
  • If the extension fee and rate per extra day is not mentioned in your contract OR if you’d like to triple check like I do, you can call the service line of your agency. Note that sometimes you need to call the specific rental location and not the generic agency number to check on rates and make changes. Again, you can avoid all this by checking these rates during pickup.
  • Can’t get through to the agency? You can drive to the rental car drop-off point at the airport, and check directly when the agency booth there on whether an extension would be possible and how much the associated rates and fees are. This is of course feasible if the airport is relatively close to where you are staying.
  • Pro-tip: it is worth checking how much it would cost to make a new reservation entirely for the extra days you need the car. Car rental prices usually get updated every 90 seconds and sometimes, it is cheaper to rent a new car than to extend your existing reservation. It is worth checking up on this if you are staying relatively close to the airport and know how much the rate for an extension would be.

You don’t always need a GPS

A GPS can come in very handy when you drive around certain places e.g. the Algarve, Hawai’i. It may not be necessary when exploring other places such as the Amalfi Coast. While some associates will be kind enough to tell you this (“you don’t need a GPS to navigate the Amalfi Coast, it’s really easy to get from Naples to the coast and then there’s really one straight road you can drive up and down, connecting all the little towns!”) others may not be, so it is worth checking on whether you need a GPS beforehand. We mention whether you need a GPS for every destination we’ve navigated via car in our articles.

what to know when renting a car

You don’t need all the extras pushed for by an associate

We usually rent compact cars for ease of navigation and parking (unless you specifically need a 4WD drive). We’ve had associates push us to book a higher grade car “for USB ports, trunk space, satellite radio” etc., “for just $20 extra” and found that the compact/economy car we’d elected for in the first place comes with all the “upgrades” mentioned, at no extra cost. It’s usually better to settle for what you booked in the first place. If you do arrive at your car and find it sub-par you can of course elect for that upgrade, but we’ve never had an issue with our compact car rentals.

Check if your car is equipped for tolls if applicable

Some countries have toll roads and agencies usually include an EZ pass (or equivalent) on your car for your comfort. It’s useful to check what the toll situation of the specific region is beforehand, and if your car has an EZ pass or equivalent so you’re well prepared. You also don’t want to be shocked by a huge bill of tolls tacked onto your credit card bill a week after you get home from your vacation!

Always check your vehicle for issues beforehand

This is a must-do. No matter how much of a rush we’re in (and you really shouldn’t be in a rush, you’re on vacation!) we always do a once over of the car, checking the tires, the rims, the paint job, windows, and mirrors for any scrapes or issues that we don’t want to bear the charge for later. If you find anything out of the ordinary, take a picture and inform an associate beforehand. I take a picture of any issues even if it is pre-noted on the contract that we received the car with that specific scrape or bump; I just like to play it safe!

Pack a car adapter charger and USB cable

Whether you’re using your phone to navigate and don’ want it to run out of juice before the end of the day, or want to listen to some tunes and there’s no radio signal around, having a car adapter charger and USB cable is always a good idea. That way, you won’t have to spring for the $20 flimsy cables offered at your rental agency, or go for an upgraded car “because your current rental doesn’t have a USB port.”

Anker 24W Dual USB Car Charger, PowerDrive 2 for iPhone 7 / 6s / Plus, iPad Pro / Air 2 / mini, Galaxy S7 / S6 / Edge / Plus, Note 5 / 4, LG, Nexus, HTC and More

Car Charger, TechMatte Dual-Port High-Speed 2.1A USB Car Charger Auto Adapter for Apple iPhone 7 6 Plus 6S, Samsung Galaxy S6 S6 Edge S5, Apple iPad Air Mini 2, HTC One M8 M9 (1-Pack, White)

Car Charger, Maxboost 4.8A/24W 2 Smart Port Car Charger [Black] for iPhone 7 6S Plus 6 Plus 6 5SE 5S 5 5C 4S, Samsung Galaxy S7 S6 Edge, Note 7 5 4 S5 Tab S,LG G5 G4,HTC,Nexus 5X 6P,iPads Pro Portable

Micro USB Cable, Amuoc 3 Pack USB 2.0 Nylon Braided Charging Cord High Speed for Android/Samsung/Windows/MP3/Camera and More (1x 3ft, 1x6ft, 1x 10ft )

AmazonBasics USB 2.0 Cable – A-Male to B-Male – 16 Feet (4.8 Meters)

USB Cable Lightning, Smartspeed Two Pack 3ft Long Cable Fast Charging TPE for iPhone 5/5s iPhone 6/6s, iPhone 7, iPad

Left/right-hand driving

This is pretty basic but it is important to check up if driving is left or right-oriented in your travel destination. If you’re from the US, driving in Australia may take some getting used to, for example. Only do this if you are a comfortable and seasoned driver.

what to know when renting a car

Sometimes, last minute rates are the best rates

If you’re anything like me, you like to plan your vacation ahead. Planning ahead usually gives you the best car rates, but it’s not always the case. For example, we recently booked a car upon arrival in Puerto Rico and received a rate of US$84 for four days inclusive of taxes; the rate when booking ahead of time was US$240 for the same time period. This can really be up to chance (as mentioned above, prices are updated every 90 seconds with most agencies such as Budget), but we wanted to mention this in case you arrive at the airport without having found a competitive rate ahead of time; it is worth checking at the airport agency desk for a possible cheap rate upon arrival at your destination.

Conversely, you can make a tentative booking beforehand and cancel upon finding a better rate at arrival. If you do prepay for a reservation beforehand (usually the case for discounted online rates), it may be worth making sure it is refundable if cancelled.

Make sure you receive an email confirmation if you cancel a booking

Sometimes representatives tell you that they have cancelled your reservation, and that the the cost of the booking will be refunded to you. But a week later you find that your credit card statement still has the original charge – it was never refunded. Make sure you receive a written confirmation of your cancellation (preferably via email) to ensure that you receive your refund.

A car can sometimes really make your trip; we personally love the flexibility it affords us during our vacations (depending on the destination of course: we don’t recommend renting a car if you’re planning on only exploring Amsterdam for example!). We hope you can use the tips mentioned above to your advantage when planning your next holiday.

Remember that different places have different driving cultures – always be careful and mindful on the road, especially when navigating a new region!

To make things even easier for you, here is a one-page, downloadable check-list to refer to when booking and picking up your rental!

Happy adventuring!

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hacks to find cheapest car rental rates

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about Conscious Travel here.

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