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Renting a Car for the First Time? Know These Things

If you’re anything like me, you awaited your twenty-fifth birthday with bated breath. Finally! And if you’re really really like me, you turned 25 while living in Reykjavík and found out the age requirement to rent a car in Iceland is 20 years old.

Having access to a car opens up a great deal of new experiences. But acquiring a rental car isn’t as simple as walking in and asking nicely (as I believed. I also do not recommend this approach). In retrospect, I wish knew some of these things before walking up to the counter.

There is no penalty for canceling the reservation.

Making a car rental reservation isn’t like buying an airline ticket. It’s a lot more like making a hotel reservation: Its free to cancel, almost anytime. (You can even no show. But that’s a bit rude.)

That means a couple of things: It is possible to keep searching and searching for a rental until a cheaper quote is found. There are even services that will do this automatically. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t apply to prepaid reservations, which will incur a cancellation fee.

It’s a credit card to secure the car.

Though not impossible, most rental car locations won’t make it easy for travelers to rent a car without a credit card. It’s not in their best interest to rent with someone who might be a a credit liability, so make sure the proper plastic is on hand to avoid paying an extra deposit. (It’s not entirely impossible to rent with a debit card but it may require a credit check. And the agency is going to make it a lot harder.)

Most credit cards include rental car insurance.

If you own pre-existing auto insurance, first things first. This will kick in first before any additional rental car insurance and know what those terms exactly dictate. (Note for international: Some countries may require that foreign renters purchase separate insurance regardless the level of coverage at home.)

Butttt here’s the thing: most credit cards already provide varying degrees of rental car insurance. In order for it to kick in, 1) the entire rental must be paid on the credit card and 2) the renter must decline all insurance offered at the counter. Sometimes it will even act as primary insurance but that usually means there must be no other existing coverage in effect. For people who don’t own cars, this is awesome.

There’s comprehensive lists of credit cards that offer rental car insurance out there. But even major issuers like Visa offer it as a standard benefit of their regular coverage.

Sign up to skip the line.

Many rental agencies have frequent renter programs that come with benefits like quicker reservations and credits toward future rentals. But more importantly, signing up lets renters to skip the long line at the counter. These are all free benefits that even first-time renters can use. It’s always rad to feel like a VIP. (Signing up is free!)

For example, San Francisco International Airport has a separate Hertz Gold Plus Rewards line hidden in the airport garage, letting renters skip the 20+ people queue. For real laziness, Hertz will even preassign cars to members on a giant football-score-like board at the airport. So most members can just go directly to the car stall and go — all for no added cost.

Actually check the car before driving off.

For damage and things like that.

The fuel gauge is on what side?

And no one cares until it’s time to fill up the tank. In most newer models, there’s an indicator right there on the dashboard with a little arrow that points to the side the gas tank is located. No point in wasting time when trying to get the car back.

Always save the receipt.

If a rental car is returned without a full gas tank, that’s extra money out of the pocket. The shadiest part is this, though: Some car rental agencies require the fuel receipt otherwise they’ll slap on an additional charge at the end. This even includes Hertz! So to be safe rather than sorry, hold on to the receipt like your wallet depends on it. Cause it actually does.

If you’re feeling paranoid, take photos of the odometer and fuel gauge at both pick-up and drop-off for added documentation.

Get It back on time.

Returning a rental car late will quickly incur massive additional fees. Some agencies are slightly more lenient than others when it comes to returns and have a grace period where no charges will be added (anywhere between 29 minutes up to an hour after the scheduled return time). But no agency has infinite room for mercy; all bets are off when the grace period ends.

Hourly charges will be tacked on to the bill and they add up quickly! Each hour late can add a quarter to half of the daily rate to the final total. If you’re going to need more time, call the agency ahead of time to extend the length of your rental.



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