You've got the flights and your hotel booked, and you've spent hours mapping out exactly how to spend your precious time off. There's just one problem: You still need to rent a car.
Compared to the bigger expenses behind any trip, renting a car can feel like an afterthought. But with seemingly endless options of companies, renting a car can be annoying at best. At its worst, it can be overwhelming or downright disastrous trying to get the best rate from the best company.
Here are five things to consider when picking a set of wheels for your next trip.
Cheaper Isn't Always Better
If you've searched for a rental car, you've seen the absurdly cheap rates that some virtually unknown company will give you. Think twice and read some reviews before pulling the trigger.
Larger, better-known car rental companies like Hertz, Enterprise, or National have large fleets, and often have numerous locations in the same area. That means they can better manage their inventory of cars, and shift them around as needed. I learned that the hard way.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I got a great rate through EZ Rent-A-Car. But when I showed up, they were completely out of inventory because other rentals weren't returned on time. Two hours later, a car for me finally arrived.
The price for my eight-day rental came out to half the cost of other companies, so it was worth the wait in the end. But it definitely underscored the importance of being aware of which company you're renting from.
After you've booked a refundable car rental – either through the website or directly with a car rental company – Autoslash automatically checks your reservation in case the price drops. And when it does, Austolash will rebook your rental and send you the savings.
Return Grace Period
Better safe than sorry.
If your plans are up in the air or you're renting a vehicle somewhere with bad traffic, a rental car's grace period can be a lifesaver – or a killer.
Most of the major car rental companies will give you a 29-minute grace period. If you're up to 29 minutes late, no extra charges will be added to your tab. Any longer, and hourly – if not daily – charges will quickly apply.
Some ultra-budget car rental companies offer longer grace periods, while others (like my nemesis, EZ Rent-A-Car) won't give you a grace period whatsoever. Be sure to read up on the agency's grace period before you rent so you know what to expect if you're late.
If you want some extra breathing room, Silvercar and Advantage each have 59-minute grace periods.
Thrifty Tip: If you've got a Platinum Card from American Express, your rentals with Hertz will give you a four-hour grace period when you use the special rate code CDP 211762.
Get those Amenities
If all you need is a set of wheels, skip this section.
But adding car seats or a GPS unit to your rental can tack even more money onto your final price. Many major car rental companies charge $30 or more per day to add in a car seat for the kids.
And while Silvercar and its fleet of Audis isn't exactly synonymous with “cheap”, you can come out ahead when you need add-ons like these. Silvercar will put a car seat into your rental for free, and every car is already equipped with GPS.
Consider whether having these items included with your rental is worth a little extra expense. And if you need a lot of amenities, a more-inclusive rental with a higher daily rate could wind up saving you money.
What's in Your Wallet?
Before choosing your car rental company, think about some of the great benefits you can get with credit cards.
Every car rental company will offer to sell you insurance. And while there are important differences between coverage policies, most drivers can get everything they need by holding either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve cards.
Without going too deep into the weeds, both cards offer primary and secondary insurance on your rental. That gives you coverage for up to $75,000 for theft and/or collision damage. Combined with your own personal auto insurance policy (make sure it will carry over!), it's a powerful combination. And it should allow you to decline that insurance upsell with ease.
If you want perks with your rental, the Platinum Card from American Express is tough to beat. This card gives you instant status at Hertz, Avis, and National.
The clear winner of the three is Emerald Club Executive status with National. It gets you access to the special Executive Section, where you can choose any full-size car or higher when paying a midsize car rate. That means that you can reserve any midsize car and skip the National check-in desk entirely. Instead, head straight for the Emerald Aisle and take your pick.
With Avis Preferred Status, you get to skip the line altogether and pick a car, or get 25% off your rental and a one-class car upgrade. Hertz Gold Plus Status means you can head straight for the Gold counter at check-in, where it’s available. And it gets you some lower rates and a one-class car upgrade as well.
Read up more on some of these benefits of the Amex Platinum card.
And don't leave miles on the table when you're renting a car. Delta, American, and United each have a number of different rental car partners that allow you to earn miles for your rental. You’ll still be able to use perks offered by the credit card you pay with, making this a great way to double-dip on some rewards!
Think Outside the (Big) Box
Before going for your standard car rental company, consider some alternatives.
If you're staying in one city, look into whether using public transit can get you by. Many major cities across the globe have robust subway and bus systems that are far more efficient (and cheaper) than a rental car. Or maybe using rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft are more than enough to get you by.
Remember that paying for parking daily (and nightly) can quickly inflate the full cost of your rental.
But our favorite alternative is Turo. We call it the Airbnb for cars, and it's a great alternative to the stuffy and pricey car rental process. Read up on how Turo works and our review of what it’s like to rent a car on Turo.
Choosing a rental company can be overwhelming given the sheer number of options available. Considering some of these items can help you narrow down the company that best suits your needs. You’ll be on the road in no time!