When arriving at your destination, one of the first instincts you might get is to rent a car to be able to get around and see all the attractions. This is the most flexible way to get around as it leaves you free to explore at your own schedule and stop wherever and whenever you want.
However, it’s also the most expensive way to get around in your destination when compared to the other options available. If it’s not out of your budget, then a rental car can also be a very unique way to get your next destination as many car rental agencies also allow you to do one-way trips for an extra fee.
If you’re looking for the ultimate flexibility in your travels and you aren’t necessarily traveling on a strict budget, then renting a car may just be for you. However, if you’re not prepared, you might end up having a stressful experience where you get taken advantage of and you spend more than you expected.
On this page, I will tell you everything you need to know about renting a car as well as how to reserve one at the cheapest price so that you know what to expect and you spend less time worrying about it and more time enjoying the freedom a rental car gives you!
Here are the 10 things you need to know about renting a car while traveling:
1. You can find the cheapest car rentals in most destinations using Kayak
There is more than one way to find rental cars when traveling, but the easiest and most convenient way is to use Kayak. It compares cars and rates from all the OTAs and major car rental companies in your destination so you know you’re getting the best rate possible. I compared the rates I saw on Kayak to all the other car rental search websites out there and Kayak always finds the cheapest ones.
What’s great is that it also shows you a rating from 0 to 10 for each agency in that location which is super useful. I do not recommend going with any agency that has a rating lower than 7 because it means they have had a lot of unhappy customers and there is a good chance that you will be another one. They might also try to screw you over. Stick to agencies that have a rating of 7 or higher and you should be fine.
Kayak makes finding a rental car easy and straightforward and I always use it when I’m looking to rent a car while traveling. Make sure you read the policy for any car you rent on Kayak so you know what’s included and what isn’t.
1b. And in other destinations, Google Maps is king
If the destination you’re going to doesn’t have many, or even any, results when searching on Kayak, then the next best way to find a rental car is to use Google Maps. Search for car rentals in the destination you want on Google Maps and you should see all the local car rental agencies that are available. They might have a website that will show you their rates or you might have to go into their office or call/email them to find out.
It’s very important to check the Google Maps reviews for any agency you find, even if you find them on Kayak first. Read some of the critical reviews to see what issues other people have had and keep an eye out for potential fake 5 star reviews that might be making the agency look better than it actually is. But if the agency looks good to you, contact them to find out their rates or to make a booking!
This is how I’ve found car rental agencies in places like Malaysia where most of the local car rental agencies won’t be found on Kayak or any other online booking site.
When renting a car this way, try to ask to see the car before signing or paying anything. This way, if you don’t like the condition of the car they plan to give you, you can ask for a better one or simply walk away easily. Also make sure to read the policy carefully so you know what’s included in your rental and what isn’t.
1c. Save even more money by being flexible
While using Kayak and Google Maps to look for rental car agencies is the best way to get the cheapest prices, there are ways to save even more money if you’re flexible.
For one, instead of renting a car from the airport when you arrive, consider renting it from an agency location in the city. Rental car agencies typically charge more for the convenience of picking up the car right as you arrive in your destination so you can often find cheaper prices at their agency locations in the city.
Kayak will already show you the prices for both options (as long as you select the city and not the airport as your pickup location) so you don’t need to go out of your way for this, but keep it in mind for when you’re making your reservation.
Similarly, compare prices between different cities on your trip as well as nearby cities. You might find the price to rent a car in another to city to be much cheaper.
Secondly, track your car rental price using Autoslash. This is a free service that will track the price of your car rental and notify you when the price drops or a better deal comes up so that you can cancel your existing reservation and book the cheaper one! (Note: it only works if your original booking had free cancellation).
And finally, consider renting a car from a local. There is an app called Turo which is like the Airbnb for car rentals. Locals will list their cars and you can reserve them for your stay. You then coordinate the pickup and dropoff with them (with many of them offering free delivery too) and drive it around just like you would with a normal rental car. Insurance is also included so you have nothing to worry about.
2. You may already have rental car insurance
Most car rental companies will try to convince you to buy their insurance, usually called a Collision/Loss Damage Waiver (CDW), for your rental because it is extremely profitable for them. It can cost between $10-$30 per day and the actual cost of the insurance for them is about $3-$4 leaving them with a profit margin of $6-$27 per day which can often be more than the profit from simply renting the car which explains why they push it so hard.
If you want to have full coverage and not have to worry about paying anything more in case something happens to your car, this is the best way to get it, if you don’t mind the cost. If anything happens, their insurance will automatically cover you and you can go on with the rest of your trip.
But if you don’t want to pay that much and you’re okay with taking the risk of not getting their CDW, you may already be insured. If this is the case, if something happens, you’d have to pay for the damages yourself and then make a claim to get your money back later.
Some personal car insurance policies cover car rentals too so it’s a good idea to check yours to see if you’re covered, even in a different country. But what’s even more likely is that your credit card has insurance that covers you as long as you use it to make your reservation. Make sure to read your policies carefully to see if you’re insured.
In addition, one insurance that you really want to make sure you have, and that is worth paying for if you don’t already have it, is liability insurance because if something happens and you hurt someone or damage someone else’s property, depending on who and what, the costs associated can easily run into the millions.
Some rental car agencies might already have this coverage included and it might also be covered by your personal car insurance policy, but you should double check this because a couple thousand to pay for a car is nothing compared to the amount you’d pay if held liable for someone else’s damages or injuries.
Also, when making your reservation online, many booking sites will try to sell you their own insurance (sometimes marketed as Full Coverage or something similar) even if your reservation already comes with the agency’s CDW included, except the difference is that it’s a third-party insurance.
It’ll usually be cheaper than the one offered by the car rental agency, but it operates in the same way that the credit card insurance does meaning that if something happens, you’ll have to pay for the damages first and then try to make a claim for them to get your money back later.
3. If you're under 25 or over 65, you may get charged an extra fee
An extra fee that car rental agencies often like to charge is an age-based one that penalizes you if you are under 25 or over 65 (ages vary by agency). Their reasoning is that the risk of accidents is higher for people of those ages and the car rental agency covers that extra risk by charging you this extra fee.
There are sometimes ways to waive the fee if you’re lucky, but for most people of those age groups, they will have to include that fee in their total car rental cost. The fee can range from $15 to $35 per day depending on the agency.
In addition, many car rental agencies won’t even rent a car to you if you are under the age of 21. This is for the same reason. By not letting people under the age of 21 rent cars, they are essentially eliminating that risk.
Considering that most people under that age don’t usually have the money to rent cars in the first place, the agencies don’t lose too many customers, but for those that do want to spend their money on a car rental, they unfortunately won’t be allowed to.
4. In some countries, an International Driver's Permit is needed
If you plan to rent a car in a different country, there is a good chance that the car rental agency won’t even let you do it if you don’t have an International Driver’s Permit (IDP).
I consider the IDP to be a bit of a cash grab because it’s only valid for 1 year and it doesn’t really mean much except that you were willing to spend $25 to get it. There’s no extra test you have to pass or demonstration you have to give that you understand how to drive in another country so it’s quite pointless.
My personal gripes with the IDP aside, in some countries it’s actually illegal to rent a car to a foreigner who doesn’t hold it. In others, police will actually fine you or even impound the car you’re driving if you are found to be driving without one. This unfortunately means that getting it might be a necessity for you.
You can only get it in person from the nearest branch of your national Automobile Association (CAA in Canada and the AAA in the US) or by sending an application by mail, so don’t be fooled by websites that claim to be able to get you one online in a matter of hours; they are all fake scam sites.
5. One-way rentals come with an extra fee
Using a car rental to get to your next destination can be a wonderful way to explore the attractions and views on the way, especially if the drive is known to be a scenic one. The freedom to take your time and stop whenever you want on the way makes the experience a very memorable and unique one that no other method of transportation is able to replicate.
I highly recommend doing it at least once if you’re in an area known for its scenic roads between destinations.
However, this freedom comes at a cost. One-way drop-off fees can range from $30 at the low end to over $50 at the medium end to over $100 at the high end. This fee is on top of whatever the daily cost to rent your car is.
Car rentals are not the cheapest way of getting around in the first place so this extra fee can really put it out of reach for some people. Consider this fee in the total cost of the car rental to decide if a one-way rental is worth it for you.
Pro tip: combine your one-way car rental with a post on your local ridesharing platform to cover some of the costs of the rental. See my Guide to Ridesharing for more details.
6. Most of the time, you need to leave a deposit with a credit card
If you don’t own a credit card, then renting a car will be more difficult for you. Most major car rental agencies will not rent cars to people who don’t have credit cards since credit cards usually have high limits and can have holds placed on them whereas debit cards do not have these functionalities.
Some of the smaller agencies in developing destinations may accept cash or paypal deposits, but for the most part, you’ll need a credit card to rent a car. This is because most agencies will place a hold on your credit card as a form of leaving a deposit.
And don’t be surprised if the hold is for hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. You can usually lower your deposit amount by buying their CDW, but you will still be required to leave one as it’s a way for them to mitigate the risk of you being careless with the car so be prepared for that and raise the limits on your credit card if you need to.
If you don’t have one, check out my Guide to the Best Travel Credit Cards.
7. Any speeding or parking tickets will come with an administration fee
If you are in the unfortunate situation of receiving a speeding or parking ticket while driving a rental car and you don’t pay for it before giving the car back or it arrives in the mail at a later date, the rental car agency will actually add insult to injury and not only charge you for the amount of the fine, but also add an additional “administration” fee which could range anywhere from $10-$60. This also applies to any tolls that you don’t pay for in advance.
So if you know you have received a speeding or parking ticket, the best thing you can do is pay for it on your own as soon as possible before returning the car to avoid paying even more than you need to.
And if you got caught by a speed camera, a red-light camera, or a toll camera, then you are out of luck as those fines will only be sent directly to the car rental agency at a later date which means you will unfortunately have to pay the fee.
8. Adding more drivers and other extras comes with more fees
If you want to be able to let more than one person that you’re traveling with drive the rental car, then be prepared to spend even more. The fee to add additional drivers for the rental can range from $5-$15 a day per driver depending on the agency.
In addition, child seats, ski racks, snow chains, GPS’, and wifi routers are usually all available at an extra cost as well.
For the GPS and wifi, the best thing you can do is be prepared with an unlocked smartphone and a local SIM card (see my Guide to Travel-Ready Phones & Guide to Prepaid SIM Cards), but for the others, be prepared to pay for them unless you plan to bring them with you on your trip! (not recommended if they’re big)
9. Rates are set per each 24 hour period
While you might be able to find agencies that offer car rentals at hourly or half-day rates (especially in destinations that are known to be day-trip destinations), the vast majority of car rental agencies operate at rates based on 24 hour periods.
This means that if you try to rent your car for a period of 25 hours, you will get charged for two full days even though you only really used it for one. Most agencies will give you a grace period of up to 30 minutes or so if you’re running late or something, but any more than that and you will most likely be charged for another day.
Don’t bank on all agencies giving you this grace period either, some may choose to be strict with their timing. So to avoid any potential late fees or extra day charges, the best thing you can do is plan smart for your rental.
Keep the 24 hour period in mind and if you have some flexibility, make the pickup time later or the dropoff time earlier than you originally planned to get the most out of your rental and make it so that you don’t get charged for more than you actually need it for.
10. Make sure to keep an eye on fuel and mileage
Most car rental agencies have a full to full fuel policy meaning that you will receive the car with a full tank and you are expected to return it with a full tank as well. If you don’t, you will be charged a rate per gallon or litre missing that is at least double the local gas station’s rate, if not more, so you’re much better off remembering to fill it up before you return it.
Some agencies might have a similar policy, but at different fuel levels. So you may be given a car with a tank half full and then be expected to return it at the same fuel level as well. When that happens and you accidentally overfill the tank, don’t expect to receive a refund. The car rental agency will instead take it as a nice gesture on your part.
In addition, some agencies might have a policy that limits the total amount of miles or kilometres that you are allowed to drive per day and if you surpass that limit, you get charged per additional mile or kilometre.
Most agencies have unlimited mileage, but you need to check the terms of your rental before you reserve it to make sure you have it for yours if you know you will be driving a lot. And even if you won’t be, it’s still good practice to check it to make sure the agency isn’t trying to pull any funny business!
And that’s all you need to know!
Renting a car can get pretty expensive if you’re not careful, but as long as you follow this guide, your experience should be a stress-free and enjoyable one.
Let me know in the comments below if this guide helped you and if you want to learn about other ways of getting around at your destination, check out my Guides to Public Transport, Ride-Hailing, and Taxis.