Before I traveled with my son and family all over creation, I traveled up to 250 days per year for work. It was, surprisingly, not all that much easier than traveling with a baby, once you know the tricks in my comprehensive baby travel book.
One thing I’ve become a bit of a fanatic about is rental cars. The right rental car can make you feel like you’re at home. The wrong one can destroy your trip. For years the first thing I did before renting a car was get online and Google, “cheap rental car Tampa” or “cheap rental car Chicago”. This would, invariably, get me the worst rental car from the worst company and the worst service, every time. Guaranteed!
Then I learned that most of the rental car companies, such as Avis, Thrifty, Dollar, Budget, Hertz, and Alamo are all different brands of the same three companies. Here’s how it breaks down: Avis owns Budget and Zipcar. Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty. Enterprise owns Alamo and National. Advantage owns E-Z Rent-A-Car. That’s why sometimes, on a lucky day, when you’re waiting in a line 40 people deep with Dollar, somebody from Budget may come over and help you out. That’s also why sometimes when you’re returning a car with Alamo, for instance, somebody from Enterprise will tell you to return it in their line. Before researching to find this out, this always concerned me. Now, I’m sure glad to understand why!
Some of the most critical rental car factors that you’ll need to look for in a rental car (domestically or internationally) are:
You may be saving $5 per day, but you may also have to trek through tramways and bus shuttles to an off-airport lot that can be many miles away from your terminal. When you’re trying to save money on rental cars, be aware of the location of these “off-airport” lots. It could also make it difficult to return a car to a lot that’s hidden deep within a business park in the vicinity of the airport. When it’s raining. And you sat in 1.5 hours of traffic to get to the airport. Because you were lost. Yep, that’s my story. Don’t be like me. FYI: Priceline allows you to search cars that are “on-airport” so that you can factor convenience into your rate.
When $25 per day is not $25 per day… Understand that you may need a car for three days but you’re likely going to pay fees such as an airport access fees, tourism fees, county business license taxes, concession recovery fees, roadside assistance protection, personal accident insurance, and the collision damage waiver. Most of these extra costs are not optional. If you’re on a budget, call the car company you’ve chosen to make sure you’re not going to have a bill of $100 or more than you anticipated.
The Red Corvette Syndrome
The easiest way to get pinched on rental cars is to forget this golden rule: a rental car is not a hotel room. You’re going from point A to point B with your baby. You don’t need the nicest, most sporty car and you certainly don’t want to pay extra for something that isn’t going to be as safe as a mid-sized SUV or standard economy car. If you’re going to splurge, make it on a great hotel room!
Rental Car Insurance Terms Defined
You’ll get an earful for not taking insurance at the counter, but it’s generally a salesperson looking for commissions on that coverage. They’re not likely going to tell you whether or not your current auto insurance covers you. Simply call your car insurance and see what rental car coverage costs. I never get car insurance without rental car coverage because it’s pretty cost efficient compared to rental car insurance company’s coverage.
Loss-Damage Waiver or Collision Damage Waiver
What are the insurances offered at the counter? One is LDW, a loss damage waiver or CDW, a collision damage waiver. This exempts you from liability for any damage to your rental vehicle or theft of the actual car. If you have collision and comprehensive coverage on your current car insurance policy, it usually extends to your rental car contract. You will just pay your car insurance deductible.
Supplemental Liability Protection
Supplemental Liability Protection is also offered at rental car counters in case you do damage to other vehicles or property. Your own liability insurance will cover you when you’re in a rental car, so if you have liability coverage with your current car insurance provider, you’re fine. You may want to up your coverage in case you have a small liability coverage. Especially if you’re driving on the “wrong” side of the street…
Personal Accident Insurance
Personal accident insurance has to do with medical costs for you and your passengers. If you have health insurance, you’re likely already covered. MedPay or personal injury protection through your current car insurance will cover personal accident coverage in your rental car.
If you’re worried about somebody stealing something from your vehicle, your homeowners or renters insurance will cover your possessions that are stolen while traveling. Always file a police report and be prepared to pay your deductible when making personal theft claims.
Credit Card Coverage
If you use a credit card to pay for your rental car, you sometimes have insurance coverage for that rental car. Call your credit card company to confirm.
Buying Your Own Rental Car Insurance
My best friend didn’t own a car while living in Chicago but rented a car every weekend to run errands and visit family. She is a perfect candidate to buy a standalone rental car policy as opposed to at the counter. Be sure to decline the rental car company’s insurance to make standalone policies valid.
Safety and Car Seats
Don’t rent a convertible. That’s obvious. But what about other important safety issues? If you’re renting with a company like Thrifty, Budget, or Dollar, will the car be so old that it won’t even have LATCH seats for your car seat? And come to think of it, will the car seats be up to your standards at “budget” rental car companies? You have to check!
If you’re going to be traveling by day, will the rental car company have sunshades for the baby’s side of the car? Or do you need to bring you own?
And if you’re renting an infant seat but traveling to a small town to rent a car, don’t depend on them to have a seat that’s up to snuff. I’ve arrived at a rental car desk in Aspen only to find that the “infant” seat was really a toddler seat that they expected me to bring a 9pound baby home in. Don’t put your child at risk; it’s important to make absolutely sure that the item you need, such as an infant seat, is actually an infant seat and not a car seat meant for a larger child.
Consumer Reports has done some further investigating and found that some child seats are stored securely in plastic bags with instructions included, while other child seats are left in sheds, uncovered, without instructions, and with broken pieces on the car seats, missing labels, or seats separated from their bases. Some were even expired. It’s a horrible thought and equally important to not allow yourself to be in a situation where you have to make choices with your baby on-the-spot.
You’re going to pay around $10 per day for a car seat in a rental car and in some instances, the cost of renting a seat is the price of a new car seat. I most often travel with my car seat for fear of having a seat that isn’t up to safety standards. If you don’t want the risk, traveling with your own car seat is inconvenient for a few days, but gives you peace of mind (and your own standard of cleanliness achieved) for the remainder of your trip and is usually worth it.
Rental Car Clubs
There are numerous benefits to being a member of a rental car company. First, you get a sort of frequent flier program discount when you rent from the same company regularly. My friend in Chicago rents so often from Avis that they don’t even have her fill up her car with gas before she returns it; and she’s not getting fined for it, either.
Have you ever waited in a line at the airport in Tampa with other Disney-bound families for a rental car? I waited for a car from Enterprise once for over an hour with two babies under 1 year old on the way to a wedding in Orlando. I watched the members of other rental car companies fly up to the desk and walk away with keys in-hand jealously. Just like a frequent flier club, rental car rewards programs have great benefits when used wisely.