As a somewhat miserly but value-oriented (occasional) traveler here’s the quick guide I’d give myself when getting started with rental cars.
For reference, I’ve rented around 15-20 times since my first time in December 2017. Note that this guide is assumes renters reside within the U.S., rent within the U.S., and are renting for leisure reasons (not corporate or insurance-based)
This guide will cover more on traditional rental car companies, ie Hertz/Avis/National, and not things like ZipCar/GetAround.
Will update with more information as time goes on.
These are the more traditional car rental companies that have been around for much longer. They typically have huge fleets and are generally common and airports and have multiple locations within cities.
In most cases (I hope), accident-level situations won’t happen to you. However, there are a few things to know about renting in case of an accident or damage to the car and how to deal with them.
Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is a policy that rental companies sell that waive any damage to the car on return. You could return your car without a front bumper and not have to pay a nickel. However, it’s generally very expensive and could double the cost of your rental.
Without CDW, your insurance applies when you damage a car, or you pay out of pocket.
Some credit cards include Collision Damage Waiver, which covers damage to most rented cars when renting (note you have to pay with that card to get the waiver). Be sure to find a card with Primary CDW, as Secondary applies after your own insurance’s collision coverage.
Generally, your own liability insurance applies here, unless you buy the rental car company’s insurance. Note that you need to buy this if you do not have your own insurance policy. Outside of the U.S., many countries require insurance to be included in the rental rate, but this varies by country.
If you’re like me and under 25, rental car companies generally slap on expensive per-day underage fees that make renting almost not worthwhile, due to the increased risk of renting to underage individuals. To waive underage fees, there are typically some codes. In my case, I have AAA and use the AAA CDP code on Hertz to waive underage fees.
If you’re willing to spend some time and have certain/are willing to open credit cards (some possibly with annual fees), it’s quite easy to get even better value out of renting. The traditional companies generally offer faster service and upgrades when you have status with them, which means you can get nicer cars for the same price. For some people, like me, it’ll matter, for others, it won’t.
The simplest way to earn status is for renting many times from a rental car company.
Certain travel credit cards come with status at rental car companies. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with Executive (mid-tier) status at National. (You could then match status described in the following section to your favorite rental car company)
Say you have status with one rental car company. Generally, other rental car companies will match your status if you contact them. For example, I was able to match National Executive Elite (National’s top status that isn’t invite-only) to Hertz President’s Circle (the corresponding Hertz status) via emailing Hertz a screenshot of my National profile page.
There are certain other ways to match, such as from having elite status with airlines. There are way too many combinations for me to have done the research here, but with some status and quick googling, you can find out if your status(es) would match or not.