13 Rental Car Rules

Michael Flack

IN SEPTEMBER 2017, my wife and I sold our home, car and almost all our earthly possessions. We spent the next four years driving across four continents. Along the way, I learned a great deal about renting a car that, in this rental-car-challenged world, could make your travels less costly and more reliable.

1. I use Expedia, Kayak and Hotwire to compare rental car rates. When you book, pay attention to whether your reservation is free cancellation or pay now (noncancellable). You can sometimes save with a noncancellable booking, but what if your plane is delayed or you cancel your trip?

2. Rental companies use bait-and-switch pricing. You notice a car you like for $30 a day. Since you will be renting for three days, you would expect to be charged $90. Wrong. When you click “book,” the price is now magically $205.72 due to concession fee recovery, vehicle license cost recovery, customer facility charge, tax and whatever else. The upshot: Look carefully at the bottom line before booking.

3. One option is to book a free cancellation rental car and then scour the internet for a better deal. Payment may be charged prior to the fully cancellable date, so—if you cancel—you’ll have to wait for the refund to hit your credit card. If this is a foreign transaction, changes in the exchange rate could cause the refund to be more or less than the initial charge. If it’s less, call your credit card company to ask for the difference. If it’s more, don’t bother.

4. Almost all rental car companies make you pay an extra fee for an extra driver unless it’s your spouse—and some charge for your spouse as well. In some states, such as California, this is against the law. In others, the additional-driver fee is capped. Do your homework and confirm the charge at the rental counter.

5. Beware the manager’s special. The manager’s special generally offers significant savings, but you could end up with a van, mini-van, pickup truck or exotic car that’s hard to drive. Worse yet, your credit card or auto policy may not provide insurance coverage for that type of vehicle.

We rented a manager’s special in Michigan to save $250. It was a Ram 1500 pickup truck. After snaring the rear bumper on a utility pole guy wire—don’t ask—I discovered my insurance didn’t cover pickups. Uh-oh. The wife took it to get the bumper fixed and, because the body shop couldn’t perfectly repair it, she wasn’t charged. When she returned the truck, the rental car company didn’t mind the minor imperfection. It was our lucky day.

6. Most rental car companies will offer you some kind of toll transponder for a fee. In some places, such as New York City and New Jersey, it’s almost a necessity. But in Los Angeles and San Diego, you won’t need it because tolls are paid online via tag number.

If the rental car company charges your credit card for tolls after returning the car, dispute them if they seem unreasonable. After one trip, I noticed a $25 toll charge from the rental car company. As this seemed a little steep, I disputed the charge with my credit card company and won.

7. Document existing damage to the car and take photos or a video of the car prior to leaving the rental car lot. While you’re at it, snap a photo of your rental contract.

We rented a car in Marrakesh, Morocco, and returned it at the Rabat airport. The agent claimed the left front blinker was damaged. Fortunately, I had a photo showing the damage was preexisting. Case dismissed.

8. If the tank isn’t full, take a photo of the gas gauge at pickup and at return. We rented a U-Haul van to move all the worldly possessions of my dear 92-year-old mother. Dropped the van off in Herndon, Virginia, and took a photo of the gas gauge. A few weeks later, I was charged $30 for not returning the van with the same amount of gas it had when I picked it up. I showed them the before and after photos, and the charge was reversed.

9. The collision and comprehensive coverage on your existing auto insurance will generally provide collision and comprehensive insurance for your rental car. Ditto for your liability insurance coverage.

If you don’t own a car, it may be worth it to buy rental car liability insurance that provides liability insurance in the U.S. Have a copy of your insurance card because some rental car companies make you buy liability insurance if you can’t prove you have auto insurance. This happened to me in Puerto Rico.

10. Compare the price you were quoted online with the rental contract you’re being asked to sign. Make sure you understand any and all additional charges, such as toll transponder, GPS and upgrades. If you need to dispute unexpected additional charges, this will help your case with your credit card company.

11. Compare the rental contract price with the amount your credit card is charged. It should be the same as the final invoice that was printed or emailed when you returned the car. If there’s a difference you don’t agree with, dispute the charge. I was once charged $422.72 more than the rental contract price. I disputed it with my credit card and won after I produced a photo of my rental contract price.

12. As a rule, don’t buy collision damage waiver coverage in the U.S. You’re more than adequately covered through your auto insurance and credit card. If you’re renting outside the U.S., review your credit card benefits. Many credit cards specifically exclude this coverage in Israel, Jamaica, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. If in doubt, get a document from your credit card issuer verifying coverage. You may need to show it at pickup—and, if you don’t have it, you may be required to purchase insurance.

13. Renting an automatic transmission overseas can be quite costly. I rented a car with a manual transmission in Ireland and the U.K., and managed just fine. What one man can do, another can. When backing up, however, just remember to look over the “other” shoulder.

Michael Flack blogs at He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.

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