Paul Ryan looks like the car rental salesman who bullies you into getting full coverage.
Is a Car Rental More Trouble than It’s Worth?
I often wonder why so many people rent cars. There are times when renting a car is a great option. However, many Fifty-Plus Nomads rent a car because it seems to do without considering other options such as public transportation first.
Renting a car anywhere can be difficult and problematic for many Fifty-Plus Nomads. Rental rates generally range from $40-$100 a day, and insurance costs $10 to-40 more. (Also, most cars in Europe have a stick-shift transmission. If you need an automatic, you’ll pay more if you can find them at all).
If you rely primarily on public transportation, you will see that most of the world is considerably cheaper than the US. (Note: the US is usually the most affordable and convenient place to rent a car).
Also, you will have other advantages if you rely on public transportation, including:
- You’ll meet more local people. I’ve met some of the world’s kindest people on buses. One time, I even had a fellow passenger in Mexico offer to let me stay with him because I was sick on the bus.
- You’ll see more of the countryside and relax on public transportation. On the bus or train, can read and look out the window rather than having pay attention to the road.
- You won’t have to pay the high tolls that exist overseas. Tolls can easily add ten to twenty cents a mile to travel in many parts of Europe and even regions of Latin America, such as Mexico and Argentina. (For example, you can spend more money on tolls alone traveling between Texas and Central Mexico than an airline ticket would cost.)
- Gas in most countries (even in Third World Countries) costs as much or more per gallon as in the US, In most of Western Europe gas costs the equivalent of $8-11 a gallon. Even in a country where travel is cheap, like Thailand and Argentina, gas costs more than in the US.
- Several times in my Big Blue Marble classes in the 2000s, I heard stories of people who rented a car in Western Europe or Australia and got in an accident in an area (like a traffic roundabout or a mountain pass) that was not covered by the car insurance. Generally, these students have had to endure a prolonged fight to get the issue resolved, and one student even had to pay the rental agency for the cost of a “totaled” car. I did not have a similar problem when I had a fender bender in a rental car in Calgary, Alberta in 2015. (I had credit card insurance with American Express)
- It can be challenging to find parking overseas, particularly in large cities. It is not unusual to spend thirty minutes to an hour to locate any free spaces. And, in some cities, you can quickly pay $20-$50 a day to park your car. Besides, in many European cities, you’ll have to park outside of town and walk or bus your way into the central city.
- Finding your way around can be very frustrating. I met someone who spent almost six hours in a car just looking for a way to get out of Mexico City. I have also met several people who were so frustrated driving around Europe between the small roads, crazy drivers, and confusing road signs that they vowed never to return. My father even edited a video of all the mistakes we made in trying to find our way around France by car.
Best Times to Rent a Car
Despite these apparent disadvantages, sometimes renting a car can be worthwhile. I would advise you to consider renting when:
- You plan to do a lot of travel in rural and suburban areas. It can be hard to find buses, and when they do exist, they can be extremely infrequent. In addition, when you travel in rural and suburban areas with a car you can access inexpensive rural accommodations [car-oriented chain hotels (like Motel 6 in the US or Ibis or Formule One in Europe), hostels and campgrounds, and agro-tourism farmstays and monastery rooms and restaurants (truck-stop diners and drive-through, fast-food restaurants) which help offset the car rental costs.
- You are traveling with your family. Even though costly, car rentals become competitive with public transportation when three or more people travel together.
- You need to carry a lot of luggage. Cars will save you a lot of lugging and storage charges. (in the US and Western Europe, it can be hard to find baggage storage facilities in bus and train stations. When you do see these facilities, they will be costly and may not allow you to keep baggage overnight).
- For most travel in the US and Canada unless you are going to (and/or between) major cities in a congested area (like Boston-Washington- New York, San Francisco, and Chicago). Public buses are rare in the US and, most importantly, rental cars can be very cheap. Over the years, I’ve noted that there are several clues to getting inexpensive car rentals in the US and Canada:
How to Get the Best Car Rental in the US and Canada?
- The most reasonable car rentals are usually from locations that are off-the-beaten-tourist-path. It is rare that you’ll get a good deal at the airport. Sometimes the difference in rental fees between places in the same city can be so pronounced that it is worth the time and trouble to take a bus or shuttle to another area to pick up a car or to change your itinerary to a place where rental cars are available cheaply. Years ago, I saved almost $300.
- It often costs the same to rent a car for a week as for five days. Therefore, when possible, make rentals in week-long increments. (Note: This is true even for extended rentals. In other words, it will cost the same to rent a car for 26 days (7 days for three weeks plus five days) as for 28 days (7 days for four weeks).
- Look for rentals as part of packages. When you book a flight, many sites will ask you do you want to rent a car as well. I’ve found that usually booking both together will save 10-30%.
- While typically, you want to avoid returning a vehicle to a different office than you rented it from, sometimes it can work out. You may pay as much or less for a car rental when you return the car to an office located a long distance from where you rented it. I was surprised to discover that it cost me $50 less to rent a car for a week in Peoria, Illinois in 2006 and return it to Providence, Rhode Island than to rent a car to travel around Peoria for a week.
Typical Extra Car Rental Fees (Often a Rip-Off)
Watch out for car rental companies’ additional fees. I have found that rental car companies are most likely to force you to pay unexpected fees for all travel businesses. Some of these fees include:
- Early and late return and pick up fees: it is essential that you return or even pick up your car at the time that you indicated in advance to avoid fees. (I was once charged for dropping off a vehicle late because the staff was so overwhelmed at Chicago-O’Hare with car check-ins that they did not process the paperwork until three hours after I dropped the car off). The penalty for returning your vehicle earlier than indicated on the rental contract is sometimes called “rental change fee” and can be as high as $15-20. If you turn your car in late, you will probably pay a fee as well as an hourly or daily rate for the extra rental time. Expect to pay a full day’s charge for these optional items if you return the car late.
- Refueling fees: To avoid this fee, refuel the car within ten miles of your rental car office and bring the receipt with you when you return your vehicle.
- Additional authorized driver fees.
- Frequent traveler program fee: If you ask the rental car companies for credit on a frequent flier account, expect to pay a small daily fee- often more than the miles are worth for longer-term car rentals- for the priviledge.
- Lost key: Since most keys are smart keys expect this fee to be several hundreds of dollars. You may pay this fee twice if you lose both keys on a two-key keyring.
- Cancellation fees: Usually car rental companies do not charge this fee for most rentals; however, there are two notable exceptions, if you:
- rent a luxury or premium car.
- prepay for the car (which usually saves you some money) you will pay a fee if you cancel your rental less than 24 hours before your scheduled pickup time.
- Drop-off fees (sometimes substantial) if you do not pick-up the car at the same place you dropped it off.
- Fees (sometimes quite high) for GPS and baby seats.
- Airport concession fees: These fees can be quite high and sometimes are the main reason why the cost of rentals in airport rental is higher than most other locations.
- Miscellaneous car-related fees such as vehicle licensing and tire recycling fees.
- Do not be surprised if car rental companies charge you an additional day if you do not return the car at the exact time you indicate on your reservation.
- Transponder Fee. I was charged $20 for the transponder rental in Florida. The transponder was necessary to pay tolls on Florida’s toll-roads. (The roads had no toll booths). Many rental companies charge this fee if you don’t use toll roads. I have heard of companies charging this fee daily without any cap. For more information on this fee, see this Point Guy post.
Renting a Car Outside of the US and Canada
I have never rented a car outside of the US or Canada. Here is a summary of a few basic tips and some good resources for additional information.
- Check out websites and guidebooks for advice about travelers renting a vehicle overseas. Rick Steves goes an excellent job of addressing some of the issues you will find in Europe.
- Also, find out about whether you need an international drivers’ license. The international drivers´ license is most valuable if you are going to a country without the Roman alphabet (usually Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.).
- Make sure that your insurance will cover you in another country. Credit card coverages are more likely to cover you than home country car insurances but do not be surprised if you need to buy insurance coverage overseas.
- Here are some additional tips from Smarter Travel, Thrilllist, and the New York Times.
Some Additional Transportation-Related Posts
- Lessons From An Express Kidnapping in Puebla, MexicoIn January 2020, I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico. I discuss what happened to me and what I learned about travel safety from the incident.
- Extra Fees: What are Ancillary (Extra) Fees and Why Are They Increasingly Becoming A Travel Industry Lifeline?More and more the travel industry depends on the sale of other products to expand and maintain its profitability. Expect to be bombarded with hints to buy other things (ancillaries) on your next cruise, flight, etc.
- Why the Sharing Economy Has Become So Popular in the Travel Industry?The sharing economy like Uber and Airbnb has made a major influence on the travel industry and will continue to affect the industry far into the future.
- Taxis, Ubers, and Tuk-Tuks 101: A Guide to Safe, Inexpensive, and Trouble-Free RidesDiscover multiple tips to help you avoid being ripped off or worse while using taxis, tuk-tuks, or Ubers.
- Car Rental 101- How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off at the Car Rental CounterRenting a car is probably the travel decision most fraught with potential problems. Long-term travelers should ask themselves if a car rental is really necessary. They should also watch out for car agency rip-offs and other problems.
- Getting to the Airport Trouble-Free: 6 Simple TipsGetting to and from the airport and airport parking will be easier if you follow the six simple tips in this post.
- Public Transportation 101: A Guide to Finding the Best Options Around the WorldA basic primer on finding the best transportation options for travelers. Learn how to avoid costly mistakes and potential safety issues with buses, trains, and subways.