13 Helpful Car Rental Tips For First Timers (2023)

We know a thing or two about car rental tips and how to rent a car. Truth be told, there are not many things we hate doing when we travel, but renting a car is one of them.

Since we travel full time it’s inevitable that we have to rent cars to explore destinations. We’ve rented cars all around the globe, so much so that it is too many to count. So we want to help you determine how to rent a car if it’s your first time!

If I had to guess I’d say we have rented over 50 rental cars across six continents and 85 countries. Every time we think about a rental car we moan and groan in anticipation of setting up another rental car booking. 

However, after repeating the dreadful task a ton, we’ve developed some helpful car rental tips and hints about renting cars. If you’re wondering how to rent a car abroad or domestically this post exposes all favorite car rental tips and tricks to renting a car.

Discover Cars is our favorite car rentals comparison site!

How to Rent a Car (Our Best Car Rental Tips)

1. Avoid Airport Surcharges

Car rental tips
Our rental car in Greece / car rental tips

One of my top rental car tips is to avoid renting from the airport if possible. Airports typically charge a premium for the convenience of picking up your car right after your flight and dropping it off right before the departure flight.

Sometimes the convenience for us is worth the fee, but sometimes it’s not. Many times the car rental offices located inside the city offer lower rates so weigh your options if it’s worth it for you to get to the city first and then rent.

We did this recently in Calgary when we found out Enterprise was charging a $50 fee for airport pick up. The cab ride to the city cost us $25 – so we saved $25! Plus we didn’t need a car the first night in town since we arrived late, so we saved there too.

2. You May Not Need Car Rental Insurance

rental car tips
Our rental car on the Big Island / car rental tips

Car rental companies love to upsell you on their insurance plans. It starts during the booking process and will continue when you arrive at the office to pick up your car. Sometimes, we politely decline and they don’t press any further. 

Other times, we have declined insurance and they proceed to scare the stuffing out of you until you give in and buy their ridiculous insurance plan. Typically this happens with smaller companies and not name brands like Hertz, and Enterprise – but it all depends on the location!

For Americans, if you have your own auto insurance policy, it may cover collision damage and even personal liability for a rental car. It’s worth making a call to your insurance provider to check what is covered. Additionally, many travel credit cards provide secondary CDW that will help after your primary insurance. A few notable credit cards provide primary CDW insurance we have this with our  Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, two great travel credit cards.

3. Get the Right Card

Campervaning in Iceland
Our rental in Iceland / car rental tips

The best way to rent a car is with a credit card. Bringing me to my next point – credit cards with primary rental insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite travel credit card for many reasons, but the primary rental insurance is one of its best perks (including Priority Pass membership).

When you put your rental car on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card you get primary coverage around the world up to $75,000.

4. Do Your Homework

car rental switzerland
Renting a car in Switzerland / car rental tips

Wondering how to rent a car? Remember to do all your homework first. Before we reserve a rental car we do our due diligence online first. Typically we will start with Discover Cars or other price comparison websites to get an idea of what a car rental will cost us. We always click through to the booking as many times these third party booking engines will have extremely low prices that will be raised at checkout.

Other Car Rental Comparison Sites

These third-party booking sites will also give you results from random car rental companies I’ve never heard of Dave’s wild west car rental, 1800Cars, ZoomZoomCars the unique names could be endless. When we see these random car rental companies we always do our research to see if they are legit or not. Looking at Google reviews always helps!

Nine times out of ten we book with well-known rental companies such as Alamo, Enterprise, Avis, and SiXT. However, we have booked with third party companies and have never had a problem so don’t think they are all bogus. When booking with a larger company we often go directly to their website to see if there are better prices available.

5. Take Reviews With a Grain of Salt

rental car tips
Our rental car on Kauai / car rental tips

One of my top rental car tips is to learn how to read reviews efficiently. I always do my research on car rental companies and read reviews of the exact branch. I have to note that, like hotel reviews, I take many reviews with a grain of salt. Reviewers tend to get pissed off easily and many times it’s for circumstances that could have easily been avoided or are kinda “duh” situations.

They didn’t fill up their fuel when they returned the car, or their rented GPS has an upcharge, they got charged for tolls. All those reviews I disregard when picking a car rental company to go with. It’s also more likely to have someone write a bad review if they’re upset, rather a good with if they had a pleasant experience.

The ones I do take note of concern about customer service, cleanliness, and quality of cars, or if the branch has a tendency to overbill and randomly charge your credit card. Again, do your research before booking. While I’ve never seen a rental agency with perfect reviews I have definitely seen the difference between terribly rated places and 4+ stars.

6. Fill the Tank Up Yourself

Charlie the Land Cruiser
The car we bought in Namibia / car rental tips

Make sure you take note of this car rental tip. It may seem really convenient to have the rental agency fill the gas tank back up when you drop off the car, and it is! Don’t be fooled you will be paying for that convenience later. If you got the car with a full tank in it to make sure to plan extra time in your day to fill up the car before you return it.

Rental car companies will charge a premium on the gas in lieu of your convenience. At some shoddy car rental companies (ugh hum Rent A Cheapie in Cape Town) even made us provide a receipt that we just filled up the car at the nearest gas station. Completely wasting our time and frustrating us in the meantime.

There is also the option to prepay for fuel. Many times the prepay rate is lower than the area, but you’re buying a full tank and the rental car company is making a bet you won’t bring it back at exactly zero. So, most times they win on the prepaid fuel. In general it’s best to fill it up yourself anytime you rent a car!

7. Don’t Walk Up Book a Rental Car

our rental car in the Faroe Islands / car rental tips

This is another great car rental tip. Like a flight, you’re going to find the best car rental rate beforehand online. Actually, if you are booking a car with less than 24 hours advance notice your rates may skyrocket.

If you walk off the airplane with the thought of just walking up to the car rental booth to rent you’ll likely be surprised by the high prices. We always aim to rent a car with at least 24 hours notice. If you do need a car on short notice, it might be best in this instance to go with smaller independent providers who can negotiate a rate with you.

8. Stick to One Driver

Cretan Roads
Crazy roads in Crete / car rental tips

When thinking about how to rent a car you may be curious if you should add additional drivers. Many times you will be charged additional driver fees if you want to add a second driver. If it’s not a long-distance you may want to designate a driver to stay behind the wheel rather than pay for the extra person.

Cameron prefers to drive over me and is pretty much our exclusive driver on road trips. He has put in more miles than he cares to admit on roads in foreign countries, like 25,000 across Africa.

9. Be 25+

rental car tips

Thinking “what do I need to rent a car?” Well it may help to be older! In the United States, you will pay a “young driver” fee if you are under 25 years old. So embrace hitting your mid-twenties – you can now get better rates on car rentals!

When I was under 25 I created a free account with USAA, which waives the young driver fee with partner companies. But you’ll need to do your own research to see if this works for you.

10. One Way Car Rentals Cost More

Driving on the NC500
Our rental in Scotland / car rental tips

Picking up and dropping off at the same location will fetch you a better price than a one-way rental charge. We’ve rearranged whole trips to avoid the one-way rental charge imposed by rental car companies.

Sometimes if you have to get somewhere this charge is unavoidable and you may just have to pay it.

11. Expect a Hold Charge

Car Driving Brittany France

Every single one of our forty or so rental cars has put a hold on our credit card for the rental period. Holds can range anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $1000+ in some countries. The “excess charge” as it is called is typically stated in your reservation details, but it is easy to miss.

We are aware that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up over your credit limit on your credit card. These excess charges are for scenarios where you disappear with the car and are never seen again or if you break something and refuse to pay for repairs. Stuff like that.

12. Don’t Opt for a GPS

road trip in Australia
Our rentals in Fraser Island, Australia / car rental tips

Car rental companies absolutely love it when you add a GPS onto your rental for an extra $10-$15 a day. Avoid this charge by using your smartphone for navigation. We download offline maps of whole countries to Google Maps. This gives us turn-by-turn direction even when we don’t have WiFi or data signal. Make sure to pick up a phone cradle for the drive that way you have distraction-free driving.

We’ve also used Maps.me to get us across, Africa. Back in the day before smartphones I even bought a new GPS for a two-week car rental in Australia, which turned out to be cheaper than what the rental company was going to charge.

13. Always Inspect and Take Photos

Safari Clothing in Masai Mara National Reserve

If you run into a guardrail with your rental you’re going to be charged for damages. If someone else ran into a guardrail before you and you don’t note it when you pick up the rental car you could also be charged for damages. Always, always, always, inspect every single rental car you get with great detail – inside and out – this is my most important rental car tip.

Note any damages with the company and take photos just in case. This needs to happen before you drive off the lot for the first time with your rental car. Cam and I are both meticulous with rental car dings, scratches, windshield cracks, and cigarette burns.  Never assume that a scratch or ding is not important or big enough to note. When you return your rental make sure you get a slip signing off that all was okay on the car.

We’ve been blamed multiple times for things like “excessive sand on the floor in Mozambique,” random pieces of cheap plastic falling off in Mexico, and we were even charged for a small scratch on the hubcap in South Africa. Take photos and put up a fight if you think you are in the right.

Our Experience With Car Rentals

Not exactly car rental tips, but we give to you our experiences with a few companies. Our experiences with rental car companies are always a toss-up. I’d say 70% of the time we have a hassle-free encounter, but there have been certain companies that we prefer not to use anymore. We’ve rented from every major car rental company there is. Here are our thoughts.

  • Enterprise: Enterprise is usually more expensive with their competitors, but we’ve had great customer service experiences with them and are always given a nicer car. We drove around Canada with them for two months and had no issues. 
  • Alamo: Lately this has become our go-to car rental company. Decent customer service and a hassle free check in/check out process in Colorado, Idaho, and Costa Rica. We did hate their Cancun location though. They took forever to check in and tried to charge us for damages we did not do on the way out. Will still give them one more chance though.
  • SiXT: SiXT is great for us especially in Europe. We’ve scored some fantastic rates with them and I always look to their website first. Customer service is also top-notch and their offices are nice and modern.
  • Europcar: Decent experience in Scotland. They are more budget than SiXt, but we have had positive experiences.
  • Keddy by Europe Car: Decent experience in Portugal, a smaller more budget subsidiary of Europcar.
  • Hertz: We will go OUT of our way to avoid Hertz. After a bad experience with them in both South Africa and Ireland, we are officially done.
  • Rent A Cheapie: Only in Cape Town, Don’t do it.
  • Avis: We’ve rented with Avis multiple times and the experience can be hit or miss depending on the branch. We were treated very well on the Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Big Island.
  • Happy Campers: Happy Campers is a family run campervan business in Iceland and South Africa. We loved our rental experience with them.

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About Natasha

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years, across 7 continents, experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

6 thoughts on “13 Helpful Car Rental Tips For First Timers (2023)”

  1. I like that you mentioned that it is helpful to avoid renting cars directly from the airport and find rental companies that offer lower rates in the city. My wife and I are going to be traveling soon and will need to rent a car. These tips you shared will be helpful to us as we search for a good car rental company.

  2. Interesting article. renting a car may seem simple but there is a lot of stuff to check before you decide.

  3. This is very useful. My first bit of advice is to make sure to read all the legal paperwork and also try to find out as much as possible. Get hold of paper copies of the car insurance documents and look at some independent reviews too.
    Ensure that you know what is included in the rental fee. See if you can dig up any hidden contact details. Before signing any paperwork, inquire about the entire road history of the car in question. Ask or politely request to see a copy of the user manual etc.
    Use a good local rental car firm. Avoid those airport car companies as far as possible. You can ask your hotel staff to recommend a car company. Or search around online in order to find a firm.
    Make up notes on the actual company being used. Look at the different car comparison websites but also do remember to wholly check the company website.

  4. Question for you! How did you arrange your rental car in Namibia/which company did you use? Doesn’t look like something Avis or SIXT would typically provide! 😄

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