Rental car tips

Driving the Isle of Sky in Scotland (Photo courtesy of Visit Scotland)
Driving the Isle of Sky in Scotland

Hints, tips, and advice for renting a car

Read the fine print

  1. Check the rental restrictions. Most rental companies have restrictions on where you can drive. With some, you must stay in the country of rental (usually this is only mandated by smaller, national outfits). Most won't allow you to take a car rented in England to Ireland or the continent. Few let you drive from any western European country into Eastern Europe.
  2. CDW can be worth it. If your regular auto insurance doesn't cover rentals abroad (check), you might want to buy the collision damage wavier, or CDW. This peace of mind comes basically allows you to total the car and not be held liable. Your credit card may cover the CDW if you use it to pay for the rental, so always check with your company, and it is also an option on many trip insurance plans. Note: Some countries (Italy, Ireland, Spain) —for evil reasons that have never been made clear to me—refuse categorically to honor CDW or other insurances provided by a credit card, even if you're renting from the local office of a major company like Avis or Hertz.
  3. Do not fall for the "fuel plan." One of the rental company's ways to make a few extra bucks off of you is to pre-charge you for a full tank of gas. Yes, this saves you the "hassle" of having to find a gas station just before returning the vehicle, but it also means that, unless you coast in on fumes, you are, essentially, gifting them whatever is left in the tank. In other words, you always end up buying more fuel than you use. 

Picking up the car

  1. Remind them you've already paid. Make sure you know exactly what you paid for when you arranged the car rental. For reasons I'll never understand, the pick-up office in Europe often somehow "overlooks" the fact that your credit card has already been charged for the rental cost, and they double-charge you. The hassle of working this out with the credit card people after you return isn't worth the trouble. Usually, you will get one charge on your card from the European office for the first full tank of gas it provides (which is almost never included in the original rental price).
  2. Inspect the rental car before you drive away. I know you want to jump in and get out on that motorway, but if the agency doesn't know something is wrong with the car when you drive it off, it will assume you broke it and charge you accordingly. If what's on the inspection form they want you to sign doesn't match the state of the car, point it out. Otherwise, once you drive it away, you are legally liable for its condition.

    Make sure all locks and doors work, check the various lights, and peruse the whole thing quickly for dents, scratches, and rips in the fabric. Scrutinize the contract and the vehicle well. Check for the repair and safety equipment. Check the trunk for a jack, inflated spare, snow chains in winter, and a hazard triangle (most countries require you to hang this on the trunk if you're broken down by the side of the road).

    Make sure that any existing damage on the car is noted on the rental form before you drive it away—and also that you don't scribble your initials next to anything on the form that promises you will pay $15 a day for some insurance coverage you already have by virtue of the fact that you put the rental on your credit card.

Dropping off the rental car

  1. Be sure to drop off your rented car on time. One of the great institutional rip-offs in rental cars is that you must drop it off on your final "rental day" at the same time you picked it up on your first day. Think about that, in terms of a realistic itinerary.

    You pick up a rental car early in the morning (say, 9am) on the first day so you can get the highway under your tires and move on with your vacation. But on the last day, you want to be able to coast into your final town in the evening, drop off your bags at the hotel, and then return the car to the rental office before heading out to find some dinner. Problem is, the car was due back at 9am that morning, and they'll charge you insanely high daily rate of the "extra day" that you kept it.

    The only solution: book the vehicle for a period that ends the day after you expect to be finished using it. That way you coast into town at night, drop off your stuff at the hotel, then return the car early. Sure, technically you have it until 9am the next day, but there's no reason to (a) pay for a garage overnight or risk parking it on the street, or (b) waste your next morning driving in rush hour to the rental office then filling in forms and such.
  2. Always gas it up to the brim before returning it. You think British gas is expensive? Well, it is—but you ain't seen nothing like the charges a rental place feels free to impose (gas charges of over $100 aren't unheard of).