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Dire warnings from health officials about a new COVID surge coupled with more fliers taking to the skies over Thanksgiving probably have you rethinking, or even canceling altogether, holiday travel plans this year. While recent developments might have you shying away from flying, you might still want to consider taking a good, old-fashioned road trip this festive season. Doing so could be a safer alternative than taking a plane, whether you hope to see loved ones or seek some social distance on the open road.
Many folks might pack up their own car for such an adventure. But if you want to save on mileage, or simply secure a vehicle that’s bigger or better than your own, you might consider a rental instead. Here are 10 things to do whenever you rent a car to ensure you get the best deal, earn bonus points or cash back when possible, and are protected if things go wrong.
1. Avoid airport locations
Whether you’re flying or not, airports often field the best selection of rental outlets in a city. But that doesn’t mean you should pick up or drop off your vehicle from one of them. That’s because many car rental agencies charge supplemental fees at airport locations. For instance, Avis charges an extra $4 “customer facility charge” per day for rentals from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Get your car from another Avis office in the area, though, and you can avoid the pesky fee.
Likewise, you’ll get dinged for turning your car in at a different location from where you picked it up. In a shockingly expensive example, picking up a car from one Hertz agency in Seattle and dropping it off in another can add nearly $60 to your bill. So whenever possible, begin and end your rental at the same location, or budget to pay more if you’re planning a one-way road trip.
2. Comparison shop
Before settling on a particular option, make sure you’ve shopped around. Your first stop should be sites like Kayak and Priceline, which can aggregate prices across companies. You should also check Autoslash, which is a phenomenal resource that finds quotes for car rentals, tracks your bookings to see if you can get even cheaper rates, and applies any coupons you might be eligible for. Once you find selections that suit your budget and timing, go directly to the car rental agency’s site to see if it is matching the price you found. But before you actually hit the “Rent” button…
3. Check the details
Car categories can be confusing. There’s Economy, Compact, Intermediate, Standard, Full-Size, Premium, Luxury, Small SUV, Large SUV, Extra Capacity SUV, a variety of vans, and more. To choose the right car for your needs, pay attention to specifics: how many passengers and bags it can comfortably carry, features like power windows and the entertainment system, and, most importantly, whether it’s an automatic or standard transmission.
Not doing your due diligence could stick you with a car you can’t drive or that won’t hold all your passengers and belongings. Luckily,this information is included with car listings, sotake the time to review it and you should be all set.
4. Score bonuses and discounts through partnerships
Car rental agencies partner with all kinds of other companies, including airlines, hotel chains, and credit card issuers to allow members of their loyalty programs to enjoy bonuses and other deals.
If you’re a member of AAA, you might also be able to snag discounts of 10 percent at Thrifty, and 8 percent at Dollar. Costco also offers members discounts. In some cases, being a member of AAA (or other organizations like AARP or USAA) will also allow you to register a second driver for free rather than paying $10 to $15 per day extra to do so.
Also think about where you have airline miles or hotel points, and then see which car rental agencies they work with. For example, American Airlines’ car partners include Avis, Budget, Payless, Alamo, National, Dollar, Hertz, and Thrifty. The perks vary from partner to partner, but you can expect discounts of up to 35 percent on some rentals and the ability to earn anywhere from 50 bonus American AAdvantage miles per day or 500 per rental.
5. Hit the gas on credit card category bonuses
Speaking of bonus points or miles, if you have a credit card that accrues extra rewards on either general travel purchases or car rentals, be sure to use it to pay for your rental and maximize your earning. For example, as of August 16, 2021, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® earns a whopping 10 points per dollar on hotel stays and car rentals made through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
It also pays to carry a credit card that earns bonus points or cash back on gas purchases since you will probably have to refuel a couple times, including filling the tank before returning the car to avoid exorbitant fuel surcharges. Luckily, a lot of great credit cards offer bonus points at gas stations. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express earns 3 percent cash back on purchases at U.S. gas stations (terms apply), and the Citi Premier® Card earns three points per dollar at gas stations, too.
6. Ensure you’re insured
Insuring your car rental can be one of the most confusing, stressful, and expensive components of the experience. If you have your own home or auto insurance, its benefits might extend to cover car rentals. Check your policies to see what is and isn’t included.
Many credit cards offer what’s called secondary car rental insurance, too, which covers things like theft or damage up to a certain dollar cap, but it only kicks in after you’ve used up any other applicable insurance. However, certain credit cards offer primary car rental insurance. This means you don’t have to purchase an overpriced policy from the rental agency or depend upon your personal coverage in case you hit some bumps in the road.
One of them, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, provides reimbursement for damages due to a collision or theft up to the value of most rental vehicles both in the United States and abroad. If something happens, file a claim with Chase’s benefits administrator and deal directly with them rather than your personal insurance adjustor.
7. Think about roadside assistance
Some credit cards also offer roadside assistance that can be handy if you get a flat or need a tow. The Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card, for instance, has a free dispatch number for cardholders to help find emergency roadside assistance, including towing and a locksmith, although you’ll have to pay for any services rendered.
8. Get a status update
If you have a premium travel credit card, you might be able to enroll for complimentary elite status with a rental agency. The Platinum Card® from American Express (see rates and fees), for instance, opens the door to National Emerald Club Executive status with perks such as discounted rates on full-size or premium classes of cars, guaranteed upgrades, faster ways to earn free rental days, and a dedicated customer service line (enrollment required). Platinum cardmembers can also register for Avis Preferred and Hertz Gold Plus Rewards status with similar perks (enrollment required.
9. BYO extras
Car rental agencies try to upsell you on everything from navigation systems to child and infant car seats, which can cost upwards of $15 per day. If possible, bring along any of your own devices or apparatuses. That will save you the headache of whether or not to disinfect such items and can also save you plenty of money on longer rentals.
10. Kick the tires
The day has arrived, you go to pick up the car, confirm all the details, and get the keys. Before you drive off the lot, perform a thorough inspection of your vehicle and note any dents, dings, or damages. While agencies generally ignore the usual wear-and-tear and dents smaller than a quarter, if you see anything that concerns you, don’t hesitate to point it out to a rental agent and have them mark it down in their records. For backup, take photos of any issues before leaving the lot so you can use them if you need to file a claim later.
Renting a car can be time-consuming and stressful, but it doesn’t have to be expensive or overly complicated. By thinking through a few steps in advance, you can earn extra rewards on the rental itself plus any incidental expenses that come up, find great deals for where you need to go, and rest easy knowing that you are insured against any mishaps. Not doing so could end up costing you time and money better spent enjoying your road trip.
While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available. This article was originally published in December 2020 and updated in March 2021 and August 2021.