The Insider: Ask these questions before renting a car

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.

• If you’ve have several moving violations. Your drivers’ license will sometimes be checked against a Department of Motor Vehicles database when you rent. If you’re flagged, you might not be able to rent a car. A car rental company may also turn you down if you’ve damaged a rental car in the past and didn’t pay for the repairs.

• If you don’t have a credit card. Many car rental companies (but not all of them) will refuse to rent a car to you without a credit card. Credit cards allow the rental company to pre-authorize a certain amount for the rental, and allow for so-called “late” charges (billing you after you’ve returned the car) if you’ve dented the vehicle. Check with your car rental company before you rent with anything besides a major credit card.

• If the cost of the rental vehicle outweighs your need to explore an area. Renting a car can be expensive, and with high fuel prices, insurance costs and other extras, it can really add up. If you have some flexibility, and can take a bus or train, it might be worth planning an itinerary that keeps you off the road, and out of a pricey rental car.

• If you’re just planning to stay at the hotel, and there’s a free van service to the airport. This is a common oversight, and results in a rental car sitting idly in a hotel parking lot for a week — and potentially, incurring a parking fee or a valet charge.

The decision to rent a car isn’t always an easy one. Take some of these questions into account the next time you’re planning your ground transportation arrangements. You may find that you don’t need a rental car for your entire visit — or at all.

(Photo: The Busy Brain/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • y_p_w

    I rather feel fortunate that I live in a suburban area where I have ready access to public transportation should the need arise.  I don’t typically use it because the car is more convenient, but it is there and the local systems are generally pretty well linked, even if it will take a long time with several transfers.

    However, there are some places where taking public transportation is putting one’s safety at risk.  I know of several areas where anyone with several pieces of luggage on the bus is seen as a potential victim by the locals.  I generally know which bus lines are relatively safe, but that kind of knowledge might not be available to someone on vacation.

    I remember taking a lot of public transportation on a trip to NYC.  It wasn’t too bad, but I was specifically warned to stay off the subway past 8 PM because of the risk of getting robbed.  I took it anyways because I couldn’t hail a cab at Times Square after all the shows let out (it was crazy).  I survived, but I did understand that tourists stick out like a sore thumb and there are elements in society who prey upon those unfamiliar with the area.

  • John Honovich

    Here’s a rental car problem that surprised me and has become a big problem. I normally rent from Hertz, no problem, quick pick up, easy drop off, etc.

    This summer, I rented from Hertz as usual. However, this time, it was in Boise. It turns out that Hertz Boise is not actually Hertz. It’s completely run by a shady operator called ‘Purco’. To be clear, all of the signs at the Boise Hertz location use the Hertz branding. You wouldn’t know it Purco until…

    Unlike real Hertz at this location, not only do they carefully check the condition of the car, they evidently look for minute scratches or imprerfections and try to milk you to pay. The whole thing feels sleazy. I’ve been fighting Hertz now for 6 months. Purco wants nearly a thousand dollars for a scratch that I can barely be seen on their own photos.

    This never would have happened at a real Hertz location. Be careful who you are actually renting from.

  • y_p_w

    PurCo Fleet Services is not a franchisee of Hertz.  They’re a “risk management company” that describes what they do as “damage recovery”.  From most accounts of people dealing with them, they act like a collection agency for local franchisees of the major rental companies.

    If they contest it, they may face further fees. After Ms. Anderson refused to pay the $20, for example, PurCo Fleet Services, one of the largest and most established damage-claims services for the car rental industry, told her that it was adding a $10 “administrative fee” to her bill and gave her 30 days to respond. It also enclosed a written report from a glass-repair shop.

    ** **

    The following sort of gives an idea of what the car rental business thinks of its customers.  They think of themselves as David vs the Goliath that are the insurance companies.  In the meanwhile their customers are hit with increased premiums.

    “This was a David v. Goliath win,” says PurCo’s Purinton. “Our beef was not with the renter Judith Koenig, but with the insurance company advancing arguments for her. Insurance companies sometimes fight loss of use and administrative charges, even though they collect premiums to cover them. This case recognizes what any rental car owner already knew: these damages are real and they affect an owner’s bottom line.”

    “PurCo definitely represents the industry well,” says Maher, whose company has used PurCo for all its damage recovery for 20 years. “They’re willing to take a stand and litigate issues like this for the cause of car rental.”

    There is universal agreement in the rental industry, however, that RACs need to learn how to combat the self-interested arguments on utilization, lost revenue and lost profit put forward by renters’ insurance companies, as well as the need to insert definitions of loss of use in rental contracts that will stand up to legal challenges and protect valuable economic rights established by the law.

  • John Honovich

    Here’s what Hertz customer service said to me when I filed a complaint: 

    “The Hertz location in Boise is an independently owned and operated licensee franchise.  The licensee owner purchases, maintains, and insures his or her own vehicle fleet.  Claims are processed by the Hertz licensee involved.”

  • y_p_w

    A lot of major brand name car rental locations are franchisees.  However, PurCo isn’t in the business of renting out cars.  Their business is in getting people to pay up when the rental agency claims that the customer is responsible for damage.

    This is what PurCo has to say about what its goals are:

    “PurCo operates on the philosophy that its relationship with its clients is a partnership in preventing loss and eliminating uncollectible damages on everything from a rock chip on a windshield to a totaled vehicle.”

    ** **

    Their philosophy seems to be that if some sort of damage is detected, they should be able to collect from the customer. That seems to be borne out from reports that they’ve sought to collect for even minor windshield nicks that didn’t even put a vehicle out of commission.

  • RITom

    When renting for more then a week the rates are higher then for less then a week (7 days).  It may benfit you to use the hotel shuttle to and from the airport for the first day (especially if you have a late arrival ) then take the hotel shuttle back to the airport a day or two later to make the rental period shorter. 

    We did this in SFO and saved over $$$ because we came in at 6pm at night. Not only would we have had poor choices of vehicles but we would have had to pay for a full rental day based on our return time. It was worth it to take the hotel shuttle and walk around town for the first two days since we did not need a car anyways.

  • baasbaas1

    What are age limitations……..In many cases this affects seniors.

  • Jim

    Also if you can rent Away from the airport you save on all the airport Fees/taxes.   I rented a car for a 9 day in Calf, Flew into SFO, but was spending 3 day in SFO before going off touring.  Took BART over to Walnut Creek, and picked up my car there, (got upgraded also) when they did not have my BCar.  The taxes/fees/parking i would have paid if  I got the car at SFO when I arrived would almost be as much as the rest of the rental.

  • Aidan

    This is how Hertz operates in Europe, and I’ve had hugely varying levels of customer experience with them over there in Italy, Spain, and the UK.

    I’m very disappointed to hear that Hertz also operates the same way in some areas of the USA.