Perhaps the worst part of any vacation or business trip comes right near the beginning. After a dreary flight and long wait at the car rental counter, the clerk pushes over a stack of paperwork with a price at the bottom. And almost without fail, it’s much higher than the advertised price.
Car rental companies have a whole bag of tricks to pump up that bottom line. They inflate the bill with loads of fees and add-ons like insurance or toll collection — sometimes without bothering to tell you they’re add-ons.
To save money on car rentals, you need to beat the agencies at their own game. Learn to spot their sneaky tricks for padding the bill and have your own set of tricks for avoiding the extra charges.
How to Avoid Rental Car Fees
The key to avoiding all the hidden fees and add-ons is to know what the most common rental car fees are. The more you know about the extras the rental companies try to add to the bill, the easier it is to plan to avoid them.
1. Skip the Rental Car Insurance if You Can
When you rent a car, the car rental agency usually tries to get you to pay extra for insurance coverage. There are three primary types:
- Collision damage waivers, which cover your costs if you’re in a fender-bender
- Personal accident insurance, which covers medical expenses
- Personal effects coverage, which covers loss or damage to your belongings
If you buy full-coverage insurance from the rental car company, you can expect to pay $30 per day or more. But there’s a good chance you don’t need it. In most cases, you can get coverage for your rental car through another source, such as:
- Your Auto Insurance. Many auto insurance policies include rental car damage coverage. Some cover accidents and personal effects too. But you must pay any deductible out of pocket, and an accident can increase your rates. That could still happen if you use a separate insurer, but it doesn’t always.
- Your Credit Card. Many credit cards offer free rental car insurance when you use them to pay for a rental. With it, you don’t have to file a claim on your insurance. But it usually excludes liability coverage. In most cases, you need to use your own insurance for that.
- Your Union or Trade Association. Many labor unions and trade associations offer rental car insurance as a perk for members. If you belong to one of these groups, check to see what your benefits include.
- Third-Party Insurance. You can also buy car rental insurance from a third party. Companies like RentalCover.com offer insurance for as little as half the price rental car agencies charge.
- AAA. Discounts available from AAA vary throughout the country. If you’re a member, check your local AAA site to see whether a discount on rental car insurance is one of its perks.
2. Check the Car for Damage
Even if you pay for insurance, the rental car company can still charge you for minor damage to the car. When you return it, the company checks it for problems like dents, scratches, and stains on the upholstery. Then it bills you for the cost of fixing them.
To avoid paying for damage you didn’t cause, inspect the car carefully before driving it off the lot. Typically, the clerk gives the car a quick once-over with you, but this check is often perfunctory. It pays to make your examination more thorough.
Inspect the car inside and out, and take photos to document its condition. Include a date and time stamp on the image. That way, if the company tries to bill you for damage you didn’t cause, you can prove it was already there before you drove away.
3. Avoid Airport Rentals
Don’t pick up your rental car at the airport if you can avoid it. While the base rate at the airport rental kiosk may be lower than at a rental location in the city, taxes and fees push the final price higher.
For instance, airports typically charge rental agencies a concession fee for using their premises. Some also charge separate fees for airport security and the use of shuttle buses. Rental companies pass all these fees on to customers. All told, they increase the bill by around 20% or more.
There are several ways to get from the airport to an alternate rental location. In some cases, you can get into the city via low-cost or free public transportation. Failing that, you can hire a cab or call an Uber or Lyft. The savings on the rental can easily offset the cost of the ride.
One drawback of renting your car in town rather than at the airport is that you’re likely to have a smaller selection of vehicles to choose from. That increases the chances you won’t get the exact car you want. So if you book your ride in town, it’s crucial to do it early.
4. Bring Your Own Car Seat
If you’re traveling with a child, you need a child car seat for the rental car. Rental agencies are happy to supply these — for a stiff fee, of course.
Most companies charge between $10 and $15 per day for this add-on. There’s usually a per-trip cap on the charge, but you could still pay close to $100 for a weeklong trip.
You can avoid this cost by bringing your own car seat from home. If that’s not possible, it might be cheaper to buy an inexpensive car seat when you reach your destination.
You can find both infant and booster car seats for under $60 at Walmart. However, that’s only an option if you can leave your child with someone while you pick up the car seat.
5. Don’t Pay for Satellite Radio
Another perk car rental companies like to charge extra for is satellite radio. For instance, Enterprise charges a fee of $5.99 per day or $24.99 per week.
But if you’re like most people, you already have a smartphone capable of storing plenty of music for your trip. Rather than paying extra for satellite radio, load your phone with your favorite tunes and podcasts.
You can connect your phone to the car stereo and use voice commands to select music safely while driving. Technology how-to site MUO (Make Use Of) has a guide to playing music from your smartphone over your car speakers.
6. Watch for Toll Charges
Car rental companies even find a way to charge you extra for tolls. Most rental cars come with a toll transponder device you can use at cashless toll booths, such as E-ZPass. But when you use it, they charge a convenience fee in addition to the cost of the toll itself.
Fees for toll transponder use vary by company. For instance, Hertz charges a fee of $5.95 for each day you pay tolls with its PlatePass transponder.
With Avis, you pay a flat $17 per rental, even if you never pass through a single toll booth. On top of that, with either company’s transponder, you automatically pay the highest undiscounted rate at every toll booth you use.
To avoid this fee, opt out of the rental company’s toll collection system. With most companies, you can just leave the transponder in its shielded case.
Next, you need an alternative way to handle tolls. In some cases, you can avoid them altogether by using map apps to plan a route with no toll roads.
If you can’t do that, the next simplest thing is to pay all tolls in cash. However, some toll roads, particularly bridges, no longer have cash toll booths.
In some places, it’s possible to prepay these tolls online. Check the local transit authority website to see if that’s an option in the area where you’re traveling.
Another alternative is to take the toll transponder off your own car and bring it on your trip. If you don’t have a toll transponder, it might be worth buying one just for the trip. You can pick up a prepaid E-Pass transponder (which works with both E-ZPass and Florida’s SunPass) for under $20. That’s less than you’d pay for four days’ worth of Hertz’s PlatePass.
7. Check the Mileage Limits
Car rental contracts often limit the number of miles you can put on the car each day. For instance, the budget rental car company U-Save allows you to drive only 100 miles per day outside New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Every mile over this limit costs $0.35 extra.
Some rental agencies, such as Budget and Avis, provide unlimited mileage on some car rentals. However, other contracts include a mileage limit. You can’t assume your car comes with unlimited miles unless it specifically says so in the rental agreement.
When you pick up the car, read the contract carefully to find out the mileage limit and where it applies. Then do your best to plan your driving to stay under the limit.
8. Skip the Second Driver
It can be handy to list your spouse, child, or travel companion as an additional driver on your car rental. That way, you don’t have to do all the driving yourself.
But some companies charge a second-driver fee. The amount varies based on the company and the state where you rent the car. So before signing up a second driver, check to see if there’s a fee and how much it is.
If you’re going to put just one driver on your car rental contract, ensure it’s someone over age 24. Some car rental companies impose a surcharge for any driver under 25 years of age. Many companies prohibit people under 20 from driving their cars at all.
9. Fill It Up Yourself
If you return your car with less than a full tank of gas, the rental agency refuels it for you — at a price much higher than you’d pay at a gas station. Some rental companies charge as much as $10 per gallon plus a refueling fee.
To avoid these exorbitant prices, fill up the car before you return it. Try to do so within 10 miles of the rental location since some car rental services charge you extra if you refuel too far away from the building.
Use GasBuddy to find the gas station with the lowest price per gallon within that radius. And use your best gas rewards credit card to pay for the purchase.
Keep the receipt from this final fill-up after you return the car. That way, you can prove you refueled the vehicle and show the address of the gas station where you did it. The receipt protects you if the rental company tries to claim the tank wasn’t full when you returned the car.
10. Don’t Prepay for Gas
Supposedly, you can avoid refueling fees by prepaying for your gas when you rent the car. You pay for the gas that’s in the tank when you pick up the car, and you can return it with the tank at any level you like. The pitch is that it saves you the hassle of refueling before you return the vehicle.
However, when you do that, you’re still paying the rental agency’s price for gas. Some agencies charge less for gas when you prepay, but the price is probably still higher than a gas station’s.
Moreover, the price the rental agency lists for its prepaid gas may not be the real price. Taxes and fees can add $0.20 or more (in some states, much more) per gallon. But agencies don’t always include those fees in the quoted price.
Also, most car rentals don’t give you a discount for the gas that’s in the tank when you return the car. There’s no penalty for bringing it back empty, but there’s no reward for bringing it back full. Unless you completely drain the tank, you’re buying the company’s gas for them.
11. Return the Car Where You Picked It Up
It can sometimes be convenient to return a rental car to a different location than where you picked it up. But some car rental companies charge a drop-off fee or drop charge when you do. Drop fees vary based on the company, location, and time of year.
When booking a rental online, play around with the pickup and drop-off locations to see how the price varies. It might be worth rearranging your itinerary to allow you to pick up and return the car in the same spot if the savings are substantial.
12. Avoid Late Fees
If you return your car late by as little as one hour, many rental car agencies charge you for a whole extra day. You can avoid that problem by including a little wiggle room in your schedule.
When you book the car, reserve it for a few hours longer than you think you need it. That way, you don’t need to rush to get it back on time.
Padding your schedule has other advantages too. In some cases, rental companies charge a lower base rate per day for a longer reservation, so adding extra time could lower the price. And if you return it early, some companies grant you a refund for the time you didn’t use.
But that isn’t always the case. For instance, Enterprise doesn’t refund you for unused days if you had a prepaid reservation.
Other companies, such as Thrifty, charge you an early return fee if you drop off the car a full day early. And sometimes, a company may charge you a higher per-day rate because your shorter rental no longer qualifies for a discount.
So if you find yourself returning early from your trip, call the car rental company and ask what it will cost to return the car early. Depending on the answer, it could be worth keeping the car and bringing it back the next day.
Likewise, if you have to return the car late despite your best efforts, call the car rental company and ask what the late fee is. In some cases, it’s cheaper to extend your rental for an extra day rather than pay the fee.
When it comes to saving on car rentals, avoiding fees is only half the battle. You also want to get the lowest possible rate on the rental car.
The best way to do that is to do your homework before renting. Start by figuring out what type of car you need for your trip, and don’t let the rental companies upsell you on a larger, pricier model.
Next, shop around. Tools like AutoSlash make it easy to compare prices across different rental car companies and find the best rate. Remember to factor in discounts from loyalty programs and other sources, such as AAA and AARP.
Finally, maximize your savings by paying for the car and its gas with your best travel rewards credit card.