In the USA, with the exception of New York, getting around without a car can be challenging. The distances between cities are vast and public transportation is not as efficient as it is in Europe. I have compiled some practical advice on how to rent a car in the USA, explaining what to watch for to avoid common pitfalls. I will also share insights on how and where to rent a car affordably, and reveal a trick for securing a complimentary upgrade.
What You Need to Know about Renting a Car in the USA
The USA has hundreds of car rental companies, including international chains such as Avis, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, Fox, Hertz, National, and Thrifty. Frequently used terms include car rental, rent a car, rent-a-car, rental car, car rental, or car hire.
The most cost-effective way to rent a car online is usually two to three months before your planned trip. Prices differ between cities, branches, and seasons.
In the USA, Canada, and Mexico, driving is on the right side of the road. A notable characteristic of driving in the USA is the automatic transmission, which most cars have, with few exceptions. Adapting to driving an automatic car is quick, easy, and comfortable. A car with a manual transmission can be requested at the time of booking.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning and a car radio. Free navigation is available on your mobile phone, simply download the offline area to Google Maps or purchase a local SIM card.
USA Car Rental Terms
- 18-20 years old: The rental company may refuse to rent you a car altogether, or they may only offer you the most basic model and charge a substantial additional fee.
- 21-24 years old: Most rental companies will rent you a car, but expect an Underage Driver Fee of around $25 per day.
- Over age 25: Cars can be rented without any additional charges.
In most places, simply presenting your driving license is sufficient. If it displays the EU flag in the corner, it is perfectly acceptable. Nonetheless, I suggest you carry your international driving license in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
The card is used for paying the rental fee and the deposit. Don’t be misled by the term credit card; a debit card issued by your bank is perfectly fine. I have never encountered any issues using a Czech debit card through Google Pay.
Your passport is used to verify your identity.
Tricks for Cheap Car Rental in the USA
You can typically reduce the cost of car rental by employing a few strategies. The following methods have proven successful for me, and I recommend implementing them together.
Lowest Price Guarantee From RentalCars
RentalCars.com is a multilingual car rental booking portal. Over the past decade, I have rented cars through them on almost every continent. They provide excellent customer support and guarantee the lowest rental price. If you find a better deal elsewhere, they will reimburse you the difference.
When to Book a Car Rental in the USA
There’s no definitive answer to this as numerous factors can affect the price. Generally, the most cost-effective time to book is 2-3 months prior to your planned pick-up date. However, during the summer holidays and around Christmas, prices can be higher due to increased demand.
Which Car Class Should I Choose?
Select your car class based on the number of passengers and the length of your journey. I would advise against smaller cars for extended road trips due to their limited space. Convertibles, too, can become tiresome after a few days. Instead, consider a crossover or an SUV.
Economy cars are the most affordable option. Mid-range cars are typically 5-15% more expensive, a comfortable SUV will cost you 20-25% more, and a convertible will be about 65-75% pricier than the most affordable car.
When you collect your car, you may be offered an upgrade to a higher class at a reduced rate. The decision is yours to make. If the car in your booked class isn’t available, insist on an upgrade at no additional cost.
Should I Rent a Car at the Airport or in the City Center?
Airport car rentals are usually more convenient due to the higher level of competition. The price may be slightly higher because of airport entrance fees, but this can be offset by not having to pay for transport into the city. It’s also a more convenient option.
For rentals spanning several weeks, it might be worthwhile to compare prices with city center pick-up points.
Return the Car at the Same Place You Rented It
You can return your rented car at a different branch, but this usually incurs an extra fee. It’s advisable to pick up and return the car at the same location.
Rental Charges Apply for Every Started 24-Hour Period
Rental companies typically charge for every 24-hour period. If you pick up your car at 3:00 PM, be sure to return it by 3:00 PM on the day it’s due back. If you return it at 3:30 PM, you’ll be charged for an entire extra day.
Compare Offers From Multiple Car Rental Companies Online
You’re more likely to find a better deal if you compare offers from several car rental companies. You don’t need to visit each company’s website individually; simply use the price comparator.
How to Get a Better Car at a Lower Cost or for Free
This strategy often works with smaller rental companies. Book the smallest car, which is typically not in high demand. If you arrive to collect your car around noon, there may be no cars left in that class. In this situation, the rental company will likely offer you an upgrade at no additional cost.
What to Look Out for When Renting a Car in the USA
Advice to help you avoid the most common mistakes when renting a car in the USA.
Advertised Price May Not Be Final
Many rental companies advertise car hire for a few dollars. However, the price typically includes only the rental itself, excluding taxes, fees, or insurance. What initially seems like a good deal can quickly turn into a poor one.
Rented Miles May Be Limited
Some car rental companies limit the distance you can drive the car. High fees are typically imposed for exceeding the limit. This practice is less likely to be encountered with well-known rental companies.
Limits on Where You Can Take the Car
Rental companies’ terms and conditions clearly specify where you can take the car. For insurance reasons, trips to Mexico are usually prohibited, whereas trips to Canada may be permitted with prior arrangement. Some rental companies also prohibit travel to certain states, such as California and Nevada.
While this is not very common, I recommend verifying this beforehand. Rental cars often contain hidden GPS locators, and breaching these rules can result in substantial penalties.
Check the Rating of a Particular Branch
Instead of looking at the overall company reviews, check the ratings and reviews of specific branches. For instance, Priceless Car Rental has an overall rating of 7.2/10, but its Los Angeles Airport branch only has a 2.0/5 rating. Note that a rating of zero is not possible.
Don’t Let Unnecessary Extras Get in Your Way
Car rental companies, aiming to maximize profit, may try to sell you extras such as navigation systems, insurance, help lines, and so on when you pick up your car. I recommend you choose insurance through RentalCars.com based on your specific needs. Before taking possession of the vehicle, verify if you will be driving on toll roads. Some rental companies sell overpriced (and often unnecessary) passes for these.
At the rental company, the extra cost should ideally be $0.
Buy Fuel at the Gas Station
Fill up the tank at a gas station near the rental car location before returning the vehicle. While you may return the car with an empty tank, fuel from the rental company is typically more expensive. If the rental company offers you a car with an empty tank, accept it.
You Will Pay a Penalty for Returning the Car Late
Rental fees are charged for every 24-hour period. If you return the car late, the rental company will charge you for an additional day. Sometimes, even a 15-minute delay can result in extra charges.
Additional Drivers Come with an Extra Fee
If you plan on sharing the driving responsibilities, ensure all drivers are listed on the rental contract. There is typically a fee of around $10.00 per day for each additional driver. Avoid cheating the system; if an unregistered driver is involved in an accident, the insurance won’t cover them, leaving them to pay for damages out of pocket.
Traveling with a Child?
A car seat is mandatory for children aged 2-7, and children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the front seat. The rules vary from state to state, and can be found on the Governors Highway Safety Association website.
Car Insurance in the USA
When renting a car, taking out comprehensive insurance is highly recommended. Various insurance types exist in the USA, each with distinct designations used in practice. It is advisable to thoroughly read the terms and conditions of all insurance plans, paying particular attention to deductibles.
SLP (Supplemental Liability Protection)
This is a type of liability insurance that covers damage to the health and property of others, caused by you. Nearly every state in the USA legally requires liability insurance, each with differing minimum benefit levels. The coverage limit for bodily injury ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 per person, while the coverage for property damage ranges from $5,000 to $25,000.
Compulsory liability covers a maximum of 2 persons. Damages exceeding these limits are not covered by the SLP.
SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance)
This is an optional supplementary insurance that extends the SLP limits up to $1,000,000.
CDW (Collision Damage Waiver)
CDW is collision insurance, covering damage to a rental car that you cause. The premium is dependent on the pickup location and the class of car, typically ranging from $10.00 to $30 per day.
Generally, CDW does not include insurance for tires, windows, undercarriage, and covers. The insurance is voided if intent, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or negligence is determined. Negligence includes instances such as leaving the car unattended with the key in the ignition.
SCDW (Super Collision Damage Waiver)
This is an enhancement to the CDW insurance and additionally covers damage to the vehicle’s undercarriage, glass, and tires. Typically, the deductible is zero, meaning the party at fault pays nothing.
LDW (Loss Damage Waiver)
LDW covers damage resulting from the depreciation of the vehicle (total loss) after an accident caused by you. It is essentially a superior variant of CDW insurance. You can generally expect a deductible in the hundreds of dollars.
FDW (Full Damage Waiver)
FDW is collision car insurance, usually without limits or deductibles. However, it excludes damage to the vehicle’s undercarriage, wheels, windows, and upholstery.
TP (Theft Protection)
This segment of your insurance provides protection in the event of car theft.
PEC (Personal Effects Coverage)
PEC is insurance for personal belongings carried in the car. It costs approximately $2.00 per day, and the policy limit is around $500. Compensation is paid if your car is stolen or if personal belongings are damaged in an accident.
PAI (Personal Accident Insurance)
PAI covers the medical costs for all persons in the rental car. Compensation isalso provided in the event of a fatal accident. The premium costs around $3.00 per day, with the policy limit being approximately $3,500.
UMP (Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Protection)
UMP insurance offers protection against damage to your vehicle and passengers caused by drivers of other uninsured vehicles.
Cost of Renting/Borrowing a Car in the USA
The rental price is primarily influenced by factors such as location, current demand, the class of the car, and included insurance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, most rental companies liquidated their fleets. When demand rebounded between 2021 and 2022, rental companies had to make significant investments in new car acquisitions. Unfortunately, this led to a substantial increase in rental prices.
Before the pandemic, it was possible to rent a car for as low as $25 per day. However, from 2022 onward, expect to pay about $50 per day, including insurance. For a better understanding, I recommend a quick and non-binding calculation.
Pick-up Location Boston Denver Chicago Las Vegas Los Angeles Miami New York Salt Lake City San Francisco Washington D. C.
Cheap Car Rental Companies in the USA
There are hundreds of car rental companies in the USA. The largest among these is Enterprise Holdings, with 1.1 million cars and over 7,200 branches, encompassing Alamo, Enterprise, and National. Typically, the cheapest car rental companies are the largest.
Rental ratings are sourced from RentalCars and are accurate as of December 27, 2022.
Car Rental Company Rating Binding Quote Alamo Rent A Car 8.4/10 Avis Rent A Car 8.2/10 Budget Rent A Car 8.2/10 Dollar Rent A Car 7.7/10 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 8.6/10 Firefly Car Rental 7.8/10 Fox Rent A Car 7.0/10 Hertz Car Rental 8.4/10 National Car Rental 8.3/10 Payless Car Rental 7.3/10 Thrifty Car Rental 8.1/10 Sixt Rent A Car 8.4/10
Procedure for Picking Up a Rental Car
USA Car Rental Deposit
When picking up the car, a deposit card is presented to the rental company employee. The amount of the deposit varies among companies and locations and can be as low as 25% of the price or $200. Usually, the higher amount applies. The money is not charged to the card; it is just blocked.
Decline Payment in Currency Other than Dollars
Some rental companies allow you to pay in your home currency via Dynamic Currency Conversion. As the exchange rate is very unfavorable with this service, always insist on paying in dollars.
Read the Car Rental Agreement Carefully
Thoroughly read the contract before you sign it. If you do not understand anything, ask for clarification.
Document Any Existing Dents or Scratches Before Delivery
Upon delivery of the car, you will receive a report detailing any existing defects on the rental car. Take pictures of any scratches, inflated tires, and the fuel level on your phone as evidence. Report any discrepancies between the report and the actual condition immediately.
Familiarize Yourself with the Car
Take the time to get to know the car while it is still on the rental premises. Adjust the seat, test the lights and wipers, and check the gear lever. Ask questions about anything you’re not certain about.
Questions to Ask When Renting a Car
Inquire about anything that is not clear to you. “Are there any specific laws or regulations? Are the car documents in the glove box? Should I fill up with gasoline or diesel? How does the convertible roof operate? Who should I call if I have an accident?”
How to Avoid the Rental Car Line
Before picking up your car, sign up for a free loyalty program on the rental website. By signing up, you’ll receive a Priority Pass, which enables you to bypass the queue at the rental company. Verified at Thrifty Rentals at Los Angeles Airport.
Renting a Car in the USA as a Driver Under 25
Drivers aged 21 to 25 may face more challenges when renting a car in America. Car rental companies perceive a higher risk of accidents with this age group, leading them to charge an additional daily fee.
The Underage fee varies by state and rental company, but expect to pay $15.00–$25 per day. It’s advisable to make a no-obligation reservation to get the final price. The difference in the car’s price often offsets the difference in the fee.
Interestingly, you will not encounter a surcharge for underage drivers in the states of Michigan and New York, which prohibit such practice.
Some car rental companies limit the categories of cars that drivers under 25 can select from. The most restrictive companies are Avis, Budget, and Thrifty, which do not allow young drivers to rent SUVs, vans, or luxury sports cars. Conversely, Alamo and Enterprise do not impose any restrictions on drivers’ choices.
Car Rental in the USA for Drivers Aged 18 to 21
Young drivers aged 18 to 21 find it even more complex. Most major rental companies avoid lending cars to this age group due to the fear of potential damage, with a few exceptions.
E-Z Rent A Car offers lower-end models at all branches to drivers aged 18 and over, provided they present valid liability insurance. Fox Rent A Car is the most affordable option. All branches rent cars to drivers aged 19 and over, with an underage driver surcharge of $15.00 per day.
In the states of Michigan and New York, laws do not allow rental restrictions for young drivers. All rental companies provide cars to them, but the underage fee can reach up to $50 per day.
USA Van Rental
Van rental in the USA is offered by nearly every car rental company, though it’s more convenient to book in advance online. The vans available are typically referred to as minivan or 12+ seat people carrier, with Chevrolet Express and Ford E350 being the most common models.
Vans are handy when you want to avoid the cost of motels and manage with a sleeping bag in the back of the vehicle. They typically come with air conditioning and automatic transmission, and the daily rental rate in less expensive locations starts around $70.
To drive a van for 8/10/12 passengers, a standard European or UK driving license along with an international license is sufficient. A USA driver’s license is only necessary for vehicles designed to carry 16 or more passengers according to technical specifications.
RV Rental in the USA
Renting an RV provides a mobile hotel on wheels. In America, it is referred to as an RV or motor home. All you need to rent a motorhome is your international driver’s license.
Traveling with a motorhome has its pros and cons. Benefits include lower accommodation costs, no need for locating motels, no continual packing and unpacking of luggage, and more flexibility in planning your itinerary. You’re not restricted by room reservations and if you enjoy a location, you can simply extend your stay for a few days.
The drawback of the caravan is its size, which demands more of the driver’s experience. It’s slower to travel, more difficult to park, and certain places might be inaccessible. You’re only permitted to park a caravan in designated sites or campsites, which typically cost more than regular parking slots.
Standard car rental companies do not provide caravan rental in the USA. While I have no personal experience with motorhome rentals, services like CruiseAmerica.com do offer them. One-night rentals start around $65, plus a mileage fee, which isn’t a factor when renting a regular car.
If you have experience renting a motorhome in the USA, I’d appreciate if you could share it in the comments.
Frequently Asked Questions About Renting a Car in the USA
How Much Is the Deposit for Renting a Car?The deposit varies depending on the rental company, type of vehicle, and rental duration. For a rental costing $1,000, you can expect a deposit ranging between $250 and $400.
The deposit acts as a security for the rental company. The amount will be held on your card when you pick up the car, and if the car is returned undamaged, the funds will be released within a few days.
If I’m in the USA for a Few Months, Isn’t It Better to Buy an Older Car?While it may be more cost-effective to buy an older car and sell it before you leave, the process of car registration can be quite complicated for a tourist, making it more practical to rent a car.
One requirement is that the owner must be a permanent resident of the state where the car is to be registered. As a tourist, this won’t be possible. While you can register the car in the name of an American friend, they would then bear all responsibility for the vehicle. It would be your responsibility to find such a person.
Will I Have a Problem Renting a Car If I Don’t Have a Credit Card?No, you won’t. I’ve personally rented a car in the USA using a standard debit card without any issues. The essential thing is that the card should be embossed (your name should be raised above the surface of the card). Even if it’s a debit card, present it as a credit card.
What Does “Or Similar” Mean in the Rental Industry?“Or similar” refers to a car from a different manufacturer, but in the same class (SUV, compact, etc.). Rental companies cannot guarantee the availability of every model, so instead of a Ford Escape, for example, they may provide a Toyota RAV4 or a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Where Can I Rent a Car for a Trip to Mexico?Most car rental companies in the USA prohibit travelling to Mexico. An exception is reportedly Fox Rent A Car, which allows trips to Mexico provided that the driver purchases Mexican compulsory insurance at the rental counter.