Car Rental – Things You Should and Should Not Do


Renting a car is much more common than it once was. People travel more frequently now, or may just need a rental while their own car is in the shop. So what do we need to watch out for when we pick one up. Read on to find out the dos and don’ts of car rental.

When renting a car there are three important things you need to know:

  1. Insurance
  2. Be aware of hidden extras
  3. Know what to do if things don’t go to plan

Renting a car is relatively inexpensive. But if you don’t follow the rules, or read the small print, extra costs can escalate.

Car rental lot

Pick Up and Drop Off Tips

Here are the two most common scenarios at play when you pick up your rental car.

You’re on Vacation

You’ve just arrived at your destination and you have pre-ordered your rental. Head to the rental desk at the airport. Have all relevant reference numbers, insurance documents, and driver’s license at hand. If you look organized you will get more attention.

Ensure that you receive a copy of your documents, and everything that you have signed, and understand what you are signing. (Especially if you don’t speak the local language or the rental company doesn’t speak English.)

Also, acknowledge any excess that may be enforced or any extras that may be added to your card at a later date.

Car Rental Due to Own Vehicle in the Shop

The rules are pretty much the same for this scenario except for the location of the Rental Company. If you need a car locally for a couple of weeks or longer it’s worth shopping around for a better price. Costs for car rental are much higher at an airport location. By renting for a longer period you may also get a better deal.

Make sure you are getting what you have paid for or reserved. It may not be the exact model but must be of similar size and spec.

So you have the keys and you head off to the car lot. Before you do anything – do a full walk around the vehicle, and either film or take pics on your phone. Especially if there are any scratches or damage to be seen.

When you get into the vehicle do the same. If you can smell smoke return to the desk immediately to have them note this on your paperwork. Oh! I’m not walking all the way back to the Rental company! A valeting for smoke odor can cost up to $400 depending on the company – believe me, it’s worth the walk!

Dropping your rental back is pretty much the same deal but in reverse. Your rental should be returned in the same condition you picked it up. It should be clean, inside and out, free from any trash, and depending on where you have traveled to, it may need a wash and a vacuum.

Do Car Rentals Need to be Cleaned?

A cleaning fee is also known as a car valeting charge, and it is imposed when the car you have rented has been returned in a quite dirty state. It may be surprising for renters to learn that some rental firms will only rent out cars that are washed several times over at their centers before being available to rent out. such as having too muddy or dusty tires.

It’s not 100% necessary to wash it but the rental company has your credit card details! So let’s not give them any excuse to add some dollars.

Before you head to the rental office, once again, fully document the interior and exterior with clear, in-focus images.

You are then future-proofing your contract. It could be a couple of weeks or a month before someone decides to valet the car, and another couple of weeks before the extra charges are added to your card. You will be glad you have pics to back up your story that the car was clean on return.

Do I Have to Fill My Rental with Gas?

The last item to discuss drop-off is to do with gas. You don’t have to fill your tank before you return it but I would highly recommend it.

When you pick up your vehicle the amount of gas is noted, it’s usually full but may only be half or three-quarters full. On drop-off, this is the amount that should be in the tank, and if not you will be charged for it. The cost of rental fuel is exorbitant! My advice is to find somewhere with relatively cheap gas the night before your return day and don’t forget to take a pic of the gauge.

Rental companies are about making money, and they do this through charging renters extras – gas, valeting, late drop-offs.

There are some other points to note when incidentals happen, such as a flat tire, a breakdown, towing, or an accident.

What to Do if My Rental Has a Flat Tire

If your rental car gets a flat tire – which of course is possible – the first thing you should do is call Roadside Assistance. All rentals have this available. The phone number is usually on a sticker on the windshield. Then you should call the rental company. The Roadside Assist is going to change your tire for the spare, but they won’t necessarily fix the tire for you. You will then need to go to a tire shop and get the flat repaired.

When you’re talking with the rental company ask them is there a particular tire company that they deal with. They may be able to offer discounts for certain shops. Keep all your receipts for any expenses you might incur. You may be able to claim the costs back, depending on what type of rental cover you have.

If the tire is beyond repair, or there is no spare available then the Roadside Assist will tow you to the nearest tire shop for repair.

What to Do if My Rental Breaks Down

If you discover that your rental car has run into mechanical bother, again you can call Roadside Assistance attached to your rental agreement. Roadside Assist will initially try and get your vehicle going ie Jump Start. However, if it is a more serious problem they will tow the vehicle to a repair shop. Your rental company will then arrange for a replacement vehicle to be available. If you need to organize a taxi or other type of transportation, keep your receipts and you will be reimbursed any out-of-pocket costs.

What to Do if My Car is Towed

Rental cars may be towed for a couple of common reasons.

Breakdown

If you have a breakdown on the highway or at a dangerous junction, the police may not be prepared to wait for the Roadside Assist to arrive and they will tow your car immediately. You must notify the Rental Company that your vehicle has been towed. A replacement car will be made available in this instance.

Illegal Behavior

If on the other hand your car is towed and impounded by the police due to illegal parking or an infringement, then you will incur the impound fee. Only the registered owner of the vehicle (rental company) can release a car from the pound. There is no other way around this, you must tell the rental company and they may be reluctant to release another car into your care.

Can You Rent a Car With a DUI?

A car rental company has the right to refuse individuals with DUIs. The time that it has been between your DUI and when you ask for a rental is also considered. Most of the time, companies will deny rental cars to anyone who has been convicted on a DUI charge.

What to Do if My Rental is in an Traffic Accident

When renting a car you must have insurance. This can be your own car insurance, the insurance offered by the rental company, or your Credit Card may have an insurance offer for car rental. It is illegal to drive a car in the US without insurance.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of a collision there is some protocol to follow and it’s good to know what is expected.

  • Check everyone is ok.
  • Get everyones details including phone number, insurance information, driver licence number
  • Don’t admit liability
  • Call the police if you feel there may be an issue
  • Take lots of photos – even if it’s minor damage
  • Call the rental compnay. They will have a set protocol of what exactly they want you to do. (Along with an insurance report, they will more than likely have their own report they will want you to fill out.)

Primary Insurance initially kicks in. This is the excess you agreed to when you signed the paperwork. This is to cover the Rental Company, so they can get their car repaired and back out on the road.

This is where your Credit Card becomes invaluable. Some credit cards offer to pay the Primary Insurance costs, saving you the extra initial expense. Sorting insurance can be time-consuming, and not something you want to be sorting for the remainder of your vacation.

Secondary Insurance comes a little later and will cover any costs you may have incurred such as your rental deductible or excess if you weren’t covered by a credit card.

When renting a car, be prepared. Have the best cover available to your budget and consider paying the yearly fee to your Credit Card company as it will save you time and money in the long run.

What Do I Do if A Service Light Comes On?

If a service light comes on, on your rental vehicle, I wouldn’t get too excited about it. (Unless you are expecting to do a lot of miles). There is generally a large run in time until the service is due and even then it won’t prevent you from driving the car. As before, take a pic of the service light on the dash and make a note of it in your rental documents.

What Do I Do if an Oil Light Comes On?

If you are driving and you notice the oil light comes on the dash there are a couple of things to note.

Yellow Light: This means your oil is getting low and needs a top-up. Again inform your rental company and take a pic of the dash. You may want to op to a Jiffy Lube or similar to get a top-up. This will depend on when you are due to return the vehicle. Keep all your receipts as you will be entitled to a reimbursement for the oil and any labor costs if you bring it to a shop.

Red Light: This is a more urgent warning and requires you to pull over and stop the vehicle. Take a pic of the dash. Contact the Roadside Assist and also the rental company. Your vehicle will likely need a tow and you will require a replacement vehicle. If you incur any costs make sure to keep all receipts in order to receive reimbursement.

COVID Consideration

  • It is a good idea to enquire about the rental company’s car cleaning procedure.
  • Choose a car rental service that provides contactless rentals to avoid the rental car counter. 
  • Wipe off door handles, steering, shifters, and control panels with disinfectant wipes before getting in.

In Conclusion

The most important thing when renting a car is that you leave the rental office with all the information necessary. Contact numbers that are 24hr, and the Roadside Assist Information. Know what extras might be added and try to avoid them. And above all, have the best insurance you can afford.

You may also like the following posts:

Dollar rental vs Thrifty

Avis vs Budget

National vs Enterprise

Enterprise vs Budget

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty-five years, and I've worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Landrover, and Jaguar dealerships. My passion is cars. I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of car ownership, including buying advice, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

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