7 Things to Know Before You Rent a Car

Whether you plan to drive in the U.S. or abroad, find out how to save money and reduce risk on your car rental.

Luggage in the back of a rental car.
Don't forget to take into account luggage when booking a rental car.
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

A car rental can give you the opportunity to discover hidden backcountry lanes, embark on the ultimate road trip, or simply get around with ease. But the process of renting a car can be expensive, frustrating, and time consuming. Whether you plan to rent in the U.S. or abroad, the following insights will help you save money, prevent unnecessary mistakes, and avoid second-guessing your decisions at the rental counter.

1. Early reservations ensure the best availability.

Book your rental car as soon as you know your itinerary, says Dona Ortega, a senior associate product marketer for AAA Travel. For the best availability and lowest prices, she recommends booking at least four to six weeks before you plan to arrive at your destination. “If you have specific needs, such as needing to reserve a child car seat, or any questions, a AAA Travel Agent can help you,” Ortega advises. 

Where you rent can also affect the price. Renting at airports can result in steep surcharges, according to Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association.  Before you book, request an estimate and check whether the rate includes all taxes and fees. Even if you take another mode of transportation from the airport to an offsite rental car location, you may still have to pay the airport or tourism fee if you disclose that you flew in within the last 24 hours, Faulkner says.

When renting abroad, always reserve a car as soon as you have your travel dates, particularly if you want a vehicle with automatic transmission, because most European cars have manual ones. Drivers who are comfortable with a stick shift often have a wider selection and pay lower rates, says Ben Green, a travel adviser for Rick Steves’ Europe. “Usually automatics are available, especially in cities and at airports, but in a limited quantity, and they are often up to 50 percent more expensive. Both of these factors mean it is important to reserve ahead.”

Booking an international car rental in advance through a AAA Travel Agent or online can also help you avoid confusion over exchange rates and potential language barriers. Unless you prepay when you book—an option that is not always offered—your price could change as exchange rates fluctuate, says Ortega.

Smart tip: AAA Members can save up to 20 percent on car rentals through Hertz, Thrifty, and Dollar.


2. A fuel-efficient car may save you money overall.

Consider the total number of passengers and everyone’s luggage, and select the least expensive, most fuel-efficient car you can comfortably fit in. You will not only save on the daily rental rate, but you’ll also cut costs at the pump. Taking a road trip in the U.S.? You can estimate the cost of gasoline ahead of time for your chosen vehicle with AAA’s gas cost calculator.

Although compact or economy cars often cost less to rent than larger vehicles, car rental agencies are sometimes eager to rent surplus models and will offer a special discount on them, says Ortega. A quick search online can help you find the average miles per gallon for the cars available, so you can determine the best overall deal.

3. The price you’re quoted may not reflect the total cost.

Know which additional rental options you will need, such as a child car seat, additional drivers, or authorization for a driver under 25 years of age. Ask whether any incur added fees. Also confirm that the rate includes unlimited mileage. If you find a car rental without unlimited mileage, estimate how many miles you expect to drive and how much it will cost if you go over the limit to make sure it’s still a good deal.

Smart tip: Hertz provides a free child car seat and waives the fees for additional drivers and drivers ages 20 to 24 for AAA Members. 

Return the car to where you rented it or you may get hit with a big surcharge. “Drop-off charges have been less and less common for popular routes [in the U.S.],” says Ortega, but “going cross-country, I would expect it. When you book, you’ll see if there’s a drop-off charge.”

Before you return the car, fill the gas tank near the rental location rather than paying extra for the rental car agency to fill it for you. If you’re running late on the return, the Federal Trade Commission recommends calling the rental agency and asking if you will be charged a late fee. If you will be, find out whether it’s cheaper to pay the fee or extend the rental for another day. Surprisingly, returning a car more than 24 hours early can also incur a charge, the FTC says. Check your contract or call before cutting your rental period short.

Using the car rental agency’s toll transponder will also add an additional expense to your final bill, but it is helpful to have that transponder available. “The convenience is just tremendous,” says Ortega. To avoid the additional per-day transponder rental fee of about $3 to $5 (often capped at $15 to $20 per rental period), you may be able to bring your own transponder or purchase one online ahead of time for the area you’re traveling to, such as a FasTrak if you’re traveling within California. Just be sure to follow the rules about linking the license plate number of the rental car with the account or you could be fined by the toll agency. If you don’t use a transponder, you’ll have to pay cash at tolls or, where available, pay online with the license plate number of the car after you pass through. You also may not be able to use express or carpool lanes in some areas without a working transponder.

Smart tip: Call the rental agency to see whether a driver will pick you up from your home or hotel. Some, including Hertz, will do it for free. 

4. You may already have insurance coverage for the rental car.

First, check with your auto insurance agent to see whether you will be adequately insured when driving a rental car at your destination. “Every carrier is going to be a little different,” says AAA Senior Product Analyst Dick Steph, “and it is always important to know what your coverages are [before you decline additional insurance]". Some insurance companies may not offer you the same coverage on a rental, your policy may not provide as much coverage as you would like or need, or your destination may be outside your area of coverage. AAA Auto Insurance offers the same coverages and deductibles whether you are driving your own car or a rental in the U.S., Steph says.

Next, consider other insurance coverage you may have available to you. The credit card you use to rent the car may offer secondary protection beyond what’s covered by your auto insurance or insurance you purchase through the rental company. Call your credit card provider to find out what coverage is available to you at your destination. Your homeowners or renters insurance may offer “off-premises” protection for your personal belongings, such as a suitcase or laptop, if they are stolen from the car or damaged in a collision. If you’re traveling on business, you may be covered under your employer’s insurance. Ask before you rent—and make sure you have the policy number on hand throughout the rental period, Steph advises.

If you aren’t covered by your personal or employer’s auto insurance policy and you don’t buy coverage through the rental agency, you are responsible for any damages. This means you could be liable for the full value of the vehicle if you’re involved in a collision or if the car is stolen. And legally, you must have liability insurance (meaning it covers damage to other automobiles and people) to drive in the United States, Steph says. If you don’t have external coverage, the rental car company’s insurance should be adequate, but make sure it includes liability coverage, which generally costs about $8 to $12 a day and comes with a $1 million limit.

Rental car agencies may try to sell you an additional Collision Damage Waiver or a Loss Damage Waiver, which only covers damage to the rental car. The FTC warns, however, that a waiver is not the same collision coverage you may have on your auto insurance. The rental company won’t pay for any injury you sustain while driving the car or damages to your personal property, and it may not reduce your liability in cases involving injuries to others.

If you are not covered through your auto insurance or credit card while driving abroad or your coverage doesn’t meet the country’s minimum requirements, you will need to buy insurance from the rental company. Steph recommends checking before you travel because the international coverage offered by U.S. policies differs widely. 

Mexico, for instance, requires you to buy at least a basic insurance policy that will cover injuries or damage you cause to another driver, car, or property. No other purchase is mandatory, but you could be detained for damage to the car that’s not covered by the basic insurance policy until the rental agency is reimbursed by your auto policy or credit card. For ease and peace of mind, Steph recommends purchasing insurance.

Smart Tip: You can purchase a policy from a Mexican provider for the length of your trip online through AAA.

5. You need a valid ID and a credit card.

When you pick up your rental car, you will need a driver’s license and a major credit card. If you plan to refuse the rental company’s insurance, you should bring proof of auto insurance. Some companies will ask for your policy number, Steph says. More than 80 countries also require a passport and an International Driving Permit, which is a translation of your driver’s license information into 10 languages. (Anyone with a U.S. driver’s license can obtain an International Driving Permit at most AAA locations for $20, call ahead to double check.) When you are booking a rental car outside the U.S., inquire whether you will be required to show your passport and an International Driving Permit, or simply bring both along.

Inform the rental agency if you will be crossing a state or international border. Many U.S. rental companies do not allow you to drive the car across an international border. If they do, it is possible that your auto insurance will cover you in Canada, but you should always confirm ahead of time.

Smart tip: Remember to bring your AAA card. You can use it for roadside assistance in any car in all 50 states and many foreign countries

Car passenger navigates by paper map.

A detailed map can save you from paying a daily GPS rental fee.

ImYanis / Shutterstock

6. A thorough inspection can save you money and time.

Before you leave the rental agency lot, go over the car’s interior and exterior in detail. Is it in good condition? All existing damage should be noted in your rental agreement. If you are not satisfied with how the damage is described or captured, take pictures of it with your camera or phone. Make sure that the headlights, taillights, blinkers, and windshield washers and wipers are working, and take a few minutes to get acquainted with the car’s layout and media system. Ask questions and get set up before you hit the road.

7. The GPS may or may not be worth it.

A GPS or a detailed paper map can help you safely navigate unfamiliar territory. When driving in the U.S., bring a phone mount to keep your smartphone at dashboard level so you won’t need to rent a GPS too. Remember to always safely pull over to make any adjustments or to look at a map if you are unsure where you are headed. 

Smart tip: AAA Members can pick up free maps of domestic and international destinations from their local office or order them online.

In international cities, you may want to pack a map or pay for the rental company’s GPS to reduce stress and ease navigation. Don’t rely on your smartphone when driving abroad—cellular roaming charges can be steep, Ortega warns, and "you don’t know if you’ll enter a certain region and lose service." If you prefer to go digital, she recommends downloading maps to your device in advance so you can track your progress offline.