The Ultimate Guide to Rental Cars

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The Ultimate Guide to Rental Cars

I get asked a lot about rental cars so I decided to create this guide containing what I have learned from over 30 years of renting cars.

Basic Questions

What rental car company is the cheapest?
How do I find a cheap rental car?

It depends. There is no one rental car company that is always the cheapest. Often the cheapest rental car at a particular airport is that company that you have never heard of rather than the big rental car companies like Hertz, Avis, Budget, National, Enterprise, Dollar, Advantage and Thrifty (and in Europe Sixt and Europcar).

If your goal is the cheapest car you can spend all day checking all the different websites for these brands but a better use of your time is to use a rental car search engine like This site will check all the different car companies and let you compare them.

What rental car company is the best?

According to the 2017 North America Rental Car Satisfaction from J.D. Power, Enterprise was the best rated car company in the United States.

Honestly it depends on the office where you rent. I rented a car from Enterprise in 2017 in Mobile, Alabama. It took 45 minutes, even though I had an appointment and was the only person there. They gave me a car that wreaked of smoke with huge stains on the seat and they forgot to fill the tank with gas. Does that mean Enterprise is bad? No, I have also had great experiences with them. But it does not speak well for their Mobile office.

If you do have a bad experience, speak up. Ask for a car that is clean or make sure you let people know when you check in the car what you thought of the experience. When I checked in that car in Little Rock they knocked $50 off the price because of the trouble I had.

What will I need to rent a car?

In general you will need to present a valid driver’s license and a credit card to rent a car. It is possible, although more difficult, to rent a car without a credit card (see below). You may also have to show proof of insurance if you are not purchasing insurance.

What do I need to do before leaving the car rental company?

Always inspect the rental car before you leave the rental car lot. Make sure the tires are properly inflated. Make sure the fuel tank is full. Make note of any preexisting dents or scratches on the car. Take a picture of any dents or scratches and make sure they get marked on the rental car contract.

Are rental cars unlimited mileage?
Do rental cars have unlimited mileage?

It depends. Whether you book at the companies website, at the counter or from a rental car search engine the mileage charges if any should be listed. These days unlimited miles is quite common.

Are rental cars cheaper at the airport?
Are rental cars more expensive at the airport?

Rental car companies just outside the airport can often have a cheaper rate. Some of these might even have an airport shuttle. But if you don’t pick up a car at the airport, you should factor in to the total cost any cost in getting to the rental car company.

One thing I like about the site is that I can limit my search to cars at the terminal or available via a shuttle bus.

Sometimes picking up a car in the city can be more stressful. If you are picking up a car, for instance, in Rome to drive to Tuscany, then avoid driving in Rome by picking up the car at the airport, even if you need to return to the airport to do it. We picked up a car at the main train station and had to fight traffic in Rome to get out of town. Not fun. The same would be true for pretty much any large city.

Are there rental cars without drop off fee / charge?
Can rental cars be returned at a different location?

There is not usually a problem or an additional cost to pick up a rental car at one location and drop it off at a different, but close location. So picking up a car from JFK airport and dropping it off in New York City shouldn’t be a problem.

However, if you pick up a rental car in one location and drop it off in a distant location you will usually have a drop off fee and that fee can be significant. Some companies like Hertz advertise they have no drop off fees, but that is misleading. What that usually means is they they raise the daily fee which is pretty much the same thing.

I have searched for a car to pick up in Kansas City and drop off in Cincinnati and found it had a big drop off fee, but when I searched again a couple of weeks later that fee had gone away. It can seem quite arbitrary. In general, you are less likely to get a fee if you are moving the car to where the company can use it. So for instance, if you are driving a car to Arizona at the start of the winter (when they will need more cars there), then you are less likely to have a fee than if you drive the car in the opposite direction.

Don’t waste your time looking for a company that “doesn’t charge drop off fees”. Just do comparison shopping (via or some such site) and compare total cost.

Can rental cars be driven out of state?

It is not usually an issue to drive a rental car into a different state. It matters more where you drop off the rental car.

Are rental cars insured?
Are rental cars covered by my insurance?
Is rental cars insurance covered by my credit card?

As a rule, when you rent a car it is covered by your normal auto insurance. So if you get into an accident in a rental car, it would be dealt with by your insurance company.

You can purchase insurance from the rental car company for an additional fee when you rent the car. If you were then in an accident, the rental car company would act as your insurance company and not your normal insurance company. The cost for insurance adds a daily cost. You will pretty much always be offered insurance and for a specific cost based on the rental car company and the location.

Some credit cards offer car rental insurance as part of the benefits of the credit card. But, be very careful to know what the terms are for your particular credit card. I was quite surprised by this when I backed a rental car into a tree on the day of my daughter’s wedding (I still think the tree needs to take some of the responsibility for this). My Chase Sapphire Visa card only covered the part of the accident not already covered by my personal auto insurance.

Can I cancel a rental car?

Surprisingly, you can often cancel a rental car or just not show up without any charges. The exception would be if you pre-pay for the rental car. Some websites will offer the option of pre-paying to get a better rate.

The flip side of this is that it is difficult for a rental car company to predict exactly how many cars they will rent on any given day. So sometimes when you show up they will no longer have the car you rented or possibly no longer have any cars at all. It happens.

What to do if you are offered an upgrade?

As a rule when I am offered an upgrade by a rental car company I turn it down… at least at first. Sometimes they are offering to upgrade me to a car that I would prefer. But, if you turn it down you may find out that they don’t have the size car that you reserved. When that happens you may get a better car for no more money. But they will first offer to sell you that car by selling you an upgrade. Sneaky.

Sometimes I turn it down because they almost always want to offer me a bigger car. A bigger car can mean a car that gets worse gas mileage. It can also mean a car that is less fun to drive and park if you are visiting a large city. Sometimes an “upgrade” is not an upgrade.

Should I rent a car or just use Uber or Lyft or public transportation?

I like to drive and like having a car, but sometimes getting a rental car is a bad idea.

  • If you park a car at a downtown hotel, don’t be surprised to get charged for parking. Hotels in San Francisco or New York City often charge more than $40 for parking. Factor that into the cost of having a rental car.
  • Are you renting a car to get to a conference, beach, hotel or theme park, but then the car will mostly be parked and unused for a few days? That might not be the time to rent a car.
  • Does the city you are visiting have great public transportation but bad traffic? Don’t rent a car until you leave the city.
  • Does the city charge extra for driving downtown like London does? Don’t rent a car. Use Uber or Lyft or public transportation.

Are rental cars abused? Are rental cars safe?
Are rental cars bad to buy? Are rental cars good to buy?

These questions are two sides of the same coin. Are rental cars kept in really good shape (In such good shape that it might be a good idea even to buy a used rental car)? Or do people abuse rental cars such that you should worry about driving them and never think of owning one. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

The company who is renting you a car will make more money if they can keep using the same rental car for a while. So rental cars are pretty well maintained. You may forget to check your oil or fluids, but a company with a fleet of rental cars is probably better at doing this regularly.

I would not be surprised if rental cars are in more accidents. Think about it. They are driven by drivers who are unfamiliar with them in places where they may also be unfamiliar. So I would definitely check the car’s history with a service like But once you know it has not been in an accident, passes a mechanical inspection and a test drive, I would buy a rental car.

I would be more interested in a rental car that has local plates. I have seen where a rental car office may be less conscientious caring for a car heading on a one way rental. We rented a car for a one way rental where the tire pressure was low. We asked them to fix it and they assured us they did. We woke up the next day to a flat tire. Any bet that “fix” meant put in enough air that it becomes someone else’s problem?

Can rental cars go through tolls?

When you rent a car from a location like Orlando which has toll roads nearby (In Orlando the road to the airport is a toll road), they will often offer to turn on the toll transponder (in Florida the SunPass system) so that you can use the toll roads. There will be an additional fee for this.

Some toll roads in the U.S. these days no longer have an option of paying with cash. So it might be that if you don’t turn on the transponder you will just have to use a different lane at the toll plaza or it might be that you will have to avoid toll roads. In Orlando, for instance, it means avoiding toll roads. Be sure to ask about the local system.

Some bridges in the United States like the Golden Gate Bridge will bill you based on your license plate when you drive through the toll plaza. In the case of a rental car the rental car company will track you down and send you the bill. The same is true if you get an automated ticket in a rental car like going through a red light with a red light camera system.

What size car should I rent?

My general rule would be to reserve the smallest car that will fit the number of people and amount of luggage you are bringing. A smaller car is cheaper to drive and easier to park. You may be offered an upgrade anyway. For a longer trip though, I might get one size larger just for comfort, especially if you have 5 people in the car.

What rental cars are considered mid size?
What rental cars are considered compact?

As a rule I would expect:

  • economy car – 4 seats, cargo room for 1 large suitcase and 1 small suitcase
  • compact car – 5 seats, cargo room for 2 large suitcases
  • mid-size car / intermediate car – 5 seats, cargo room for 2 large suitcases and 1 small suitcase
  • full-size car – 5 seats, cargo room for 3 large suitcases

Special Case Questions

Can I rent a car without a credit card?

Yes… probably, but it won’t be fun. It is risky for a company to rent to you without a credit card. It indicates to them that you probably have bad credit.


  • The whole process will take longer.
  • They will run a credit check on you before you drive away with their car.
  • They will probably ask for a cash deposit of hundreds of dollars.
  • You probably cannot rent a luxury car or an SUV.

Can rental cars be driven to Mexico / Can rental cars be driven to Canada?

Most cars rented in the United States cannot be driven into Mexico. Even if you drive your own car into Mexico you will need different insurance.

Budget says “If you are a U.S resident, you may drive a Budget car into Mexico only if you purchase Mexican Automobile Liability Insurance at certain U.S. rental locations. To determine whether your location allows travel into Mexico, inquire at the counter or contact us.”

In general, this is something you should check with a rental car company as this implies even if a company would allow it, they might not allow it from everywhere.

Most rental cars rented in the United States can be driven into Canada without problems and without additional cost, but I would again double check.

Are dogs allowed in rental cars?
Which rental car companies are pet friendly?

Advantage Advantage does not have a strict pet policy, but please be sure to return your rental vehicle clean (i.e. free of pet hair), and without pet damage to avoid cleaning fees and charges for pet damage.
Alamo Pets are allowed in Alamo’s rental vehicles. Customers need to keep pets crated and return their rental car in clean condition and free of pet hair to avoid cleaning/detailing fees. Service animals used by customers with disabilities are allowed in the vehicle without a carrier.
Avis Avis does not have a strict pet policy, but please be sure to return your rental car in clean condition and free of pet hair, etc. to avoid cleaning fees.
Budget Housebroken pets are invited to travel in your rental car, just as they do in your personal car. Although Budget doesn’t assess an extra fee for pets, pet owners will incur an additional charge for any damage caused by animals, or any special cleaning required as a result of shedding or accidents.
Dollar No policy listed, but lots of tips for traveling with your pet.
Enterprise  Pets are allowed in rental vehicles. Customers need to keep pets crated and return their rental car in clean condition and free of pet hair to avoid cleaning/detailing fees. Service animals used by customers with disabilities are allowed in the vehicle without a carrier.
Europcar  You must not use the vehicle for the transportation of live animals (with the exception of domestic pets, subject to prior authorization by Europcar).
Hertz The transportation of pets is prohibited without prior authorization from the location.
National Pets are allowed in rental vehicles. Customers need to keep pets crated and return their rental car in clean condition and free of pet hair to avoid cleaning/detailing fees. Service animals used by customers with disabilities are allowed in the vehicle without a carrier.
Sixt Yes, pets are allowed in Sixt vehicles, provided the seats are covered, or the animal is kept in a cage/carrier. Please be aware a vehicle cleaning fee may be applied should the vehicle return soiled.
Thrifty None listed

Are there rental cars without age restrictions?

Most rental car companies want the driver to be at least 25 years of age because younger drivers as a group have worse driving safety. Companies will charge a young driver surcharge for drivers younger than 25 and may restrict the kind of car they can rent. In the U.S. New York and Michigan require rental car companies to rent to drivers as young as 18.
I did not see an upper limit on the age of a driver listed at any of the following rental car sites.

Advantage Age Surcharge for drivers 21-24: $25 per day.
Alamo Will rent to drivers as young as 21 (18 in NY and MI). The young driver surcharge is waved for military and government employees.
Avis Will rent to drivers as young as 21 (18 in NY, MI, & Saskatchewan). Their young driver surcharge is at least $27 a day and is waved for some government travel.
Budget Will rent to drivers as young as 21 (18 in NY and MI). Their young driver surcharge is at least $27 a day. Young drivers must use a credit card not a debit card. May be 18 years of age if employed with the U.S. Government on travel orders.
Dollar Will rent to drivers as young as 21. They have a young driver surcharge, but do not list it
Enterprise Will rent to drivers as young as 21 (18 in NY and MI). They have a young driver surcharge of at least $20 a day. A United States Government Employee can rent at 18 years of age, but must show the rental location his or her official orders. Renters 21 through 24 years of age may only rent Economy through Full-size cars.
Europcar In USA, 18 years old minimum with a minimum years of driving experience according to the car category. Driver’s license held for at least one year. Rules vary by country.
Hertz Will rent to drivers as young as 18. Their young driver surcharge is at least $35 a day.
National Will rent to drivers as young as 21 (18 in NY and MI). They have a young driver surcharge, but do not list it. A US Government Employee can rent at 18 years of age, but must  show the renting office his or her official orders.
Sixt Will rent to drivers as young as 21. They have a young driver surcharge of between $14.99 and $35.00  per day, maximum of $279.98 per rental. You must have held a valid driver’s license for at least 1 year.
Thrifty Will rent to drivers as young as 21. They have a young driver surcharge, but do not list it.

The Ultimate Guide to Rental CarsMore Unusual Questions

Why do rental cars have two keys?

This is one of my pet peeves with rental cars. Quite often they include two keys for the car on the same key ring. You don’t need two keys but I don’t think they know what to do with the second one they get when they buy the car. It just makes putting the keys in your pocket or purse more of a hassle. Rental car companies, please stop.

Are rental cars GPS tracked?

I was surprised by the persistent rumor that rental car companies track all their cars via GPS. I can’t find any evidence that it is true or at least in widespread use. It appears to be an urban myth. But… why do you want to know?

Can rental cars be used for Uber or Lyft?

Generally, No. Both Uber and Lyft require that you register the vehicle that you use with them. Remember that the person you would be picking up is expecting a specific car with a specific license plate. There are a few exceptions to this like HyreCar in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas,  Los Angeles, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Diego, and Washington D.C. which rents out cars just for this purpose. It pre-registers its cars with Uber and Lyft.

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.

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