13 Crucial Rental Car Tips For First Timers

Plan Hawaii Trip - Rental Car Kauai

We know a thing or two about rental car tips. Truth be told, there are not many things we hate doing, 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.

If I had to guess I’d say over 40 rental cars across six continents and 30 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 tips and knowledge about renting cars.

Recently I had a chat with a friend and realized she had not rented a car before, at 29 years old. Oh, and it was her first time in a foreign country adding another level of stress. I realized what had become second nature to me, can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. This post is to share my favorite tips and tricks to renting a car for all of the novices out there.

Our Top Rental Car Tips

1. Avoid Airport Surcharges

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 its 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 in 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 Insurance

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.

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 and the Barclays WorldElite Mastercard.

Renting a car

3. Get the Right 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. That works out great for us since we are nomadic and don’t have a car or home.

Campervaning in Iceland
Our rental in Iceland

4. Do Your Homework

Before we reserve a rental car we do our due diligence online first. Typically we will start with Rentalcars.com 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

Rental CarsAutoEuropeDiscover Car Hire

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.

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 go directly to their website to get the best price.

Our rental in Austria

5. Take Reviews With a Grain of Salt

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 some 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 branches 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

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 (as 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.

Charlie the Land Cruiser
The car we bought in Namibia

7. Don’t Walk Up

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’s best to go with smaller independent providers who can negotiate a rate with you.

8. Stick to One Driver

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.

Cretan Roads
Crazy roads in Crete

9. Be 25+

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, who waives the young driver fee with partner companies.

10. One Way Car Rentals Cost More

Picking up and dropping off to 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.

Driving on the NC500
Our rental in Scotland

11. Expect a Hold Charge

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. Stuff like that.

12. Don’t Get a GPS

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.

road trip in Australia
Our rentals in Fraser Island, Australia

13. Inspect and Take Photos

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.

Note any damages with the company and take photos just in case. 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.

Safari Clothing in Masai Mara National Reserve

Our experiences with car rentals

Our experiences with rental car companies are always a toss-up. I’d say 65% of the time we have a hassle free encounter, but there have been certain companies. 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 gotten 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.
  • Budget: Rented with Budget in Ireland, would go with them again.
  • 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. Bye Felica!
  • 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. I will say we were treated very well on the Hawaiian island 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 the Author



Natasha is a five-foot blonde that believes she was made short so she could fit in air, train, car, and bus seats comfortably. She believes in watching every single movie nominated for an Oscar and loves all animals. Natasha has a passion for environmentally friendly and sustainable travel. Natasha recently made a move to Canada and resides near Banff National Park in Alberta and loves new adventures in the mountains. Natasha's favorite countries are Italy, Iceland, Greece, Japan, Mozambique, and South Africa.

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One Comment on “13 Crucial Rental Car Tips For First Timers”

  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.

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