Over the past several years, my husband, Oggi, and I have rented more cars than I can count. This is not because we are carless New Yorkers with a weekend travel habit. Rather, it’s because both of our careers keep us in a state of constant mobility, with shifting home bases across two continents.
Along the way, I’ve observed two things. One, that renting a car is an exercise fraught with complexity, confusion and, not infrequently, frustration. And two, that many people pay more than they need to, because getting the best deal requires a certain amount of savvy.
I’ve come by this knowledge the hard way: through experience. So as we head into the summer driving season, here are a few choice tips for navigating your ride.
1. Your online reservation guarantees your rate, not your car. This may seem obvious to those who rent often, but for those who don’t, it can come as a surprise to arrive at the rental counter and discover there is no car waiting. That printed reservation you’re waiving means nothing to the clerks who handed over the last set of keys to a compact car hours ago — especially if, as with many reservations in the U.S., no credit card was used to hold the transaction.
Incidentally, it’s usually the smaller cars they run out of. You’ll generally be offered a larger car or van — at a substantially higher rate. The day I need the car, I generally phone the rental counter directly at whatever location I’m picking up from, confirming that they have a vehicle available. If they don’t, I have time to call around to see who else might.
2. When renting a car abroad, always confirm insurance coverage for each country you may be visiting. Both the rental car company and the credit card restrict liability based on where you travel with the car. Those restrictions may be obvious — countries where car-theft is rampant, or road conditions particularly poor — but they aren’t always.
A few years ago, for instance, I discovered that American Express would cover me anywhere in Western Europe — but not Italy, where I was headed with Oggi for a two-week road trip. I didn’t inquire as to their logic, but once Oggi headed into Roman rush-hour traffic, he had his own theory. “I thought my region had the worst drivers in the world,” he said, referring to the Balkans. “I was wrong.”
3. If you need to extend your rental, and rates have gone up, you may be able to extend at your original rate. You can often do this for up to a month; it pays to ask.
4. When renting abroad, if something seems fishy at the rental car counter, raise the specter of American Express. I keep mentioning Amex because this is the name that strikes fear into the heart of foreign merchants everywhere. So given how often misunderstandings can pop up at the rental counter, I’d never rent a car with another card.
Once, returning a car in Athens, I was repeatedly told I’d have to sign for an extensive insurance policy that effectively doubled the cost of the rental — and to which I had never agreed. There was a lot of heated back-and-forth until I threatened to call American Express and dispute the charge. Suddenly the clerks looked at each other and, turning to me, agreed to let it go. “I always use the American Express, too,” one told me.
4. A one-way road trip can be cheap — if you’re strategic. Drivers traditionally faced hefty fees for dropping off a rental in a different city from pickup. But that’s not always the case anymore — especially if you are essentially saving the company money by moving the car to a more seasonally profitable region.
Last year, for example, I rented a car in Miami and drove it all the way to New England. It was May, when the Passover and spring break crowds are long gone and snowbirds had migrated north. Rental-car companies were eager to move cars where the customers were; as a result, I spent about $100, including insurance, for a 10-day rental.
5. If you don’t own a car, you can still get a reasonable liability policy — but not from the rental car company. Like many New Yorkers, I do not own a car and therefore am not covered for liability under an existing policy (my credit card covers collision and damage). Purchasing liability coverage at the counter easily doubles a good daily rate, about $15 per day in the U.S. But most people don’t realize that an insurance company like Amica can often write you a rental-car liability policy that will cover your temporary vehicle — and the rate is substantially cheaper.
Overseas, I double-check my coverage with Amex, and then buy a comprehensive policy anyway. In Europe, where the customer is generally always wrong, it’s peace of mind that has no price.