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There are many reasons to rent a car on your next vacation. Perhaps you want flexibility in a city after you’ve traveled by air, or are just saving your personal car from the wear and tear of a long road trip. If you’re heading to a destination far from an airport or a rural area with no public transit, it may be the only option for getting around. If your trip success depends on booking the right rental car, ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re getting the best options at the best price.

What kind of vehicle do I need?

Start by thinking about what you need the car to do for you. Does it need to be large enough to accommodate many people or large amounts of luggage? Does it need to have precision handling for rural roads or can you get by with a small and simple model? Will you need car seats or a bike rack? Are you hoping to try out something new as part of your adventure, or do you want something familiar that you will feel confident driving? Make a list of your must haves before you begin to search, and then try to reserve the cheapest vehicle that meets those needs. You may not end up with the cheapest car, but having the right car for your vacation will be the best value for your money.

Is a hybrid rental car right for me?

Low emissions and low gas mileage are becoming increasingly important to consumers, and many rental companies now offer hybrid or electric vehicles as part of their fleet. These efficient vehicles may be slightly more expensive to rent, but can significantly decrease gas costs depending on how far you’re planning to drive. Hybrid cars tend to get the best mileage in cities for example, where traffic makes frequent stops, as well as very long highway travel, but might not save much on gas if you’re making only short highway routes. Electric cars are very economical to fuel up no matter where you drive them, but you’ll need to plan your route around charging stations which can put limits on where you’re exploring. Another consideration is that hybrid and electric vehicles tend to be available in only the economy or compact size classes, so large families or drivers with lots of ski equipment may not be able to take advantage of these options.

Can I drive a rental car in other countries?

If you hold a valid driver’s license in your home country, you will probably be allowed to drive an international rental car, although you may need to purchase an extra permit or special insurance in certain countries. Most North Americans are used to automatic transmission, and if you’re traveling in the US or Canada, getting an automatic should be easy. Just make sure you read the specifications under the car you're considering before you confirm your reservation. European and South American countries are far more likely to have mostly standard transmissions available, so plan accordingly or be prepared to pay much higher prices if you can’t drive stick. Be aware that many GPS units won’t have maps pre-loaded for international travel and your phone navigation will likely be very expensive if you’re using international roaming data; consider renting a car with built in navigation.

Which company should I use?

Many of the major car rental chains like Budget, Enterprise, or Hertz operate all over the world. This can be particularly useful if you want to return a rental car to a different location from the pick-up office. They also have established brands, so you can expect a certain level of dependability and customer service that might be appealing. However, there are always smaller, locally operated companies that may be able to offer you a better price or more unique cars. For example, it might be fun to rent a classic vintage car for a long weekend near the beach. A local company will be a better choice for that kind of specific request. If you choose to use an unfamiliar company, make sure to check out their ratings online to make sure you’ll get what you expect. If you’re only planning to need a car for short periods in an urban area, you may not even need a traditional rental company. Look into car shares like ZipCar and Car2Go.

How can I get a discount?

Everyone wants to get a good value for their car rental, but if even if your needs and limitations on style and amenities keep you from getting the cheapest price category, you can still find ways to stay on budget. Use the metasearch sites such as Orbitz or TripAdvisor to compare multiple companies and dates at the same time. In slower seasons there are often additional online coupons available to help companies rent out their full fleet. Try a quick search for “coupon code” and the company’s name, but be wary: sites that ask for your email address or phone number in exchange for access to an online coupon might be a scam.

Once you narrow down a few good possibilities, check the individual websites or call their staff directly to look for any additional discounts that might be available. Ask if they offer discounts for clubs like AAA or AARP of if teachers, police or military discounts apply. Some companies have deals with specific rental companies that entitle their employees to a deal when renting there.

If you travel enough that you frequently rent cars, look for companies that offer loyalty rewards programs. Joining is often free and you might get coupons via email or accrue rewards points towards a free rental. Even if you can’t get a lower rate, you might get extra perks like early pick up, saving time on paperwork, free satellite radio access or upgrades to nicer vehicle classes.

If you are reserving air travel and hotels at the same time as your car rental, some booking sites offer combination packages that are advertised as a cost saving bundle. Sometimes this is true, and you could save up to 30% with this service. More often the discount is much smaller, closer to 5%, and will be limited to select dates, rooms, and classes of vehicles based on availability. If you can be flexible with these details of your trip, it may still be worth it, but most people will find this limiting or can find a deeper discount by pricing and booking each service separately. It takes a little bit of time to compare all these options, but if you’re serious about getting the lowest possible price for your vacation, it may be worth it.

Do I need rental insurance?

For most destinations, holding minimum liability insurance will be required by law to drive any car. Most car rental agencies will also hold you liable for any damages the car might acquire while it’s in your possession. The take away here is: make sure you have some kind of insurance on your rental vehicle. Often you will be asked if you’d like to purchase insurance provided by the company for the length of your rental. The price can be as cheap as 10$ per day. This seems like an easy, affordable choice for a weekend trip, but might be more expensive for longer rentals or higher priced vehicle classes. Trying to figure out whether this is a good idea is hard to do when you’re halfway through the paperwork and trying to get on the road to start your vacation, so take some time before you arrive to pick up the car to decide how you will handle getting adequate insurance.

Many personal car insurance policies include a rider that will cover you as a driver in a rental vehicle for a similar amount of damages. In this case, you do not need to purchase additional policies for the rental. On the other hand, if you do not currently own your own vehicle, or only maintain liability coverage rather than full coverage on your own car, you could be on the line for any mishaps with the rental. Double check your policy’s fine print and look online to understand what the rental agency policies include and how much it will cost.

Adding a rental car to your vacation planning might seem overwhelming, but a little bit of time spent planning can help you find the perfect vehicle for your trip. Follow this planning guide and your search will be organized and cost effective. Once you know you’ve gotten a good deal and that you’re covered from any accidents or damages that might occur, you can relax and enjoy the ride.

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