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17 Terrible Mistakes You're Making When Renting a Car

How to avoid the worst auto scams

We've all been there. You get to the rental car counter, and they hand you the keys for a rusty, sub-compact tin on wheels. Then—to your horror—you see the bill at the end of the trip, and the company has whacked you with a bunch of fees you didn't even know existed. (Toll charges? Extra insurance? Mileage limits?). To prevent any more auto struggles, we've compiled the most common mistakes you should avoid when renting a car. So, next time, all you have to do is gas up and go.

Not joining the rewards club

car rental front desk worker helping customer

If you're on the road often, you can reap a lot of benefits by joining rental car loyalty programs. For instance, Avis Preferred and Enterprise Plus will let you skip the counter, Alamo Insiders offers a small 5 percent discount for members, and Hertz's Gold Plus Program makes it easier to get going by partnering with CLEAR, the identity verification program that uses facial recognition to let you skip long airport security lines.

Syncing to Bluetooth

man syncing phone to car via bluetooth

Before you connect your phone to the car's Bluetooth, know that some of your private information may be left behind. When you sync your device, your personal information is stored in the car, and rental companies are not required to delete this data. This might give the next driver access to GPS information that could reveal where you went and any home addresses you registered. If you must connect your phone, make sure you look up how to wipe the data from that car's specific system first.

Not getting the right mileage plan

car's dashboard showing the odometer

Organizing an epic road trip? Be very careful about the mileage plan as you could get slammed with an exorbitant fee if you go further than the maximum distance. Hertz and Enterprise offer unlimited mileage within certain states (but will charge you if you cross state lines). And if you're renting on a weekend, there may be different rules than a weekday. For instance, Enterprise has a 100-mile cap per day on select weekend rentals, and Hertz will charge you $0.25 for each additional mile over the limit. Pro tip: SIXT offers unlimited free mileage on all its standard vehicles.

Purchasing a toll package

man paying toll fee with cash

Many rental companies offer fast passes—such as E-ZPass or FasTrak— that will let you use express lanes in toll booths. While that may seem worth the convenience, you won't be happy when you see the final bill. Alamo, Enterprise, and National have a $3.95 fee per day, even if you don't use a toll road, and Hertz charges $4.95. Advantage is even worse: If you go through a toll booth without purchasing Advantage's E-Z Toll package, they will charge you for each toll along with a $15 administrative fee per day, up to $90 total. The smartest route? Go through cash-only toll lanes or use your own personal transponder.

Not adding a second driver to the reservation

couple in car smiling while traveling

We've all done it before. You get tired and switch drivers, or, ahem, stop for a drink and hand the keys to a sober buddy. Although it sounds harmless, you could actually get into a lot of trouble if you didn't add a second person to the rental car reservation. If you get into an accident when someone else is behind the wheel, your insurance won't cover any damages because that person wasn't authorized to drive the car. This means you'll have to pay out of pocket—which will cost you way more than the $10 a day extra driver fee. Luckily, there are a few loopholes. In California, drivers can be added for free, and in nine states, the driver's spouse can be authorized without charge

Paying for extra car insurance

car insurance contract

You didn't hear it from us, but rental car insurance is a bit of a scam. If you already have car insurance for your personal vehicle, there's no need to double pay at the desk—no matter how much the agent might try to persuade you. Plus, you might have even more protection through your health insurance policy or credit card benefits. The only time you should purchase extra insurance is if you're renting a car abroad as some countries aren't covered by U.S. auto insurers or banks.

Not checking your credit card benefits

a stack of credit cards

Even if you don't have your own car insurance, you could still be protected through your credit card. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for instance, includes an auto rental collision damage waiver, which covers collision damage and theft. This is primary coverage, which means you don't have to file a claim with your personal insurance company first, and the coverage includes other drivers on the rental agreement.

Booking with the wrong card

man renting a car online with his creddit

The insurance included with your credit card benefits only applies if you pay using that credit card. If you pay with another card or someone else pays, the insurance will not apply. Even if you use another card from the same bank, it still won't count. You can book your rental car with points and be covered by the insurance, but only if those points were earned on that specific card.

Not reading the fine print

magnifying glass on paper

If you decide to opt for the renter's insurance, make sure you read the fine print and know what the insurance does and does not cover. Many things may be obvious, but if you are driving in a foreign country, you may come across some unusual situations you'd never face at home. In New Zealand, for example, you need to be on the lookout for keas, a species of mischievous parrots that love to destroy cars by pecking out the rubber lining on the windows. Before you rent a car in an unfamiliar place, research the driving conditions and make sure your insurance will cover all kinds of unexpected damage.

Paying for pre-paid gas

car inside gas station

Don't be fooled by this "deal." Sure, it sounds nice not to worry about filling up the tank before you return the car, but in the long run, you'll always end up paying for more fuel than you actually use—and at a premium rate. You should also avoid letting the rental company refuel for you as they could charge up to five times the gas station's price. Your best bet? Fill the tank yourself, and top it off before you drop it off.

Not looking for deals first

man getting the key for his rental car

It's always wise to hunt for deals and coupons that could save you a pretty penny. Check out all the different rental companies in the area and see if there are any new membership discounts you could take advantage of. You might already have access to some discounts if you are a member of AAA, BJ's, or Costco.

Accepting the upgrade for a larger vehicle

renting a larger vehicle

Since there's more demand for compact cars, rental companies will sometimes offer you a free upgrade to an SUV if they are running low on smaller vehicles. But you may not be getting the great deal you think you are. Bigger cars are much less fuel-efficient, so you'll end up spending more money on gas than you would've if you had kept your original sedan reservation. Plus, parking is always harder to find for larger vehicles, meaning you'll likely have to pay for a garage instead of snagging a free spot on the street.

Not keeping track of the time

car return spot

When you book a rental car, the company will ask you for a pick-up and drop-off time. But the 24-hour clock doesn't start until the agent actually hands you the keys. Let's say you reserved the car for five hours (from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), but you didn't pick the car up until 1 p.m. Technically, you have that car until 1 p.m. the following day at no additional cost, despite the hours you may have originally reserved it online. Note: This doesn't apply for companies like ZipCar, where cars are reserved by the hour. Meaning if you return the vehicle late, you'll be charged a hefty fee since somebody else may have booked it for the same time you were supposed to drop it off.

Renting from the airport

car rental stands at a busy airport

It costs rental companies more money to operate out of the airport, so their rates are usually higher to compensate for that. If you have time on your side, see if you can visit a desk in another area of the destination you're visiting, either down the road from the airport or in the city center.

Not taking photos

man looking at his phone for photos of his rental car

Giving the car a quick on-site inspection isn't enough. Before you drive off, make sure you walk around the whole vehicle and take photos from every angle. Some scratches or damages are easy to miss on a first look, but with a photo you'll have proof showing what was and wasn't there when you picked up the car. For extra assurance, back up your photos online in case something happens to your phone during your trip.

Paying for extra accessories

car rental gps

Thanks to smartphones, there's no reason to pay for a GPS. The days of separate devices are long behind us, so you really don't need to borrow any fancy equipment from the rental agency. If you are traveling in a foreign country and are worried about not having reliable internet access, consider investing in a portable Wi-Fi hotspot or a local SIM card, so you can stay connected on the road. Pro tip: Keep a spare of all your important cords and accessories in your suitcase. That way, you'll have them when you need them.

Not checking the rental company's hours

car rental sign

If you're landing early in the morning or late at night, you might find yourself in a bind if the rental office is closed. At major airports, like JFK or Heathrow, rental desks are usually open 24 hours a day, but in smaller destinations, they might keep more limited hours and close early. Before you decide to rent a car, make sure the desk you intend to visit will in fact be open.

And for more general mishaps you should steer clear of, check out the 20 Worst Travel Mistakes You Should Avoid in 2020.

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