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How to Rent a Car in the US

Renting a car in the United States can be an essential part of your travel experience, offering freedom and flexibility to explore at your own pace. Whether you’re a visitor from abroad or a US resident planning a trip, understanding how to rent a car in the US is crucial for a smooth and enjoyable journey. 

This guide will walk you through the process, from requirements and choosing the right vehicle to navigating insurance options and understanding rental agreements.

Skale Money Key Takeaways

  • You must be at least 21 years old to rent a car in the US, with some companies requiring renters to be 25+
  • A valid driver’s license, credit card, and insurance are typically required
  • Compare different rental companies and car types to find the best deal
  • Understand insurance options to ensure adequate coverage
  • Familiarize yourself with pick-up and return procedures to avoid extra fees
  • Be aware of US driving rules and regulations, which may vary by state

Understanding Car Rental Requirements in the US

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To rent a car in the US, you’ll need to meet certain requirements. These can vary slightly between rental companies, but generally include:

  • A valid driver’s license
  • Minimum age requirement (usually 21, sometimes 25)
  • A credit card in the renter’s name
  • Proof of insurance

US residents vs. international visitors:

RequirementUS ResidentsInternational Visitors
LicenseUS licenseHome country license + International Driving Permit
Age21+ (25+ for some car types)21+ (25+ for some car types)
PaymentCredit cardCredit card (some companies may require additional documentation)
InsurancePersonal auto insurance or rental insuranceRental insurance typically required

Tips:

  • If you’re under 25, expect to pay a “young driver” fee
  • International visitors should obtain an International Driving Permit before their trip
  • Some companies may accept debit cards, but often with additional requirements

Choosing the Right Rental Car

Selecting the appropriate vehicle depends on your needs, budget, and the nature of your trip. Consider:

  • Number of passengers
  • Amount of luggage
  • Terrain and weather conditions
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Personal comfort preferences

Car types comparison:

Car TypeSuitable ForProsCons
Economy1-2 people, city drivingFuel-efficient, easy to parkLimited space, less comfort
Mid-size3-4 people, general useBalance of space and efficiencyMay be tight for long trips
SUV4-7 people, rough terrainSpacious, good for diverse conditionsLower fuel efficiency, harder to park
Luxury2-5 people, comfort-focusedHigh comfort, advanced featuresMore expensive, may require additional insurance

Tips:

  • Book early for better selection and rates
  • Consider upgrading if you’ll be spending a lot of time in the car
  • Check if the car has features you need (e.g., GPS, car seat anchors)

Understanding insurance options is crucial when learning how to rent a car in the US. Common types include:

  • Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)
  • Liability Protection
  • Personal Accident Insurance
  • Personal Effects Coverage

Insurance comparison:

Insurance TypeCoverageTypical CostRecommended For
CDWVehicle damage$10-$30/dayThose without personal auto insurance
LiabilityDamage to others$10-$15/dayAll renters
Personal AccidentMedical costs$5-$10/dayThose without health insurance
Personal EffectsStolen items$2-$5/dayThose carrying valuables

Tips:

  • Check if your personal auto insurance or credit card offers rental coverage
  • Consider purchasing a standalone policy from a third-party insurer for potential savings
  • Always read the fine print to understand what’s covered and what’s not

Top 5 USA Rent-a-Car Companies

The US has several major car rental companies to choose from. Here are the top 5:

  • Enterprise
  • Hertz
  • Avis
  • Budget
  • National

Comparison of top rental companies:

CompanyAvg. Daily RateInsurance OptionsHeadquartersContactWebsite
Enterprise$50-$100CDW, LIS, PAI, PECSt. Louis, MO1-855-266-9289enterprise.com
Hertz$60-$120LDW, LIS, PAI, PECEstero, FL1-800-654-3131hertz.com
Avis$55-$110LDW, ALI, PAI, PEPParsippany, NJ1-800-633-3469avis.com
Budget$45-$90LDW, SLI, PAI, PEPParsippany, NJ1-800-218-7992budget.com
National$60-$115CDW, LIS, PAI, PECSt. Louis, MO1-844-382-6875nationalcar.com

Tips:

  • Join loyalty programs for potential upgrades and faster pick-up
  • Compare rates across multiple companies for the best deal
  • Check for corporate discounts or memberships that may offer reduced rates

Booking Process and Best Practices

When you’re ready to book your rental car, follow these steps:

  1. Choose your pick-up and drop-off locations
  2. Select your dates and times
  3. Pick your car type
  4. Add any necessary extras (e.g., GPS, car seat)
  5. Select insurance options
  6. Review and confirm your reservation

Online vs. In-person booking:

AspectOnline BookingIn-Person Booking
ConvenienceHighLow
Price comparisonEasyDifficult
Availability of dealsMore likelyLess likely
Flexibility for changesVaries by companyHigh
Time requiredQuickCan be time-consuming

Tips:

  • Book in advance for better rates and car selection
  • Use price comparison websites to find the best deals
  • Look for promotional codes or coupons before booking
  • Consider booking a package deal if you also need flights or hotels

Pick-up and Return Procedures

Understanding pick-up and return procedures is crucial when learning how to rent a car in the US. Here’s what to expect:

Pick-up steps:

  1. Locate the rental counter or kiosk
  2. Present your license, credit card, and reservation
  3. Review and sign the rental agreement
  4. Inspect the car for existing damage
  5. Familiarize yourself with the vehicle before leaving

Return steps:

  1. Refuel the car (if required)
  2. Park in the designated area
  3. Remove all personal belongings
  4. Complete the return process with an agent or kiosk
  5. Keep your final receipt

Common fees and charges:

Fee TypeTypical CostHow to Avoid
Late return$10-$20/hourReturn on time or extend in advance
Refueling$5-$10/gallonRefuel before returning
Additional driver$10-$15/dayLimit to one driver if possible
Airport surcharge10-20% of rentalPick up off-airport if feasible

Tips:

  • Take photos of the car before and after your rental period
  • Allow extra time for the pick-up process, especially at busy locations
  • Understand the fuel policy and return the car with the agreed-upon fuel level

Understanding Rental Agreements and Policies

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Rental agreements can be complex, but it’s important to understand the key terms and conditions:

  • Rental period and grace periods for returns
  • Mileage limitations and overage charges
  • Fuel policies
  • Geographic restrictions
  • Additional driver policies

Common restrictions and penalties:

RestrictionTypical PenaltyNotes
Smoking$250+ cleaning feeApplies to all tobacco and vape products
Pets$100+ cleaning feeService animals usually exempt
Off-road useVaries, can void insuranceCheck policy for details
International travelVaries, often prohibitedMay require special permission

Tips:

  • Always read the agreement carefully before signing
  • Ask for clarification on any terms you don’t understand
  • Keep a copy of the agreement with you during your rental period

Driving in the US: Rules and Regulations

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When renting a car in the US, it’s crucial to understand and follow local driving laws:

  • Drive on the right side of the road
  • Wear seat belts at all times
  • Obey posted speed limits
  • No cell phone use while driving (in most states)
  • Stop for school buses with flashing red lights

State-specific regulations:

StateUnique Rule
CaliforniaNo handheld cell phone use
New YorkMove over for emergency vehicles
FloridaHeadlights on when raining
TexasLeft lane for passing only on highways

Tips:

  • Familiarize yourself with local traffic signs and signals
  • Be aware of right-turn-on-red rules (allowed unless posted otherwise)
  • Download a GPS app or rent a GPS unit for navigation assistance

Handling Emergencies and Roadside Assistance

Being prepared for emergencies is an important part of knowing how to rent a car in the US:

  • Mechanical issues
  • Accidents
  • Flat tires
  • Running out of fuel

Emergency contacts:

SituationWho to ContactNumber
Life-threatening emergencyEmergency services911
Car breakdownRental company roadside assistanceProvided on rental agreement
Minor accidentLocal police non-emergency lineVaries by location
Flat tire/lockoutRental company roadside assistanceProvided on rental agreement

Tips:

  • Save emergency numbers in your phone before your trip
  • Know your rental car’s make, model, and license plate number
  • Familiarize yourself with the car’s safety features and spare tire location

Money-Saving Strategies for Car Rentals

To make renting a car in the US more affordable to save money

  • Book early for better rates
  • Compare prices across multiple companies
  • Look for package deals with flights or hotels
  • Join loyalty programs for discounts and upgrades
  • Consider off-airport locations for lower rates

Loyalty program comparison:

ProgramPoints EarningRedemption OptionsNotable Perks
Enterprise Plus1 point per $1Free rentalsFree upgrades
Hertz Gold Plus1 point per $1Free rentals, experiencesSkip the counter
Avis Preferred1 point per $1Free rentals, upgradesPriority service

Tips:

  • Avoid unnecessary extras like GPS if you can use your smartphone
  • Check for corporate, AAA, or other membership discounts
  • Consider weekly rates for rentals longer than 5 days

Conclusion

Renting a car in the US can greatly enhance your travel experience, providing the freedom to explore at your own pace. By understanding the requirements, choosing the right vehicle, navigating insurance options, and following best practices for booking and driving, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable rental experience. Remember to always read your rental agreement carefully, follow local driving laws, and be prepared for emergencies. With these tips and information in mind, you’re well-equipped to hit the open road and make the most of your US travels.

FAQ Section

What’s the minimum age to rent a car in the US? 


Generally 21, but some companies require renters to be 25 for certain vehicle types.

Do I need an International Driving Permit? 


If your license is not in English, an International Driving Permit is recommended and sometimes required.

Can I drive a rental car into Canada or Mexico? 

Some companies allow this, but you’ll need to inform them in advance and may need additional insurance.

What should I do if I get in an accident with a rental car?


Ensure everyone’s safety, call the police, and contact your rental company immediately.

How can I get the best deal on a rental car? 


Book early, compare prices across companies, look for discount codes, and consider joining loyalty programs.

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