How to Rent a Car on Vacation

Though renting a car can seem easy, it's important to know a handful of basic, but important facts—age restrictions, insurance coverage options, discount codes—before you get started to make sure there are no surprises when you pick your car up or drop it off at the end of your trip. Here's our guide on everything you need to know for a successful, problem-free car rental.

The Car Rental Landscape

When it comes to renting a car—especially at any of the airports in the United States—you'll see the same group of companies: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, and Thrifty. There are a few other smaller or regional companies, but you'll likely want to rent from a major player. These companies tend to have larger fleets with newer vehicles and other perks—like the ability to skip the line at the counter and head straight to your car.

If you're looking to book a luxury car, you'll want to seek out the companies specializing in those vehicles, like Avis Signature Series, Hertz Dream Cars, or the Exotic Car Collection from Enterprise. These outlets offer high-end cars from Audi, Aston Martin, BMW, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz.

Age Restrictions

No matter what type of car you plan to rent, there are some age restrictions. In most states, you must be 21 years old to rent a car. However, many agencies either won't rent to individuals who are that young or levy a surcharge on drivers (must be 18 or older) that makes the rental very expensive, but doable. Standard rates apply when you turn 25.

Renting Cars Outside the United States

Some countries require you to carry an International Driving Permit (which you can order from AAA or the National Auto Club) in order to drive in their country. Even when a country doesn't require this, some car rental agencies within that country might. Check out Fodor's How to Drive in Europe guide for more details.

Finding Deals

Start hunting for deals at the rental company websites to get a sense of baseline prices. Be sure to compare comparable cars at different companies. Each company offers discounts to various partners, like members of frequent flyer programs, or to organizations like AAA and AARP. Be sure to type in any discount codes you may have and compare the rates. You can also try bargain hunting on sites like Priceline, Hotwire, Expedia, and Travelocity. Costco Travel is another good resource for low-priced rentals.

When renting a car at an airport, check to see if the agency counter is located within the airport or if you have to take a shuttle to an off-site parking area. It can be cheaper to rent off-site, but remember to factor in the extra travel time and determine if it's worth the savings.

Insurance Ins and Outs

You definitely want primary Collision Waiver Damage coverage whenever you rent a car, but don't let the car rental agency pressure you into buying it from them. There are other ways to score this coverage. Primary coverage kicks in immediately, while secondary coverage means that you would first make a claim on your own auto insurance policy before the secondary coverage is activated. Purchasing the CWD through the car rental agency will be expensive. Many credit cards now offer primary or secondary car rental insurance as a benefit or sell CWD insurance at a reduced price. Check the American Express website for any car rental insurance benefit your card may offer. Some financial products from Chase also include similar benefits.

If you don't have a credit card that offers primary collision damage waiver as a benefit, sign up for American Express Premium Car Rental Protection. There is no cost to enroll and no deductible, and Amex simply charges you a flat rate of $24.95 per vehicle rental for up to 42 consecutive days of coverage. You must use your enrolled card in order for the coverage to kick in. The fee also offers up to $100,000 in primary theft and damage coverage (liability not included). The $24.95 fee is less than what most rental car companies charge for comparable coverage.

Before You Get in the Car

Avoid the temptation to race off the lot and take the time to inspect your car for any pre-existing damage. Make sure to document every scratch and dent in the presence of the car rental agent. Otherwise, the company could try to charge you for those damages when you return the vehicle.

When You Return the Car

Usually, you are obligated to return the car with a full tank of gas, so be sure to fill up at a station before you get close to the airport, where prices at the pump are often exaggerated. Alternatively, there are policies at some rental car companies that will allow you to return the car with less than a full tank of gas and you just pay a preset rate for the gallons you used. However, you must pre-arrange this option when you first pick up the car.

Be sure to return the car on time. Some companies will charge you an entire extra rental day if you return the car even half an hour late. Others are more lenient and will only charge you half a day. Refer to your rental contract for full details.

Finally, be sure to check under the seats for any small items—like cameras, cell phones, or umbrellas—that might have rolled under there before handing over the keys.

Andrea M. Rotondo is a writer based in New York City. She covers cruise and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. She also teaches travelers how to leverage their frequent flyer miles at FrequentFlyerToolkits.com.