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How to rent a car for the first time

Making travel plans for the first time is scary. Car rental might be the last thing on your mind. We at Wisecars have quite some experience with rental cars and our goal is to make the process as seamless and enjoyable as possible. This is why we are sharing our tips and tricks about renting a car for the first time.

This is a list of all the things you need to know before picking up your car. We have put together all of our most frequently asked questions and some general information customers might have missed. Note that this article refers to classic car rental as the smart rental process is a bit different. You can also call the car rental company or the booking site and ask them to highlight the important parts of the rental terms- any good car rental company will be happy to help a customer. 

In this article, we will give you an overview of:

  • Short summary of the rental process
  • How to find the best deal
  • How to compare deals
  • What even is the car rental insurance world?
  • Changes in plans
  • What documents do you need
  • Picking up your rental car
  • During rental
  • Dropping off the car

Short summary of the rental process

You either book the car ahead of time or you rent directly at the location.

We advise reserving a vehicle as it helps the suppliers manage their fleet. Depending on the amount of reservations, car rental companies can move vehicles from one location to another. This helps to avoid queues, which means the supplier can’t just tell you all the vehicles have been rented out. Moreover, it usually gets you a better deal as well.

You pick up

You provide the supplier with all the necessary documentation. The supplier will present the rental agreement. The supplier will charge you for any outstanding charges and put a hold on your card for the security deposit. Then, the representative will finally give you the keys to your vehicle. 

You have fun

The advantages of renting a vehicle include testing out new or different models of cars, not having to worry about the deprication costs and casual maintenance. 

You drop off

You can either give the keys to a representative or leave them in a drop box. The representative will inspect the vehicle with you and provide you with the end-of-rental paperwork. 

How to find the best deal

Book early

If you’re travelling during a busy period, we advise booking even 6 months in advance. If you’re travelling during off or shoulder season, you will most likely find the best deal 1-3 months in advance. Keep monitoring the rental deals, most companies will match the price or let you cancel if you have free cancellation. 

Make sure to run the search with the correct details

As suppliers have different deals based on residency, make sure you can clarify the country where you live. All car rental companies have a minimum and a maximum age range and most of them have young or senior driver fees. Make sure to provide your correct age in the search to avoid any kind of surprise. We also advise double-checking the location. Even more so, if you want to pick up the vehicle in one city and drop it off in another. Insert the pick-up and drop-off times as exact as possible- arriving late might mean you will not get your vehicle and dropping off later might incur extra fees. The same applies to locations- in most cases, if you pick up the vehicle in one location and drop it off at another one, you will be charged a One-Way fee. 

Explore deals in nearby locations as well

The golden rule of car rental is that downtown locations are usually cheaper than airport locations. You might also find other companies or locations, which offer a bigger fleet to be reserved.

Play around with the pick-up and drop-off times.

Car rental days are usually calculated based on 24-hour “blocks”. For example, if you pick up your vehicle at 1 PM and drop it off the next day at 2 PM, most car rental companies will charge you for 2 days of the rental instead of 1. Some suppliers also have cheaper deals available for off-peak pick-up times, i.e. mornings. Sometimes, the weekly rate is also so much lower it makes sense to extend your travel plans. Some suppliers might charge some fees for early returns.

Make sure you know what size of a car you need

Usually, you book a car class: meaning if you book a Nissan Versa you might instead get a Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Elantra. If you find out that you need a bigger vehicle while already picking up the vehicle the cost for an upgrade might be quite high. 

Car Rental Insurance

Be smart about the research

Call a rental company, broker or a rental car insurance provider and ask them about the local insurance requirements. This way, you will avoid spending hours trying to understand rental-specific terms. 

In the United States:

In the United States, car rental insurance works differently than anywhere else. If you want to drive or rent a vehicle, you must have insurance under your name. It is illegal to drive in the US without insurance. 

For US residents travelling in the US

Frequently, rental car insurance is included in your personal car insurance policy or covered by your credit card provider. Research this before booking and be ready to show the supplier written proof. If you do not have rental car insurance or cannot present any documentation related to it, the car rental company will refuse the vehicle or ask you to pay extra for a Collision Damage Waiver or Loss Damage Waiver.

For non-residents travelling in the US

Car rental insurance might be included in your travel insurance but be careful with the terms- it might refer to the excess amount of the rental car and not car insurance itself. Most commonly, travellers buy insurance products from a car rental company during pick-up or from a third party. 

Europe Car Rental Insurance:

In most European countries, your car rental fee already covers adequate liability coverage. Research the local rules before arriving to avoid upselling or other surprises. For example, in Italy, theft protection is also required and in Ireland, third-party insurance is forbidden.

How to compare deals

Security deposit

A security deposit is a sum of money the car rental company will block on the card until the customer returns the vehicle. The car rental company will use this money to cover additional costs that may occur during the rental such as penalty fees, damages, or refuelling fees. Make sure to have the deposit amount available during pick up and check which payment methods the car rental company accepts. The security deposit will be refunded or released after you drop off the vehicle. The exact amount depends on the deal. Some car rental companies offer extra insurance to reduce the deposit amount. 

Mileage limit

Rental deals have either limited or unlimited mileage. Limited mileage means there is a fixed number of miles or kilometres included in the rate and any extra mile or kilometre incurs an extra charge. Unlimited mileage means you can drive as much as you want. Make sure to check the deal's mileage limit to avoid any surprises.

Insurance inclusions

The most common insurance product is the CDW- Collision Damage Waiver. This optional insurance coverage means that the car rental company will waive its right to charge you more than indicated in the terms as your excess or deductible amount. Some deals already include the CDW.

Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI) covers damages to third-party property and medical costs.

There are many different insurance products and every supplier can come up with their own name for a product. Make sure to understand your location’s car rental insurance requirements and look into what kind of insurance your credit card or travel insurance already has.

Fuel policy

Full to full: you pick up your rental car with a full tank and you return it with a full tank as well. You will be charged for any missing fuel. This is the most common fuel policy in car rental.
Full to empty: You pick up the vehicle with a full tank and return it with an empty tank. You will pay for the full tank during pick-up. Depending on the specific terms you might be refunded when you return the vehicle with any fuel in the tank but not necessarily. 
Same to same: you pick up the vehicle with a fixed amount of fuel in and return it with the same amount. 

Cancellation terms

Cancellation terms differ based on the car rental company, broker, deal and many other factors. Make sure to check the cancellation terms before making a booking. 

Payment methods

These days most car rental companies require all renters to present a credit card in the main driver’s name.
If you are booking through a third party, make sure to read the payment terms of both companies. For example, you might be able to book a car with a debit card but will need to present a credit card during the pick-up.
Different deals also mean various payment options: prepaid booking means you will pay for the whole rental during booking, partially prepaid means you will pay a part of the price during booking and the rest during pick up, and pay on arrival deals mean you will pay when you pick up the vehicle.

Price

Comparison sites (such as wisecars.com) make it easy to compare deals from multiple suppliers at once. If you’re planning ahead, we advise monitoring the prices for a short while as car rental prices do fluctuate.
When you’ve found your deal, read the small print
Unfortunately, car rental terms differ a lot depending on the car rental companies. You can also call the customer support of the booking website or the supplier and let them highlight everything you’d need to know in order to have a successful rental.

Booking extras

In most cases, your rental deal consists of the base rate, taxes and fees and if you’re booking through a third party, their commission. Here are the main extras customers choose to add to their car rental:

Additional driver

If you are not going to be the only person that drives the car you need to add an additional driver to your car rental contract. You can do so during pick-up. As the car rental company has to validate their documents as well, the additional driver has to be present during the pick-up. The same terms and conditions apply to the main driver and the additional driver. 

Out of hours fee

If you are picking up your vehicle outside of the car rental company’s normal business hours you will most likely have to pay an out of hours fee. Check the suppliers opening hours and make sure a delay during your arrival will not mean the location is already closed when you get there.

Cross bordering

If you want to visit another state or country during your car rental, we advise contacting the car rental company even before picking up the vehicle. Car rental companies have different terms and fees regarding cross bordering, meaning some companies do not allow taking their vehicle outside of the rental destination.

Child seats

It is also smart to let the supplier know that you will be needing a child seat as they might sometimes run out. Child seats also mean an extra fee.

Navigation system

Usually requesting a GPS unit means an extra fee but if you are travelling to a new destination, a navigation system will definitely become handy. These days, there are plenty of free phone GPS apps but you might want to save your phone battery and data roaming for other activities.

Winter gear

Depending on your destination country, winter gear might even be mandatory during the winter season. Whether winter tires have to be included in the car rental deal also depends on the destination country so make sure to check this before arriving at the rental counter. Other winter gear extras include snow chains and ski racks.

Toll packages

You will obviously pay for the toll fees during your rental but often the suppliers will also add administration fees. Suppliers offer different prepaid toll packages that will reduce these expenses.

Other extras

There are many different extras ranging from satellite radio to lounge access at the airport. Try to imagine your journey and what kind of extras you might need before your trip to enjoy your travel plans to the fullest.

Changes in plans

Amendments, modifications, changes

You might want to change your pick-up or drop-off location, date or time, or even the main driver. As in most cases, this means a new rate quote may result in a change to your existing rates, taxes and fees. Contact the company you reserved your vehicle through as soon as possible. 

If you want to change your rental after already signing the rental agreement and picking up the vehicle, contact the car rental company directly.

Late arrivals

Every car rental company has its own “grace” or “honour” period. This means that they will hold your reserved vehicle for a certain amount of time before marking you a No-Show. Usually, this period varies between 1 to 4 hours. Contact your car rental provider as soon as you know you might be arriving late to discuss amendments, the grace period or extra charges.

If you are arriving by plane, add your flight information during the booking. The supplier can track your journey and hold your vehicle for a bit longer but beware, they might still cancel your reservation when the grace period is over.

Cancellations

To cancel your car rental reservation, contact the company through which you booked the vehicle. If you want to change your travel plans we advise modifying the reservation instead of cancelling it. Not all rental reservations have free cancellation. The terms differ depending on where you book your vehicle, which supplier and which type of vehicle you choose. Check the cancellation terms and conditions and if you are still unsure, contact the company. Note that even if your deal includes free cancellation you still might not receive a refund if you want to cancel after the pick-up time.  Some companies also offer cancellation products- you will be able to extend your right to receive a refund for your cancelled reservation but the company will keep the amount of the product.

NB! Make sure you are aware of the destination’s local traffic and licence regulations and differences.

You might be surprised by a different gear type or a steering wheel on the other side. It is in no way the car rental companies or booking sites' responsibility to make you aware of the destination-specific driving laws. For example, in Canada, you cannot use a G2 (novice) licence to rent a vehicle but there might not be any warnings about this during reserving a vehicle.

What documents do you need to rent a car?

This list is just the most common documents the suppliers ask for. We advise checking the terms and conditions of the specific car rental location before arrival to make sure you have everything required. If your documents are invalid or missing the supplier has the right to refuse you the vehicle and you might lose the whole prepaid amount. Note that these documents should all be in the main driver’s name.

Licence

All drivers will have to present a full valid original Driving Licence. If your driving licence is not issued by the country where you are renting the vehicle you might also need to present an international driving permit. Often the licence must be held for at least a year if not two.

A credit card in the main driver’s name

Most car rental companies will require an embossed valid credit card from a major credit card company. This might happen even if you are using a debit card to pay for your rental. The car rental company wants to make sure you have the means to cover any damages and they might even conduct a credit check.

A photo ID

Your driving licence might already be acceptable.

Sometimes you need to prove your country/state of residence

Some car rental companies will ask for a utility bill or an Identification card of your country of residence

Flight tickets

If you are picking up your vehicle at an airport location, the car rental company might require flight tickets. 

Picking up your rental car 

Check the car rental companies details beforehand

Make sure you know what kind of a pick-up method the supplier has. If you have booked through a comparison site like Wisecars.com, check your voucher to make sure which car rental company will be providing the vehicle and if they have multiple brand names. If you have a voucher, it should include all of the details necessary for the pick-up.

Different pick-up methods

  • Meet and greet: the supplier will deliver the rental vehicle to a specific location from a nearby branch. A representative will have a sign with your name and will take you to the vehicle.
  • Shuttle or Skytrain: airport suppliers located in rental facilities or a bit further from the terminals run shuttle buses or skytrains to take you to their location.
  • Location at the airport or terminal: follow the signs around the airport to find your rental car company
  • Delivery: the supplier will deliver the vehicle to a hotel or address you request. Please note that most rental companies do not offer this service.

Arrival time

During booking add your flight details. If you think you might be late, call the company you booked with and the supplier. Car rental is more like a restaurant reservation than a hotel reservation and the vehicle will be given away to another traveller in a certain amount of time. Picking up your vehicle during the peak travel season might take a while.

Inspect the vehicle and take photos of its condition

Make sure the representative has marked up all of the pre-existing damage and take photos of the rental vehicle to ensure you will not be charged for this damage once you drop off the car 

Security deposit

Car rental companies mainly use pre-authorization for security deposits. This means that the deposit amount is reserved during the pick-up and can not be used for other purposes but it has not been actually withdrawn from your account. When the vehicle is returned without any issues and/or damage, the deposit is released. If you are paying with a debit card, the amount will actually be charged and refunded. It might take a couple of days for the refund to settle.

Payments at the counter

If you have not prepaid everything at the time of the reservation, the supplier will charge you for the outstanding amount. You can also choose and pay for extra products ranging from insurance to GPS systems. The representative might also offer you an upgrade. This means you will pay an extra fee and the supplier will provide you with a larger or a higher class vehicle. 

Do not sign the contract if you’re not certain about it

Make sure to review all of the charges and terms mentioned in the rental agreement. Your signature on the rental agreement is definite proof of the acceptance of the services and terms imposed by the Car Rental Company, even if the same terms and services were not presented in your reservation. If there are any extra charges you do not agree with, inquire for more information and contact the company which you reserved the vehicle through.

During rental

Get used to the vehicle and local traffic

At first, take it slowly. Avoid fast accelerations and sudden stops until you have a better idea of how your rental car will react.

stay on the road

Most rental car companies prohibit off-road driving. Besides penalty fees, off-road driving could also void your insurance. 

Park carefully

If you're not familiar with the destination, you might be surprised by parking fines. Parking is also when most rental car damage happens.

Research the local tolls

Toll fees are often why a traveller ends up spending much more than planned. Prepare early by researching the routes and local toll rules.

If the vehicle breaks down

Safely pull over and turn on the emergency lights. If necessary, call for help. Read through your rental agreement or call the supplier and check the terms. In general, unless you were directly at fault, you shouldn’t have to pay. Contact the rental company and ask for transportation. They might ask you to pay for towing and repairs but you should keep the receipts and based on the agreed terms you might be entitled to a refund. Call your insurance company shortly after the breakdown. 

If the vehicle has been damaged

Make sure everyone is okay. Exchange contact information, including name, address, phone number and email address, insurance company and policy number, licence and vehicle details. Take photos and notes such as the details of all the vehicles involved, the exact location, how the damage happened and any other details. Contact your car rental company and ask them how to proceed. Contact the insurance company. Find out who’s responsible for paying what in a claim. 

Dropping off the car

Fill your tank beforehand (if you have chosen the full to full fuel option)

The supplier's fuel charges are usually much higher, so we advise taking some time and refueling the tank yourself. Not only do the car rental companies charge for the median fuel price of the local petrol stations but also, depending on the contract, might charge you the refueling fee.

Drop off at the indicated time 

Rental cars charge a late return fee. Let the representatives know. If you want to extend your rental, call the car rental company as soon as you can. However, it might be more expensive as the supplier most likely will charge you for the last-minute rate.

Get the receipt and other documentation

Unfortunately, it has happened that travellers are surprised by the suppliers claiming money for damage or any other issues that occurred during rental after the vehicle has already been dropped off and the traveller has arrived home. Take photos of the vehicle and request a final invoice.

Dropping off outside of the car rental company’s business hours

Make sure beforehand that the location has a key box. If you’re returning the vehicle without a representative checking it for damage be extra sure to take photos of the vehicle's condition.

Your security deposit might take some time to return

It might take several weeks for the deposit to settle on your account. After 14 days contact your bank or credit card company for more information. If they can not see the transaction coming in, contact the car hire company and the booking platform.