Pro Tips For renting a car for a road trip

Renting a car for a road trip is my bread and butter. I’ve been through a few rental cars (and car rental companies!) so I can work through the entire rental process pretty easily these days.

Whether you’re just looking to save wear and tear on your own car or you’re planning an epic getaway where you can’t bring your own car, renting a car for a road trip shouldn’t be a hassle.

Here’s everything I’ve learned over the years of road tripping for keeping both the rental car cost and the hassle low.

Research and booking tips

Booking early is your golden ticket to better rates and a wider selection of vehicles. Aim to book your car rental at least a few weeks before your trip, so you can compare rates at a leisurely pace.

Discover Cars is my go-to platform for comparing rates from multiple rental car companies. Not only does it help you find the best deals and discounts, but it also saves you from wading through fine print. Their user-friendly website makes comparing terms and conditions a breeze.

My favorite part is the rewards points! Booking through Discover Cars allows you to choose a rental car company that partners with your favorite travel portal. This way, you can earn points for that dream vacation you’ve been daydreaming about.

Just FYI, you will typically need:

✔️a valid driver’s license,
✔️a credit card in the driver’s name,
✔️and proof of auto insurance (if not purchasing coverage through the rental company) to rent a car.

For US residents, a state-issued driver’s license is generally accepted. International travelers should have a valid driver’s license from their home country and may also need an International Driving Permit (IDP), depending on the destination and rental company’s requirements.

I learned the hard way that both my US and Australian driver’s licenses had expired and needed to expedite one from Australia to Mexico before my road trip. I received it literally the day I left.

So before you rent a car, make sure you have all of these things in order. Check with the rental agency beforehand to ensure you have the necessary documentation for a smooth rental process.

Saving on rental costs

The location can significantly impact the price of car rentals. Renting at an airport often comes with higher rates due to added taxes and fees. Opting for a suburban or city location is often the cheaper deal. Also, keep in mind that one-way rentals, where you pick up the car in one location and drop it off at another, usually come with higher fees compared to returning the vehicle to the same location.

As for the best day of the week and time of day to rent a car, it can vary depending on the car rental company and location. However, weekdays often offer lower rates compared to weekends, when demand is higher. Booking early in the morning may also result in better availability and lower prices.

To find the best deals, I like to compare prices across multiple days and times using a platform like Discover Cars.

While planning my road trip, I made the savvy decision to book my rental car using my Chase Sapphire card. Not only did this handy piece of plastic grant me rental insurance coverage, sparing me the extra expense at the rental counter, but it also allowed me to earn valuable points.

The best part? These points can be redeemed in quite a few ways, from future travel adventures to fueling my Amazon shopping sprees. It’s basically how I paid for my RAV4 conversion, which I’ll be writing a lot about in the coming months.

Now you can earn 80,000 bonus points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card. If you apply and get approved, we can both earn rewards:

If Chase isn’t your thing, then you can use your airline credit cards instead and earn points with your favorite airline.

PRO TIP: Next time you’re gearing up for a road trip, don’t forget to make the most of your credit card perks.

Navigating rental upcharges and insurance

When it comes to rental add-ons, it’s all about being selective. Fuel service, for example, may seem like a worry-free option, but you might save more by simply refueling the car yourself before returning it. 

As for toll passes, unless you’re planning to zip through a labyrinth of toll roads, you can probably pass (pun intended) on that expense. While they’re scattered about, you’ll find them more often in the Northeast (think New Jersey Turnpike and Massachusetts Turnpike), down in sunny Florida (hello, Florida’s Turnpike), around bustling Texas cities (like the North Texas Tollway Authority system), and even on some Californian roads (Golden Gate Bridge, anyone?). The Midwest isn’t left out either, with Illinois boasting a significant tollway system.

Now, onto roadside assistance. While rental car companies offer their own packages, I highly recommend considering a membership with a service like AAA. These trusty organizations provide assistance anywhere, anytime, and for nearly any reason – a much more comprehensive safety net than what you’d typically get from a car rental agency or car package.

Before you spring for the rental company’s collision damage waiver, take a moment to check your credit card benefits or personal auto insurance policy. Compare the coverage of each and see what, if any, additional insurance you may need.

If you don’t have any kind of personal auto insurance, then most rental car companies offer a range of insurance options to protect both the renter and the vehicle during the rental period. 

These options typically include:

  1. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW): This waiver covers the cost of repairs or replacement of the rental car in case of an accident, theft, or vandalism. It often includes a deductible that the renter is responsible for paying in the event of a claim.
  2. Liability Insurance: This insurance covers the renter’s legal liability for damage or injury to other people and their property while driving the rental car. It usually includes a minimum level of coverage as required by state law, but additional coverage can be purchased for added protection.
  3. Personal Accident Insurance (PAI): PAI covers medical expenses and accidental death benefits for the renter and passengers in the event of an accident. This coverage is supplemental to the renter’s personal health or life insurance.
  4. Personal Effects Coverage (PEC): PEC protects the renter’s personal belongings that are inside the rental car in case of theft or damage. It typically has a per-item and aggregate limit for claims.
  5. Roadside Assistance Protection: This optional service covers the cost of roadside assistance, such as towing, tire replacement, jump-starts, and fuel delivery, in the event of a breakdown or other vehicle issues during the your road trip.

Many credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire, offer primary rental car insurance, which covers damage and theft. Meanwhile, your auto policy might extend certain protections to rented vehicles as well. A little research could save you from shelling out for unnecessary coverage.

Choosing the right rental car

When finding the right vehicle, it’s a delicate balance of finding the right fit for your needs while keeping an eye on your wallet.

First and foremost, consider the size of your vehicle. Don’t underestimate the importance of comfort, especially when you’re on the road for long stretches. 

Account for the number of passengers, the luggage you’ll be hauling, the mileage and how long you’ll be behind the wheel. I personally like to get rental cars with power seats so that I can adjust the seat throughout my road trip. I’m also pretty tall, so I really appreciate the extra leg space in any rental vehicle.

Remember, bigger isn’t always better – fuel efficiency is a key factor to consider when renting a car.

On my road trip, I opted for a hybrid rental car, and it was a game-changer. (So much so that I bought one for myself!) During my most recent road trip in last October, I started in Denver, then worked my way up to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, then over to Montana, Idaho, Utah, and back to Denver. During the entire road trip I filled up the gas tank 3 times. THREE!

I barely even had to think about where the next gas station was and I didn’t have to worry about gas prices, either. It was SO fuel efficient!

Not only did I save a pretty penny on gas, but I also contributed to a greener planet. If you’re in it for the long haul, consider going hybrid to save money on fuel costs and reduce your carbon footprint.

PRO TIP: If you’re taking an extensive road trip, try renting a hybrid vehicle to save money on gas.

As for finding the right size for your rental car, a compact car may be great for zipping around the city, but it might struggle on rugged mountain roads or the sandy dunes of a beach town. I recommend an all wheel drive rental vehicle, like a Toyota RAV4, Subaru, or Honda CRV for more rugged areas or areas that require high clearance. This will function like a four wheel drive with the comfort and maneuverability of a smaller car, making these kinds of rental cars great for a long road trip.

Tips for a smooth rental car road trip

Renting a car for a long road trip is about as straight forward as it sounds, however there are still a few things I learned to make things as enjoyable as possible, if there is such a thing when it comes to car rentals.

Check in for your car rental early and go straight to the garage to pick up your car. If you’re picking up at an airport, then you’ll really want to check in early. Several car rental companies offer express pick-up services that allow you to check in early and go straight to the garage to get your car. Some of these companies include:

  1. Hertz: Hertz Gold Plus Rewards members can enjoy Hertz’s Gold service, which allows them to skip the counter and head straight to their car.
  2. Avis: Avis Preferred members can use the Avis app to manage their reservation, choose their car, and head directly to their vehicle without stopping at the counter.
  3. Enterprise: Enterprise Plus members can use the Enterprise app to check in and find their car in the parking lot, skipping the counter.
  4. National: Emerald Club members can take advantage of the Emerald Aisle service, which allows them to bypass the counter and choose any available car from the Emerald Aisle.
  5. Alamo: Alamo Insiders can use the Alamo app for a quicker check-in process, though they may still need to stop at the counter for certain formalities.

Keep in mind that the availability of express pick-up services may vary by location and membership level.

If you need car seats, then inquire about car seat availability and reserve one in advance, as options can be limited during peak travel seasons. Most car rental companies offer infant, toddler, and booster seats, but it’s wise to confirm the specific types and models provided. You can bring your own car seat if it’s compatible with your rental car, which is why planning ahead when you rent a car is pretty important.

Make sure to refuel your rental car frequently, so you can embrace the unexpected confidently while keeping your adventure on track. You never know when you’ll discover a breathtaking detour!

Opt for scenic back roads over busy freeways, as they not only offer picturesque views but also make driving less stressful. Plus, taking the path less traveled allows you to change your route on a whim, making your road trip even more memorable. This is especially helpful when you’re driving around any national parks, which are often surrounded by more beautiful, untouched land.

Lastly, don’t forget to pack healthy plant-based snacks for the journey. Fresh fruit, crunchy veggies with hummus, or a handful of nuts will keep your energy levels up, and your body (as well as the planet) will appreciate the wholesome choice.

PRO TIP: Get around and see things off the beaten path on your trip. Book your affordable car rental here.

Final Thoughts

Planning a road trip is my absolute favorite thing but it for sure comes with its hassles. Don’t let renting a car be one of them. And honestly, if you have a long trip ahead of you, then it’s okay to invest in comfort. Let me know in the comments where your next road trip will be!

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