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CONSUMMATE CONSUMER

Renting a car is terrible. Here’s how to make it slightly less terrible

Your chariot awaits.
  • Hilary Sargent
By Hilary Sargent

Quartz contributor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If the idea of paying $800 to rent a car without a navigation system for a weeklong vacation doesn’t sound like a bargain, welcome to the club! Renting cars is a chore, and a confusing labyrinth of nonsensical fees, overpriced gas, and insurance that isn’t technically insurance. No matter how little you manage to pay for that PT cruiser that smells like something unfamiliar (and not good) you’re left with the overwhelming feeling that no matter how good a deal you managed to get, you could have done better.

Every March, I make a weeklong pilgrimage to Florida. (Don’t judge me. I do it for the shells.) And every year—every, single, year—I decide this will be the year I will beat the car rental system. This will be the year I drive away from the airport in a car I don’t hate, after paying a rate I don’t mind.

I am an eternally optimistic traveler.

The first year I took this particular trip, I was somewhat blind to the nuanced maze that is renting a car at an airport. Sure, I had rented cars many times before. But more often than not, my car rental experiences had been for business (going on an expense report), or arranged by a travel agent. And so I was, when it came to renting a car, pretty naive: I searched on Kayak.com, picked the rate that looked relatively inexpensive compared to the others but was still with a company whose name I recognized, and I signed up.

I picked the type of vehicle I wanted (an SUV), opted for the PlatePass (since Florida has numerous electronic only tolls), tacked on a carseat, a navigation system, and added an additional driver.

The price tag was approaching $800. To rent a Ford Escape. In Florida. For a week. For the price I paid to rent the carseat, I could have purchased a new carseat. For the price of the rental, I could have made three monthly lease payments on a brand new Ford Escape.

In the years since, I have smartened up. I now pay less than half that.

I wish I could offer a list of tips and tricks so as not to feel like you are getting screwed each and every time you rent a car. But, it’s better to approach car rentals as minimizing the extent to which you’re feeling screwed. After all, paying to drive around in a car that isn’t yours, and that almost definitely isn’t what you want to be driving, isn’t a treat. Here’s how to ease some of the pain.

Don’t add additional drivers unless you really need to.

Rental companies often charge for additional drivers per day, so if every adult you’re traveling with doesn’t need to drive, don’t add them! There are some exceptions to this rule: California, for example, has a law that prohibits car-rental companies from charging extra for additional drivers, and other states don’t allow companies to charge a fee if the additional driver is a spouse.

Don’t fall for their gas schemes.

Don’t prepay for gas. Ever.

Almost definitely say no to the insurance, which isn’t really insurance.

The general rule is you should say “no” to the “loss-damage waiver” or “collision-damage waiver.” According to Nerdwallet, these waivers are “technically not insurance but rather a waiver that says the rental car company won’t come after you.” After you say no to the insurance that isn’t really insurance, ask for written confirmation that you declined the insurance that isn’t really insurance, and that you aren’t being charged for the insurance that isn’t really insurance. This is important because, according to one lawsuit filed in federal court, some consumers have declined the waivers only to find they were charged for them anyway. (When it comes to renting a car abroad, different rules may apply.)

Shop around.

I generally start off by comparing rates on sites like Kayak.com and Autoslash.com. Then, I choose the least expensive option. I make the reservation, but I don’t pre-pay, allowing me to continue shopping around as the trip approaches. When searching for the cheapest option, be a little cautious. The New York Times published a list of car rental tips that included checking out less well-known companies, like Payless. Now, I’m all about taking risks from time to time, but a quick check of the Better Business Bureau suggests you may be better off hitchhiking than renting a car from this company. So, just know what you’re getting into. (Also, hitchhiking isn’t safe. Don’t hitchhike.)

Consider picking up the car somewhere other than the airport.

This is a tip you’ll hear a lot, and for good reason. Often, you can score a better deal if you pick a car up at a rental location that isn’t the airport. So, depending on how price conscious you are, this is worth exploring. But consider whether the added hassle and cost of getting from the airport to the pickup location will make it worthwhile to do this. (Especially after a long flight. With children.)

Once you’ve nailed a reservation, see if you can skip the line.

Once you’re 100% sold on a particular rental reservation, I recommend paying up front, and signing up for a program that will enable you to skip the line at the airport. After landing at your destination and retrieving your luggage, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend an hour (or more!) standing in line for a car rental.

Don’t pay for a navigation system.

You have a smartphone, probably. It’s better than the navigation system they will rent you. If you’re concerned about a handsfree option, duct tape your iPhone to the dashboard. Voila: navigation system.

Avoid the carseat racket.

The only thing more annoying than paying $800 to rent a car you don’t even like is spending $100 to rent a carseat, broken in by countless other children who may or may not have been vaccinated. The only advice I have—beyond bringing your own giant carseat—is to purchase one of these inflatable booster seats, which has saved me hundreds of dollars and packs up easily.

Use a discount code!

There are two kinds of discount codes—the ones you can use with a clear conscience and the ones you know you’re not supposed to use.

When it comes to the former, by far the best thing I’ve done to cut my car rental rates is to become a member of Costco. Costco car rental is a consistent bargain compared to other offers. I paid $75 for a membership that easily paid for itself immediately. Also, I now always have enough fruit roll-ups to survive an apocalypse. (This post is not sponsored by Costco.)

Now to the second kind of discount code. I AM NOT ENCOURAGING ANYONE TO USE A CORPORATE CODE THEY AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE USING EVEN THOUGH IT’S CLEAR FROM THE INTERNET THAT VIRTUALLY EVERY TRAVELER BY NOW IS PRETENDING TO BE A DELOITTE CONSULTANT AND NO ONE SEEMS TO GET CAUGHT.

Know the risks before you decide to treat yourself to a corporate or government rate. If you aren’t, say, an actual employee of the university system which corporate car-rental discount code you just applied to your reservation, think about this. Some of those corporate codes come with insurance attached. That means, that if you get in a car accident, things will very likely become exceedingly not fun for you, and likely quite expensive. Not a single car rental company responded to my numerous inquiries about how they go about checking to see if those corporate codes are being abused, but given that there is an entire world of corporate discount codes just a Google search away, clearly, some people are getting away with this. Others aren’t.

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