Renting a car in the U.S.A: What you need to know

Taking one of the many road-trips the USA has to offer? Maybe piecing together all the information you need is a bit overwhelming. To take the stress out of your trip we decided to put together a handy, bite-sized tips to help you.
Everything you need to know about car hire in the USA is here!

Location

If you’ve already started your research, you will have noticed that rates vary from city to city and depend on the size of the car rental company. Smaller independent businesses tend to charge less than when you go with airports, even though airports do have an element of convenience attached to them.

We would suggest reading some reviews to be sure you’re dealing with a reputable company. While larger companies are appealing, you may find a better, more flexible deal when renting with smaller agents in city centres. Even if you don’t know a certain area, don’t be afraid to look beyond the radius of the airport.

Another excellent tip to save money is to start and end your trip in the same location. That way, you can wave goodbye to drop-off fees.

Discover more ways to save money in The Definitive Guide to Renting a Car.

Season

The USA is no different to most countries when it comes to holiday season and peak travel weeks. Where there’s a holiday, there’s a price increase. Abide by this little mantra and you could save hundreds. Hiring a car is like booking flights. You must be flexible with your dates to get the best deal. Ease, convenience and absentminded planning will cost you in the long run.

Keep in mind:
  • Christmas and Thanksgiving (Summer) = peak time
The best time to book is generally thought to be:
  • April or October (Shoulder seasons) = value for money and good weather
We’re not saying you can’t chase the sun, we’re just saying be smart about it!

Identification, fees and taxes

We can safely say if you go directly to a US airport car rental company, expect extra fees. These fees can be known as ‘concession fees’ – and don’t get us started on state taxes, which could easily add up to 50% to weekly rental rates. That’s a lot to fork out on top of the car rental itself. Be mindful of this, don’t sign up based on the surface figure they give you. Dig deeper and ask questions. There are many layers and hidden costs associated with hiring a car, it’s never as simple as it seems.

Another point worth mentioning, if your licence doesn’t have a photograph, you may be asked to show your passport. There’s also what’s called an International Driver’s Permit (IDP), which you need to acquire in conjunction with your foreign one. If you have all three modes of identification on you, you can’t go wrong.

Deposits

It might surprise you to learn that car hire businesses rarely ask for a deposit to hold your booking. That’s great news for you! If you found a better deal you wouldn’t be charged to take your business elsewhere. We live in an age of commitment-free browsing, so don’t be afraid to make multiple bookings until your travel itinerary is in a more solid state.

Insurance  

Does car rental insurance fill you with dread? We completely understand. It’s messy, it’s expensive and it’s boring. Unfortunately, it is worth spending a little time on this before you walk up to the desk, otherwise you will be guilted into committing to something you don’t need.

Types of car hire insurance

  • Own vehicle damage insurance covers the repair costs of the rental car.
  • Automobile damage insurance covers the repair of another party’s car in the event of an accident.
  • Passenger disability insurance covers costs associated with injury (sometimes death) to passengers of the car rental.
  • Owned product theft insurance covers the cost of stolen luggage or items left in the car-hire.
  • Uninsured accident insurance applies to when in the event of an accident, the other party doesn’t have insurance, but you do.

Be aware of these insurance abbreviations

  • LDW – Loss Damage Waiver. Pay a daily fee, and don’t worry about any damage you bring to the car during your rental.
  • PAI – Personal Accident Insurance. If you already have health insurance, be sure to check the cover. This might end up being a duplicate expense you don’t need.
  • SLP – Supplementary Loss Protection. This just increases your coverage so it’s up to you if the extra fee is worth the extra car rental cover.

If you’re 18: car hire tips

Want to know if you can hire a car in the US if you’re 18 years old? The answer is a bit misty. Ideally, you’d be 21, although some companies like Avis do allow 18-year-olds to rent off them in most cities – you might not have the freedom or flexibility to shop around as much though. Hertz, for example, have set their minimum age requirement at 25, and so do many others. Sadly, being younger does mean that you will probably have a daily ‘young driver’ surcharge to account for so make room in that budget of yours for that!  

If you’re going to Canada: car hire tips

Can you rent a car in the US and drive to Canada? Yes, you can. Companies like Budget, Hertz and Dollar, allow you to take your car-hire into Canada, but they will want to know the details of your whereabouts while you’re there. Another aspect you might want to consider is the fact that most car rental companies will not offer one-way hire, meaning they will not let you drive the car to Canada and leave it there. They would want you to arrange a return trip back into the US.

If you’re lucky (and excellent at shopping around), you might find the odd one, however, will let you. Just be sure to ask the company you’re dealing with if they have a list of cities you can drop your car for it to be collected. These will most likely be near to the border so factor this into your itinerary.

When you get into Canada be aware that driving laws might differ from what you’re used to. Some of the main differences include not being able to turn right on a red light, distances are in kilometres, not miles, and in some parts of Canada signs will be in French. Do your homework before you cross over, and all will be well.

This should go without saying but… remember to take your passport for when you cross the border! It’s a fairly easy border to cross compared to some in South America, and it’s friendly enough – just have all your documents to hand.

If you’re going to Mexico: car hire tips

What about Mexico? Can you rent a car in the US and drive it there? Yes, the majority of larger companies do let you, although rules are a little stricter than if you’re taking your car hire to Canada.

Here is a list of companies that are happy for you to head over to Mexico:
  • Avis
  • Budget
  • Dollar
  • Enterprise
  • Hertz
  • National
The US-Mexico border is also stricter on documentation. You’ll need all the obvious ones like your passport and visa, plus proof of your automobile insurance from a Mexican company (your US car rental insurance does not cover you for Mexico), and your current car rental documentation from the US. Ask your car-hire company for help with purchasing your Mexican insurance, they will know where and how you can acquire this.

Mexico also has what’s known as a Border Zone, which is defined as 12-20 miles of the Mexican side of the border so if you hear this phrase, don’t be alarmed. It simply means you need to ask your car rental company if they will allow you to go beyond this. Some agencies will only allow you to drive your car up to 250 miles south of the border, but it might be that you have to split up your trip into different parts if you are wanting to head further south or into other countries beyond Mexico.

If you are, however, driving beyond the Border Zone (20 miles), you must obtain a tourist FMM visa and temporary import permit for your rental car. This comes in the form of a deposit to a Mexican bank – usually a few hundred USD, but this will depend on the type of vehicle and your age. You should also get this refunded to you once you cross back into the US. Remember, if you’re staying longer than 72 hours this will need to be reflected in your entry permit.
… and there we have it! Your insider guide to renting a car in the U.S.A. We hope this has helped you to demystify your road adventure.

If you’d like to find out more, take a look at some other Rental Car Insurance Advice articles.

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