Renting a car is such a commonplace aspect of travel in the U.S. that you’d think the process is foolproof. But people make plenty of mistakes ― and end up paying handsomely ― when it comes to rental cars.
“Renting a car is frequently that purchase that tourists think about less ― with flights and hotels always being the primary concerns ― when in reality it is a purchase that can break the budget, especially now with the serious shortage in the number of cars available nationwide to rent,” said Alan Fyall, the Visit Orlando endowed chair of tourism management and associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
“This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be the case if tourists invest the same amount of time and due diligence as they do with flight and hotel purchases,” he added.
To help save people valuable time and dollars, we asked Fyall and other experts to share the common mistakes travelers make when it comes to renting a car. From overpaying on add-ons to forgetting to check the car before leaving the lot, here are 12 costly rental car errors ― and some advice for avoiding them in your future travels.
Waiting To Book
“These days, the biggest mistake with a car rental is simply not locking it in with enough lead time, or assuming it will be $30 per day like in the ‘old days,’” said Summer Hull, director of travel content at The Points Guy. “These days, a car rental may cost more than your flight, so don’t leave that step for the end of the process.”
Start early, do your research and snag a deal early on. Just make sure the booking is flexible.
“It is a mistake to book a rental car that does not include free cancellation,” said Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer. “I recommend booking your rental car as far in advance as possible so you at least have something secured. As it gets closer to your trip date, rental car prices often go down. Continue to check prices because you can probably find a better deal.”
Buying Unnecessary Insurance
“The biggest, and most expensive, mistake is where tourists pay for expensive extra car insurance when more often than not it isn’t required,” Fyall said. “Many major credit cards have insurance built in to their purchases (American Express is as good as any) while your regular car insurance premiums also often include some flexibility with rental cars.”
So before you pay for rental car insurance that you might not need, check the terms of your car insurance and credit card or make a phone call to see if you already have primary or secondary coverage.
“With primary coverage, you contact your credit card company before contacting your personal auto insurance in the event your car is stolen or damaged,” Dengler explained. “With secondary coverage, you contact your personal auto insurer first, but your credit card company will cover any remaining charges such as your deductible.”
Prepaying For Gas
Sure, it might feel convenient to not have to worry about filling the rental car with gas before you return it, but ask yourself how much this convenience is worth.
“Prepaying for gas is going to come with a premium not just because they charge more but because you have to pay for a full tank regardless of how much you actually have left when you drop it off,” said money and budgeting expert Andrea Woroch. “So if you have a half-tank or more, it’s clearly a waste of money since it’s hard to predict how much you will use throughout your trip.”
Given the state of gas prices today, you can save major dollars by filling up the tank yourself on the way to return the car. Woroch suggested using the GasBuddy app to locate the cheapest gas station near the drop-off location. Factor in extra time if you’re doing this before a flight.
“I recommend finding a gas station a mile or so away from the airport because they tend to be less expensive than ones very close to the airport,” Dengler said.
Overlooking Parking Fees
Don’t forget to factor in extra fees like hotel parking when you’re determining whether a rental makes sense for your vacation budget.
“If your hotel charges a daily parking rate, ask yourself if you really need a car rental,” Woroch said. “If you’re traveling to a city that has easy access to public transportation, skip the rental. In some cases, it may still be cheaper to use a taxi or ride-share service when you consider the hotel’s daily parking fee. Many hotels may also offer free hotel shuttles. You just have to figure out this in advance!”
Paying For Expensive Add-ons
“You should not pay for expensive add-ons such as GPS if you do not need them,” Dengler said. “In most cases, your phone is capable of handling all navigation duties, but be sure to check cell service in the places you will be traveling. If you are going to a spot where you may lose service, then consider spending the extra money. Otherwise, use Google Maps and save money.”
Woroch similarly advised against renting car seats if you’re traveling with little ones.
“You will pay a hefty charge of up to $15 per day for a car seat or booster,” she noted. “Considering airlines allow you to check car seats for no charge, bring your own! For a five-day trip, this could save you $75.”
There’s likely no need to splurge on upgrading vehicles or other additions the counter agent might offer. Make sure to read the fine print and total cost carefully before signing anything.
Not Comparing Prices
“Many people fail to compare prices between different car rental agencies and even among different car sizes and models,” Woroch said. “This can really impact how much you spend.”
She suggested comparing rates with search engines like CarRentals.com to see which car rental companies are offering the best deals.
“Just make sure to look at different car sizes since sometimes the bigger cars or trucks are actually cheaper in the event smaller ones are all booked up or in higher demand!” she added.
Renting At The Airport Location
Remember to look at multiple rental locations, not just the airport options, as those can be more expensive.
“It is also a good idea to try to rent a car from a location that is away from any airports to avoid additional surcharges,” said travel blogger Rocky Trifari. “You will likely find more competitive pricing by looking at additional options in the nearby area. Many rental companies may even offer a shuttle service between their airport and their office.”
Even if there’s no shuttle service, there might be more inventory and better prices at rental locations away from the airport.
“Just make sure to review transportation options such as taxi or Uber trip costs first,” Woroch said. “However, you may find that it’s still much cheaper to pay for a ride to another location.”
Buying Toll Packages
“Do not purchase an expensive toll package if you do not have to,” Dengler said. “In almost every situation, you will be paying more than you need to.”
He advised checking to see if you will even be traveling through any tolls. And if so, plan to pay them with cash or bring your own pass.
“Ideally, you take routes that avoid all tolls,” Dengler added. “If a toll cannot be avoided and it is a cashless toll, you are still likely better off going through it and having the rental car company bill you afterward than prepaying for a package.”
Not Checking The Car Before Leaving The Lot
“It is a huge mistake to leave the rental car lot without thoroughly checking your vehicle,” Dengler said. “That includes looking for dents, scratches, paint chips and other damage to the exterior and interior of the vehicle.”
Compare any damage to the damage slip or vehicle report included with your rental and report anything that is not listed.
“It is especially important to do a thorough scan at night because it may be harder to see any damage,” he explained. “Do not let the rental company rush you out until you are comfortable with the damage slip.”
Dengler also recommended taking note of how much gas is in the tank before leaving the lot.
“The rental car company expects you to refill the tank to the level that it was at when you picked the vehicle up,” he noted. “Take a picture of the fuel gauge before leaving as well as the mileage figure.”
Forgetting To Join Free Membership Programs
“Be sure to join that car rental company’s membership program ahead of time, as, in many cases, that will allow you to skip the line at the airport counter and walk straight to your car and start your vacation,” Hull said.
Indeed, joining loyalty programs for car rental companies like Enterprise or Hertz is generally free of charge and easy to do. While the perks might not be especially lavish, every little benefit can make a difference in the transit process.
Missing Out On Discounts
Don’t assume the listed price is what you’ll have to pay for a rental car.
“You could be overlooking savings by not redeeming loyalty points from a credit card, so look into that or using hotel points to save on partner car rental companies,” Woroch said.
She also suggested checking the travel savings available through your membership to a warehouse club store like Costco, which features options for major rental car brands. Don’t forget to check for coupons and cash back opportunities as well.
“Sites like CouponFollow.com offer discounts on car rental companies like a free upgrade at Avis or 10% off site-wide at Enterprise,” Woroch noted. “Booking car rentals online is also important because you can earn money back using a credit card and cash-back plug-in like Cently, which offers 1% back at Enterprise, 1.5% back at Budget and 1% back at Avis.”
Casey Brogan, a consumer travel expert at Tripadvisor, advised bundling your car rental into a vacation package in which you combine a flight, hotel and car rental online.
“Many online travel agencies offer this feature,” Brogan said, noting that the cost of stand-alone rentals has skyrocketed amid supply chain issues. “So the bundle can be a way to find savings across all your travel bookings.”
Booking Unnecessary Rental Cars In The First Place
Another mistake travelers make when it comes to rental cars is choosing to book one at all.
“I have noticed that folks will rent a car in destinations where they do not need one,” said Ravi Roth, a travel expert and host of “The Gaycation Travel Show.” “If you are traveling to a big city like New York, London, or Vancouver, you are better off taking public transportation, biking, ride-sharing with Uber or Lyft, or walking. You will save so much money on parking and time management between activities.”