Renting a car in the USA can be an intimidating task. Rules of the roads are different along with the complex insurance jargon and terms used. There are a million sites out there all claiming to be the cheapest. It is also a pretty dull part of booking a trip. Some people are tempted to just leave it to the travel agent or go to the desk upon arrival. But fear not, Our guide will show you how to book a car in the USA. So you can get on with planning your incredible road trip.
We will guide you through the best place to book, when is best to book and how to avoid the pitfalls of Insurance and Added Extra costs. So you can be sure you know exactly how to rent a car in the USA.
Where to book from
Booking a Hire car is as important a part of your trip as hotels and flights. Don’t wait until you get to your destination airport and book at the desk (we know you probably were not considering that) You will save far more by booking early
Airline and Travel Agents
Often your Airline or travel agent will offer you car hire at the time of booking. While this is undoubtedly convenient it is rarely the cheapest and you are tied to the supplier and conditions they state, this gives you no chance to shop around not only for the best price but the best terms and inclusions such as fuel policy and insurance. Even Virgin who can include car hire from FREE can end up costing you more as the included insurance is woefully inadequate and their upgrade is often more than regular car hire!
We advise you to ignore the offers from Airlines and Travel agents and sort the car hire out yourselves. Unless the Hire Car is included with your package for free.
All hire companies offer direct booking through their websites. It is unlikely to be the cheapest option and you will have to try multiple sites to find which is the Cheapest. This is time-consuming and often results in a price that is not as cheap as using an aggregate site. As such we always recommend searching for the best deal through a trusted aggregate site.
Aggregate Sites and which is Best
Aggregate sites search car hire websites for you. You can then choose whichever package and car suit you best. There are many Aggregate sites out there including the big Flight/Hotel aggregators who have turned their hand to car hire too. We tend to shy away from those such as Kayak, Expedia and Skyscanner, as we feel specialist aggregators, tend to offer more choice and have a better understanding of the industry. We tend to find prices are about the same as they offer similar rates to all.
RentalCars.com is our No1 Pick for US road trips. They search all the Major brands and normally compare well with any other site. They also always offer Full to Full Fuel (see below on fuel options) and Free one-way fees on a lot of Hires. They also offer free cancellation which is very important to us as plans can and do change. Their insurance policies are normally very comprehensive and you may not need supplementary insurance. While they are not always the absolute cheapest, they are always competitive and are a BIG name. Some of the cheaper results pulled up by the likes of Kayak etc are from small unknown companies that inspire little confidence, you may save a few£ but at the expense of confidence in the company.
Disclosure – We are not paid by RentalCars.com to endorse them. We just genuinely like their offering. Yes, we would get affiliate commission if you book through our links but that is true of any other Aggregate site or Rental company.
It is also worth saying these sorts of sites change very quickly and prices vary vastly between locations. We would always recommend trying a few aggregate sites, certainly all the ones we mentioned. From there, you can do some research on the companies and sites that come up as the cheapest. We do our best to monitor this but it can be incredibly hard to keep a full grasp of the ever-changing industry.
Extra costs – don’t believe the headline price
The problem with all these aggregate sites all offering the best price is this puts a squeeze on the hire company’s finances. To counter this they have come up with a myriad of “extras” to squeeze that little bit more cash out of you than you thought you would pay after the bargain headline price.
In the old day, Fuel policy with rental cars was simple. The agent would note whatever fuel was in the car, half tank, full tank, etc… and then you simply returned the car with the same amount. That was until some bean counter figured they could make money by charging for fuel and charging more than you would pay at local petrol stations. All these policies are designed with one aim in mind getting extra cash out of you.
The ONLY fuel policy you want is known as FULL to FULL. When you pick the car up it’s full so when you return it you make sure it’s full again. Simple, easy and as cheap as you will find it. Even if they tell you their fuel is cheaper than the local stations it’s still a bad idea. For one they are probably outright lying (we have checked and they do!) but even if it is cheaper, it’s unlikely you will manage to arrive at your final destination with an empty tank. Even a quarter of a tank is $15 (profit for them). You don’t need to be trying to get the final leg of your trip running on fumes hoping you don’t run out of fuel.
With Full to Full, you just fill up right before you return and everything is perfect. Just make sure you do remember to do this, as returning empty on this policy will hit you with a very expensive tank of fuel. The only other type of policy you should consider is a “free tank”. Normally a bonus (and is) as it sounds the car will be full and you return empty at no cost. It’s rare you will be offered this but snap it up if you are.
*** WE ARE NOT INSURANCE BROKERS*** Any advice you take from us on these sorts of serious legal matters should be taken as nothing more than a friendly recommendation. We are not qualified in legal matters and can only speak from our own experience and that of other travelers. Always ensure you are adequately covered and read all small print. If in doubt consult an insurance specialist, which Yourusacitygyuide.com are not. Nothing we say should be considered professional advice.
Another BIG earner for Hire companies is Insurance. In the USA Most hire cars do not come with insurance as standard as insurance works differently in the USA. This is not actually a squeeze: it’s the way things work. Most Americans don’t want or need extra insurance. However, for those that do want extra insurance, the hire companies gladly provide it, their policy rates are frighteningly expensive though! Agents are trained to put the hard sell on customers to take the extra policies but we advise you to avoid these policies.
That’s not to say you should avoid insurance. It is VITAL to be fully covered in case of an accident even if you are not to blame, but especially if you are to blame. Accidents do happen and if you are inadequately insured you could be liable for unthinkable sums especially if you are liable for injury or damage to others! The best way of covering yourself is a 3rd party hire car insurance policy.
These Policies cover you for any liabilities that may arise from hiring a car. They work out really very reasonably, especially when compared to the supplementary insurance offered by the hire car companies, and often the cover is superior. You can get cover for a single trip, however often a year policy works out better value especially if you travel more than once a year, like us! If you are worried the cover offered by the car hire provider is inadequate for your needs rather than plumping their cover opt instead for a standalone policy and you could save $100’s.
Our preferred supplier Rentalcars.com does offer a very good insurance policy for your car hire. Unlike booking with US companies it offers far more coverage than the minimum you will get renting in the US.
A quick description of different car hire insurance terms to look for to see if you are covered
- Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)
Covers damage to the Hire Vehicle. But only really the bodywork. Should you damage Mirrors, glass, the interior wheels, even the underside (what were you doing?) all will not be covered and you will be liable for these repairs. Losing your keys falls into this category and you will be required to pay for replacements along with all the hassle of actually losing your keys. You can often buy top-up insurance for this or have it included in a stand-alone policy.
- Third-Party Liability (TPL)
Covers damage to property or injury to anyone outside the hire car. When Hiring in the US this can be limited to quite a small amount In terms of the possible liability you may be exposed to in the event of an accident.
- Theft Protection (TP)
As it sounds this covers the cost should the car be stolen. It also covers damage caused by a potential thief should the attempt fail (Broken windows damaged bodywork etc).
Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI)
As we mentioned Sometimes the Liability insurance offered is inadequate. It can be as little as $25,000 which sounds a lot but in an accident involving a few cars and maybe even injuries, it’s nowhere near enough. SLI Insurance tops this up, normally too a much more substantial $1,000,000. We tend to ensure we are covered for this. While we have never had a claim while travelling, it’s just reassuring to know it’s there.
All these different cover levels carry the condition that you abide by the Hire companies terms and conditions. This means you treat the car sensibly or you are not covered. Most hire terms insist on you sticking to paved roads. So taking the dirt track or driving onto a beach would invalidate the cover.
Hiring from a UK Broker (such as Rentalcars.com or any .co.uk site) will normally mean these insurances are included. Check carefully when booking to see if you have adequate cover.
One Way Fees
The Enemy of Road trips! One way fee’s really can put a huge damper on your road trip plans. Essentially these are fees charged for hiring a car in one location and returning it at another. Really it makes sense and is fair enough as despite the rental companies being nationwide. it’s still a hassle for them to get all the cars back where they belong, balancing inventories is a big chore for them. But some of the fees are eyewatering, up to $1000 in the most extreme cases…Ouch.
So what can you do? an obvious answer is to plan round trips so you end your adventure where you started. This works great in some places such as Florida (where you will probably get free one-way returns within the state anyway) but works poorly for others such as cross-country trips.
All hire companies will clearly state any one-way fees so it’s worth shopping around to see if any waive the Fee. Not all one-way trips have fees. Most one-way fees within a state are free and even some neighboring states are sometimes free. California, for example, will allow one way to Nevada and Vice versa.
San Nav’s, Child Seats and such can also be rented directly from your rental provider. And while we strongly suggest NOT taking up the GPS option as you can buy your own for cheaper or even better use your Smartphone. However, Child seats are a more complex issue. If your Children need them and you are unable to bring your own then you have little option but to pay up. But most people find a way to get them on the plane with them. All hire cars are modern hand compatible with most child seat systems so we advise bringing your own if possible.
Accident and Breakdown Recovery
Another complex issue that really needs slightly more expert advice. Essentially the hire companies push this as part of their supplementary insurance, but in a lot of cases, it’s not needed. As far as breakdowns go it’s really the hire car companies’ issue. They have provided you with an insufficient car and should sort the issues for you. However, in an accident, it can’t really be considered their fault. The answer to this is to ensure you have cover for this on your Insurance policy so check your policy for terms that cover Accident and breakdown recovery. It’s not always covered by the Rental cars standard policies but lots of standalone policies do, see our insurance section of this post above.
When To Book?
Car hire like flights and hotels is a live market and based on supply and demand. So it’s never a case of the price is always the same. Prices fluctuate, going up when demand is high and dropping for low demand. So knowing when to book is a challenge. We find the best way to secure the cheapest price is to find a company that offers free cancellation. (such as Rentalcars.com) That way you can book whenever you see an acceptable price, then continue to monitor, should the price dip nearer the time simply cancel and re-book at the new price! This offers great peace of mind that you will be able to bag the best price.
Playing the game and waiting for the best price can lead to disappointment and higher prices, It’s impossible to predict when the lowest price will be so it’s easier to take the gamble away with a free cancellation policy.
Depending on where you are in the US Tolls are a big thing. In some States, an awful lot of roads are tolled. An example is Florida where tolls are seemingly endless. It pays to be diligent as failing to pay can cost you a pretty big fine. It’s hard to give specific advice on tolls in the US as it varies a lot by State where some have very few tolls and others many. Not all are cash tolls some are electronic only so ensure you know the score in any state you plan to visit. These Toll’s can add a considerable sum to your trip.
Again parking costs vary hugely depending on where in the country you are. But many hotels have worked out that this is a great way to grab some extra profit. We can’t blame the hire car companies here. The general rule is in remote out-of-town areas parking will be free but in more dense cities it can be outrageous. $40-60 a day or even higher. There are often cheaper alternatives but always check if your hotel or motel offers free parking as anywhere where space is in demand may have a high parking charge. Even if there are local Garages nearby that charge less they can end up costing more should you wish to use your car while in the city. Even Vegas Hotels that have classically offered free parking to all, now charge to park, even if you are staying in the hotels, and in places like New York, San Francisco, L.A. Parking charges can be incredible. Compare this to the Motels you may stay in when out on the road which offer free parking as long as you need.
Let us know if you have any questions, while we are not insurance experts we are seasoned travelers and rented many cars in the USA. So we are happy to at least point you in the right direction.
Have Your Say
If you have any comments on your own experiences of either renting car insurance or of any of the possible hire companies or aggregate sites we would love to hear from you. Just drop us a comment below. Or follow us on Facebook for regular updates.