USA Car Rental: Everything You Need to Know to Rent a Car in the USA

Jessie Beck

For the most part, it’s a lot easier to get around most parts of the United States with a car — especially if you want to see national parks. The exception is if you’re staying in a city. Here’s what you need to know.

Thanks to (mostly) sub-par public transportation, you need to rent a car for most trips in the United States. And while it may seem like a simple enough task, anyone who has ever rented a car knows that your initial search can send you down a decision-tree vortex of questions like:

  • “Can I pay with a debit card?”
  • “Should I book at the airport of offsite?”
  • “Do I need insurance? What kind of insurance?”
  • “Is this rental car company even legit?”

I live in San Francisco but haven’t owned a car in over 10 years, so I rent a car at least once a month. Meaning: I’ve come out on the other side of the vortex and survived. Many times. I’ve also spent a lot of time figuring out the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to rent a car in the United States. 

Whether you’re an American or visiting from abroad, renting a car in the U.S. can be a confusing process full of hidden fees. Use this guide to help you figure out how to rent a car, find the best and most affordable option, and yes, whether or not you actually need that insurance from the rental car company.

Where Do I Find a Rental Car?

You’ll either rent a car from a traditional rental car agency, like Enterprise, Hertz, or Alamo, or from a carshare company, like Getaround, Turo, or Zipcar.

To find a rental car from a traditional rental car agency, you can search for availability and compare prices across multiple companies using Kayak, Hotwire, or Expedia. I prefer Kayak, since it aggregates prices across the rental car agencies’ websites as well as other discount booking agencies, like Hotwire.

Rental Car Alternatives: Peer-to-Peer and Carshares

In most urban centers of the United States, you’ll also find peer-to-peer car rentals and carshare options. With peer-to-peer rentals, car owners will rent out their cars to renters via a third party platform. Getaround and Turo have the most nationwide availability, though some cities have local equivalents. Although Getaround owns and manages some of the cars on its platform, for the most part you’re renting cars from individuals who live in the area.

A traditional rental car agency, and especially those in and around airports, are almost always cheaper but peer-to-peer rentals will save you time since you manage the whole booking and check in process via a mobile app. Simply tap a few buttons to unlock the car and start driving within minutes. They’re also convenient. Even if you’re Airbnb’ing a home in a neighborhood, you’ll usually be able to rent a car that’s within walking distance. 

Peer-to-peer rentals are my preferred option for:

  • Day trips and short weekend trips (rentals under 3-days). Rent the car just for the time you need it, and avoid wasting time on long waits and check-out processes at the rental car counter. Getaround allows you to do hourly rentals. Turo only has daily rentals. Note that these services generally don’t do one-way rentals.
  • Speciality car rentals. Want to drive a Tesla for a few days? You can find it on Getaround or Turo.
  • Straightforward insurance. Every carshare and peer-to-peer rental service I’ve ever looked into includes insurance in the total price.
  • Renting from within an urban center. If you plan to spend a few days in San Francisco, then drive up to Napa for a weekend before flying home, a Getaround will save you the trip to the airport or rental car facility.

With carshare options like Zipcar, all cars are owned and managed by the company and do not belong to individuals. Zipcar isn’t a great option for one-off rentals, since it requires an annual membership and often has a higher daily rate than Getaround or Turo (though the rental price covers gas and insurance). However, if you already have a membership, you can use it when you travel to other cities where Zipcar operates.

Car Rental Company Comparison

Rental car companyCustomer satisfaction scoreAverage fee for second driverAverage fee for drivers under 25 years oldCan you use a debit card?Discounts offered (AAA, AARP
Enterprise862$12 per day$25 per dayYesNone
Hertz848$13.50 per day$27-$30 per dayYes15-20% for AAA members and military/government discounts available
National846$12 per day$25 per dayYesNone
Avis824$13 per day, unless the other driver is your spouse or domestic partner. Caps at $65 total.$27 per dayYes (if over 25)30% off for AARP members, up to 25% for veterans and military
Alamo822$12 per day$25 per dayYesMilitary discounts available
Thrifty819$10-15 per day, unless the additional driver is a Blue Chip member$15-$35 per dayYes8% for AAA members
Dollar816$10-15 per day, unless the additional driver is a Dollar Express Rewards Member$15-$35 per dayYes10% off for AAA members
Budget813Same as Avis$27 per dayOnly at some locations30% off for AARP members, up to 25% for veterans and military
Getaroundn/aOnly the person renting the car is authorized to drive it.75-5% of the rental, depending on ageNoNone
Turon/aFree. They must have a Turo account.Percentage of the booking, depending on age, up to $15 per dayYesNone

Do I Need to Rent a Car When Traveling to the United States?

For the most part, it’s a lot easier to get around most parts of the United States with a car — especially if you want to see national parks. 

The exception is if you’re staying within a major city like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Chicago, or Boston for all or most of your trip. In fact, having a car can be more trouble than it’s worth in urban areas — especially when you consider parking woes and break-ins. (Seriously, a friend had her car broken into in San Francisco because she left a container of *take out food* in it. Friggin’ take out!) Rely on taxis, trains, and bikes instead.

Travel between most cities on the Eastern seaboard (Boston > New York > Philadelphia > Baltimore > Washington D.C.) is also really easy by train, bus, or plane. Same with the West Coast, but you’d also be missing out on some pretty epic road trips.

In mid-sized cities, like Austin or Denver, and those that are more spread out, like Los Angeles and San Diego, public transit may not be great. You could rely only on Ubers and taxis, especially if it’s a quick trip, but a rental car is sometimes more cost-effective and parking tends to be easier in smaller cities.

How Far in Advance Should I Book a Rental Car?

Car rental prices change constantly, sometimes several times in a day. However, you’ll usually get the best price if you book 3-6 months before your travel dates. Most car rentals go up significantly a week before, with the highest prices being within 48 hours. 

Even if your trip is sooner than 3 months away, don’t worry too much. In many major hubs, you can still find pretty good deals on rental cars (unless it’s over a holiday) if you book a week or two out. 

Airport Car Rental vs. Off Site Rental

Airport car rentals are either on-site (at the airport) or off-site (requires a shuttle). Pay close attention when you’re booking since an off-site rental can add as much as an additional 20 minutes to either end of your trip. Unless the offsite rental is significantly cheaper (and they do tend to be cheaper), it’s more worth your time to rent on-site, if that’s an option.

If you do rent from an offsite location, the rental car company should provide a free shuttle to and from the airport. However, if you don’t use this shuttle (for example, you’re renting from a location near an airport, but actually took the bus or a taxi from within the city), ask about a discount. Airport car rental companies usually have an airport tax built into their prices (around $10) but if you didn’t enter through the airport or use the shuttle, they’ll sometimes waive it.

You can also rent a car from a location within the city. Renting a car from the city center is almost always more expensive than what you’d pay at the airport. 

How Much Does it Cost to Rent a Car?

In most American cities, $40-$60 per day for a standard, mid-size car is a pretty typical price. However, you can often find rentals for as little as $20 per day, especially during non-peak travel times, but also as high as $80-$100 during busy seasons or last-minute bookings. 

Tips to Save Money on Car Rentals

  1. Rent from the airport. Car rentals in city centers tend to be more expensive than airport rentals.
  2. Rent for a full week. Most rental car companies, and even some peer-to-peer rental services, will give you a discount for renting for a full week. Often, it’s cheaper to rent for 7 days than 6.
  3. Earn extra miles through airline and credit card partners. Credit cards and airlines have partnerships with rental cars. Although it’s not always worthwhile to spend miles to rent a car, you can earn miles on an airline’s loyalty program (i.e. United or Alaska) when you rent.
  4. Look for discounts. Many companies give discounts to AAA members or military personnel.
  5. Sign up for their loyalty program. Like airline loyalty programs, it’s almost always free and you’ll get access to discounts and perks, like speedy check-ins.

Which Rental Cars Allow You to Use a Debit Card?

Almost all rental car companies will let you use a debit card if you meet certain requirements, though Avis is the best for travelers over 25 who don’t have a credit card, as well as Dollar.

To rent a car, you generally need a credit card in the name of driver/person renting the car. When you check out, they’ll place a hold for a few hundred dollars on your credit card. It’s refunded when you return it in good condition. 

If you don’t have a credit card, you can rent a car with a debit card, though with restrictions. Most companies will put a larger hold on a debit card than a credit card and require you to have enough funds in your account for the security deposit. They may also require proof of travel to and from the city you’re renting in, such as a round trip plane ticket, and, in the case of Hertz, two forms of identification. All of the following rental car companies accept debit cards for payment but be sure to read their fine print before booking:

If you have a credit card and a debit card, it’s always better to use your credit card to pay for a rental car. Not only will the deposit/hold on your card be lower, but you’ll also be able to use any insurance your credit card provides in the case of an accident.To use your credit card’s rental car insurance, you have to pay for the car with that card.

Which Rental Car Companies Offer AAA and Other Similar Discounts?

If you are a member of AAA, you can receive rental car discounts at Hertz, Thrifty, and Dollar. Hertz offers up to 30% off rentals, Thrifty up to 8%, and Dollar up to 10%. AAA’s website says these discounts are only available for “advanced booking”.

Budget and Avis also offer generous AARP discounts, up to 30%. Budget, Avis, Alamo, and Hertz all offer discounts to active military, government employees, and veterans. All discounts vary by location.

What Kind of Car Rental Insurance Do I Need?

In most states, it’s illegal to drive without insurance. However, you don’t necessarily need insurance through the rental car company. In fact, in most states rental car companies can’t refuse to rent to you if you decline the additional, totally optional, insurance. 

Your Existing Insurance(s) May Cover You

Existing travel, auto, health, homeowner, or renter’s insurance may already cover you for rental car damage, theft, or injury.

For American car owners who are renting in another state or city, your auto insurance generally covers your rental car as well. Check with your insurance provider before you opt out of the rental car company’s coverage. In the case of theft or injury, your health, homeowner, and renter’s insurance can also kick in and cover you. 

If you have travel insurance, be sure to check if your policy also covers rental cars as some do.

What About My Credit Card?

Many credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire preferred and Capital One, have rental insurance. However, you’ll still need liability insurance either through your auto insurance or the rental car company on top of it.

Buying Insurance Through the Rental Car Agency

If you don’t have auto insurance, you can either buy through the rental car agency or through a third-party provider. Rental car agencies have four different types of insurances:

  • Collision Damage Waiver (CDW): Covers damage to the rented vehicle
  • Supplemental Liability Protection (SLP): Covers damage/injury to other people or property
  • Personal Accident Insurance (PAI): Insurance against vehicle theft
  • Personal Effects Coverage (PEC): Insurance for medical benefits for you and your passengers in the case of an accident

You should at least get the CDW if don’t already have another policy that covers you.

Buying Insurance on Your Own

You don’t have to buy insurance through the rental car company. You can also buy short-term, primary car rental insurance through providers like Allianz Global Assistance, which is around $9 per day. It will pay out up to $40,000 for damage and loss and includes 24-hour emergency assistance.

If you don’t own a car, but rent or drive other people’s cars frequently, you can also invest in non-owner car insurance (this is what my partner and I have) and pay annually to save on costs.

How to Navigate the Rental Car Pick Up Process

Picking up a rental car feels like I’m taking a pop quiz. So many questions, and, until I started renting regularly, I was never sure if I was answering correctly. Below are common questions they’ll ask and how to answer:

Do you need to add a second driver?

I generally say no to avoid the fee, and just suck it up and have one person drive the whole time.

Do you want to prepay for gas or return it full?

Always say you’ll return it full… and then return it full. Prepaying for gas is a rip-off and it only takes an extra 5-10 minutes to swing by a gas station and fill it before you drop it off.

Do you need GPS?

Oh, please. Just use your phone.

Do you need Easy Pass for tolls?

This depends. If I’m renting in New York City and driving around NYC and New Jersey, then hell yes. Give me the easy pass to deal with all of those tolls. However, if I’m driving from San Francisco to Yosemite and back, I’ll likely only encounter one toll that I can pay in cash for (so, no thanks). Do a quick Google Maps search for tolls in your destination before you say yes.

Do you want an upgrade?

Answer: “Will it cost more?” Sometimes they’re trying to upsell you but, at least in smaller cities/airports, I’ve also had agents upgrade me just to be nice or because they ran out of economy rentals.

When you’re picking up your car, also confirm the return date and time, as well as the total price — especially if you’re picking up your car earlier or later than originally planned. For example, if you rented from 5pm on Tuesday until 5pm on Thursday, the car company will bill you for two days (two 24-hour periods). However, if you don’t pick it up until 6pm, they should allow you to keep it until 6pm Thursday for the same price. On the other end, if you’re picking it up at 4pm on Tuesday, you’ll be charged for two days and one hour if you return it at 5pm Thursday.

What Happens if I Get Into an Accident With a Rental Car?

If you get in a small fender bender or minor accident with a rental car and you’re still able to drive it, here’s what to do:

  1. Take a photo for your own records.
  2. Return the car at least 30 minutes earlier than planned, to allow for additional paperwork.
  3. Keep a copy of your rental agreement, all receipts for the original payment and any additional charges, as well as any paperwork documenting the damage.
  4. Get a business card from the person you speak with, or their manager, just in case you have future questions.
  5. If you had insurance through the rental car company, and this particular damage is covered, they may not charge you anything at the time you return the car.
  6. If you were covered through your own insurance, or the damage was not covered by the rental car insurance and is covered by your credit card, you will have to pay for the damage up front and request reimbursement from your insurance / credit card. For that reason, it’s important to keep documents of everything. You have a lengthy form to fill out ahead of you.

If you need roadside assistance (i.e. flat tire or dead battery), most rental car companies will only help you out if opted in to their insurance. Otherwise, you will have to call your own insurance company or, if you have it, AAA. Remember that if you have car owners insurance or AAA, that covers you while driving rental cars as well. For both Getaround and Turo, you can call their customer support at any time during your trip for assistance.

For major accidents, you should always call 911 if you suspect any injury. Again, the rental car company, your insurance company, or AAA will help with towing depending on what you chose to cover you during your rental. No matter what, save the receipts. If you get into a collision with another car, exchange information. If they’re at fault, it may be up to their insurance company to cover your damages. That said, not all rental car company insurance types will cover damage to another vehicle if you’re in a collision. Always read the fine print before you commit.

Returning Your Car: How to Avoid Fees

Fortunately, returning a rental car is way easier than picking one up. For traditional companies, just make sure to return it on time, undamaged, and full of gas. 

If you’re using a carshare, pay attention to local parking rules to avoid a fee (you’re often responsible for the car for up to 24 hours after your rental ends).

No matter where you rent from, you can also pay any outstanding tolls online to avoid a processing fee from the rental company. You just need to know the car’s license plate number. Just search for the toll plaza’s website (i.e. Google “Pay Golden Gate Bridge Toll”) and pay online.

TL;DR

Renting a car in the United States is often a confusing, but necessary, logistic when traveling here. To save yourself time, money, and make sure you’re getting what you need for your trip, follow these tips from a frequent car renter:

  1. Airport rentals are almost always the cheapest.
  2. Book more than a week out, but ideally 3-6 months out, for the best prices.
  3. Some, but not all, companies offer AAA, military, or AARP discounts.
  4. Peer-to-peer rentals are a good, time-saving alternative to traditional rental cars for trips under 3 days to/from urban centers.
  5. If you have auto insurance, you likely don’t need insurance through the rental car company. You can also find good deals through outside insurance companies, like Allianz. Insurance through your credit card is secondary insurance.
  6. Just say no to add-ons.
  7. If you get in an accident, document and save copies of everything.
  8. Most companies will let you rent a car with a debit card, so long as you meet certain criteria and restrictions. Paying with a credit card is the default.
  9. Expect to pay fees for additional drivers or if you’re under 25 years old.

For better or for worse, America was built for driving. So get out there and enjoy.

 

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