Editor’s Note: Over the next few months, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on weekday afternoons about becoming a better traveler. This week we’re turning our attention to car rentals. By the way, if you see something I’ve missed in this post, please tell me in the comments or email me.
Do you need a rental car?
It seems like a no-brainer, but it really isn’t. Any time you’re traveling somewhere and you’re not in your own car, you’ll need to ask: rent or not?
The right rental vehicle can get you to your destination quickly and can give you freedom of movement when you’re on vacation. But an unnecessary car can also add to the expense of a trip, not to mention insert a layer of worry that you can probably do without.
When to rent:
• When the only way to reach your destination is by car. That’s the main reason people rent vehicles in the United States — there’s just no other way to get there. Only 70 percent of large metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to mass transit service of some kind, and if you’re visiting someone in the suburbs, you really have no choice.
• If you need the flexibility of having your own set of wheels. Bus and train schedules aren’t always convenient. So if you need to be somewhere at a specific time — and this is a special consideration if you’re traveling on weekends or holidays, when mass transit is on a reduced schedule — then you may want to go with a rental.
• If you need to transport more than just passengers. Even if you could get somewhere by bus or train, you may have a lot of luggage or other personal belongings to carry with you. Mass transit isn’t suited to passengers with two pieces of luggage, let alone a business traveler with a box of books or samples to give away at a convention.
When to skip a rental:
• When you could get there safely and conveniently by mass transit. You’ll save hundreds of dollars (and maybe the environment) by forfeiting a rental vehicle on your next trip. Besides, what better way to see a place that the way the locals do?
• When everyone else is driving on the left. A warning to anyone visiting a country where they drive on the left side of the road, including Australia, parts of Africa, India and the UK: You’re asking for trouble. One survey found that 1 in 10 car accidents in Ireland involved tourists, many of whom were driving on the other side of the road.
• If you’re under 25, and definitely if you’re under 21. Many car rental companies won’t rent to you if you’re under 25, and virtually all of them refuse to hand you the keys to a car if you’re younger than 21. The only exception is if you are renting the car for work, and you’re covered under your employer’s insurance policy. By the way, there is such a thing as too old. American car rental companies normally don’t have published age limits, but many European countries do (it’s usually around 70). Check before you rent overseas.