Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Travel

How to Rent a Car Without Getting Totally Ripped Off

Plus: ways to stay safe on the road during COVID-19.

Did someone say road trip? Shelter-in-place restrictions are lifting, national parks are re-opening, and summer is calling. While flying remains a bit dubious, a (sanitized) set of wheels is probably the safest and most reliable way to travel right now. Still, renting a car requires its own level of strategy and fortitude. 

Rental car companies, like the airline and hospitality industries, haven’t fared well in the coronavirus crisis. By late May, Hertz, which also owns Dollar and Thrifty, and Advantage, which owns EZ Rent a Car, both filed for bankruptcy.

“These companies are going through reorganizations but have plans to continue business, so I wouldn’t expect an immediate impact,” explained Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a cost-comparison site for rental cars. “It’s obviously something you want to watch if you have a rental six months out.”

To entice drivers back to the open road, many rental companies are offering extra low rates and added perks. For starters, one-way drop fees and young driver fees are being waived, and some companies have lowered the age limit to get behind the wheel to 18. 

“This spring, because of COVID-19, demand dropped and rates were slashed by half or as much as 75 percent,” Weinberg told us. “But we don’t expect it to stay that way for much longer.”

To help you score better rates, avoid unexpected fees, and enjoy a much-needed adventure this summer, we tapped travel experts like Weinberg and some former rental car agents for their money-saving advice -- plus a few tips on staying safe on the road during COVID-19.

Never prepay for a rental

For a flight, you’re used to pulling out your credit card weeks, if not months in advance. The rules of the road are different: you don't need to prepay for a rental car. Rates can vary from one city to the next, and fluctuate even up to the day you pick up the keys. The beauty of the rental car is that reserving one is basically risk-free; you can change or cancel it before you get to the counter. 

Keep an eye on your reservation and there's a good chance the price will drop (this is where AutoSlash comes in handy -- they’ll send you a notification should a cheaper rate pop up). If the rate changes, simply cancel your current reservation and rebook for the lower rate.

There’s just one exception to this golden rule: “Some rental companies let you lock in on a discounted or low rate in advance, while giving you the option to cancel later with a full refund,” Weinberg says. “In that case, it may be a good idea to buy a prepay rate.”

Don't prepay for gas, either

The rental agent is required to ask if you want to pre-purchase gas. Unless you’re very lazy or very rich, say no thanks. “While rental car companies will generally offer you a below-market rate on gas, what most people don’t realize is that you’re actually paying for the full tank, whether you use a full tank or not,” Weinberg says. “And even then, often there are high fees and taxes added on.” 

Another key piece of advice I heard from those in the know: When you return your vehicle, fill up within 10 miles of the drop-off location and save your gas receipt. There's a good chance the drop-off agent will try to ding you with a refueling fee, even if the gas needle is slightly below full. Show them a gas receipt as proof that you filled up within the vicinity and you'll avoid the fee. 

Compare rates between the airport and off-site locations

The rate on your rental car will almost always be higher at the airport than at an off-site location, because airports tack on extra fees and taxes. Sometimes the price difference is worth it -- a savings of $20 or $30 per day -- other times, it might not be worth the extra hassle, especially if you have to pay for an additional cab or rideshare to get there.

Skip the counter altogether

If you’re renting more than once or twice a year, consider enrolling in a company’s loyalty program. Not only will you earn points toward future trips, but you’ll be able to skip the line and go straight to the lot -- a huge bonus these days, when face-to-face encounters put you at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus

Consider one of the rental car disruptors, too

Recently, I flew into Boston Logan International Airport for a trip to Cape Cod, and instead of paying for a mid-sized Camry, I used Silvercar, an all Audi fleet. The price was comparable to what I would’ve shelled out at Enterprise, with the added bonus that this was a high-performance vehicle -- an Audi Q5.

If you’re in the mood for something swanky and electric, try Sixt, which includes Teslas and other premium electric and hybrid vehicles. For the budget conscious, check out Turo; similar to the Airbnb model, it lets you temporarily rent out cars from the owners at super low rates.

Don't book through the agency's website

Probably the last place to book a rental is through the agency's website. Discount travel sites like Priceline, Kayak, or Orbitz almost always have better deals -- and they'll still honor any frequent driver rewards programs that you have. Also, big-box stores like Costco come in handy for something other than a giant 30-pack of toilet paper: a membership will get you some amazing deals on rentals. AutoSlash saves you the time and hassle of comparison shopping by checking all third party sites, including Costco, for the best deals.

Say "nah, thanks" to the in-car GPS system and other add-ons

I don't care how directionally challenged you are -- this little luxury comes with a hefty price tag. Budget's roadside assistance and GPS service options range from $7.99 to $16.99 per day, or $29.75 to $89 per week. Cost aside, they're usually sucky and out-of-date. So opt for Google Maps or good ole Siri instead. 

If you’re traveling with the kiddos, consider bringing an infant car seat and stroller all-in-one, like The Doona. Otherwise, you’ll be paying $14.00 a day with Budget for a used car seat -- and again, germs!

Be sure to thoroughly sanitize the car

COVID-19 is hitting the travel industry hard right now, but rental car companies are trying to reassure customers with new certified cleaning programs and sanitization policies. “For instance, Hertz has a special sticker they put on the door to indicate that the car has been deep cleaned and sanitized,” Weinberg explained. 

Still, for your own peace of mind, it’s a good idea to bring disinfectant wipes or sprays to do your own deep clean. Start with the door handles, armrests, and steering wheel, but also be mindful of dashboard buttons, consoles, visors, seat belts, and other high-touch surface areas. Here’s a handy how-to for thoroughly disinfecting your car.

Pay all tolls yourself

Rental agencies will offer the "convenience" of a toll transponder, located inside the car. But if you turn it on, you'll pay a daily fee -- usually about $5 per day for the duration of the car rental. That's the kind of nonsense that adds up.

Always double-check your receipt for add-on fees

Rental car companies pride themselves on speedy returns. But, they can be notorious for tacking on extra and unexpected fees at drop-off. According to the agents we spoke with, that's often where the add-on charges happen. 

Agents are banking on the fact that you're in a hurry to catch a flight, so they might sneak in a refueling fee. Or it could be a simple mistake and they forget to apply a discount code. Before leaving the lot, always ask for a receipt and review the charges. If something smells fishy, talk to an on-site manager. You'll be much more likely to resolve the issue in person than later by phone.

Having an AAA Membership is a huge plus for frequent drivers 

Aside from top-notch roadside assistance, a major perk of AAA is that it carries some significant discounts on rental cars. “It’s generally an awesome bang-for-the-buck for their typical services like towing, vehicle, lockout, flat tires, etc.,” Weinberg told us. “The rental discounts are a bonus. Plus, most people don't know that if you book with the AAA discount code, you get a free additional driver, a waiver of the underage fees for ages 20-24, and a free child seat. It really is a no-brainer to get a membership if you drive.”

Finally, stop paying for rental car insurance

Car insurance is an obvious must, but what most renters don’t realize is that their rental is usually covered by their existing car insurance policy, or a premium credit card that’s in your wallet. I swear by the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, which has several travel perks, including an auto rental collision damage waiver. With just the swipe of my card, I can rest easy knowing I’m covered, whether it’s an accident, theft, or a wandering baby bear.

Tim Ebner is a travel writer in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter for more road trip tips @TimEbner.