Rental Car: How to Guide

Rental Car: How to Guide

A few weeks ago, B and I went and visited the North Cascades National Park, via the Spokane, Washington, airport. Upon landing, we made our way to the rental car desks. As you can imagine, the rental car section of the Spokane, Washington, airport is not particularly large. The fact that it took us a while to get our wheels and hit the road was a bit of a surprise.

The reason for the delay was the lone family in line in front of us; they were having a heck of a time sorting out their rental car. B and I were confused what the holdup was because we are so familiar with renting cars. If you are like the family in front of us, perhaps this post will give you some pointers so you don’t have to be the slowpoke in line next time you rent.

Ford Mustang in Hawaii
Our Mustang, Sally, in Hawaii

Paying for the Rental Car

We’ve talked before about renting cars. There are a bunch of places you can do so: conglomerate websites, the car rental company itself (they would especially love this), your credit card’s website and your automobile insurance’s website, just to name a few. When I am renting a car, I’ll usually go straight to Expedia or Kayak to see what prices pop up.

If price is my main criterion for picking a car, I’ll follow up with Hotwire since that is where I usually get the cheapest rates. Sometimes with Hotwire, you don’t know what agency you will rent with until you complete the transaction. This is only for deep discounts. For Hotwire’s regular rates, you see the agency name prior to making your reservation. Most of the time when I rent in the U.S., I don’t really care which rental car company I am getting. So I feel confident going with the cheapest option.


This rule only works if I am familiar with the rental companies at that airport. For example, when we booked our rental car for Puerto Rico, I didn’t know a few of the rental car companies and didn’t feel comfortable going with an company with whose policies I wasn’t familiar with. In this case, we decided to pay more and reserve a car through a channel where we could pick the company.

You can always rent cars right from the rental counter. But I’m a non-confrontational purchaser, so I don’t like to feel pressured to buy something when the seller is staring me down. I’ve heard the car rental industry is extremely subjective. Meaning if the person at the counter likes you they have the freedom to give you the best discount available, but if they don’t they will charge more.

I like the certainty of an impersonal electronic transaction. So even if I am getting an impromptu car, I’ll do it from a website rather than at the counter. When we flew into Honolulu, we heard the waves were uncharacteristically huge on the North Shore that day. Since we didn’t have anything else to do, we took a shuttle over to the rental car lot and en route, B rented a car for the day on her phone. Gotta love today’s technology!

Type of Rental Car

Cars come in a few different types (they might be named differently depending on the company): compact (real small), economy (better gas mileage but also small), standard/intermediate/full size (these are pretty interchangeable), luxury, SUV and truck. When I’m renting a car with B, we usually go with the cheapest option. If the standard is only a dollar or two more, I’ll go ahead and get it. But if they want $10 or so more, I will purchase the smaller car. The reason is that rental car companies sell out of their cheapest cars and all they have left are bigger ones. We often get a bigger car at the cheaper price. Win win!

A few car companies also have something called a ‘special car.’ You are guaranteed a compact or bigger, but they don’t let you know what it is until you are at the rental counter. I love a good surprise, so if this is in the price running, I’ll usually get it. (It feels like gambling, for some reason.) While renting at the Sacramento airport, the lady behind the Budget counter handed me the keys to a Chevrolet Silverado and said, “You’re from Idaho, you can drive a truck.” Both statements were true, so I drove in style that trip at the same price as a compact.

The Budget lady explained that their ‘special car’ is whatever car they happen to have the most of that day. A few weeks ago, we got the ‘special car’ and ended up with a Nissan Mersa. So it really is a crapshoot what kind of vehicle you get.

Car rental necessities: guide book and electronics cables
Necessities for a quality experience in a rental car

Rental Car Process

The rental car company will want to see your driver’s license and a credit card. Have these handy when you approach the counter. Most times it doesn’t matter if you give them the card you reserved your rental with; they just need something to use for a hold in case you jack up the car. If you decide to give them a debit card as your security, you should have enough money in your account that they can pull out as the assurance fee. It usually is around $250.

Below are a few things to note:


The rental car company will want to know who is driving the vehicle. The reason they care is because this is a nice little revenue maker for them if you want to have more than one driver. It usually costs around $25 to add a driver. Not worth it in my book. I’ve heard tell that it doesn’t really matter if others drive the car you rented because your automobile insurance policy will cover a rental in your name regardless of who is driving. I can’t speak for all insurance agencies, but when I chatted with my friendly insurance customer service agent, he told me my policy only covers relative residents. Upon further digging, relative resident means someone you are related to who lives with you. Sorry B. I suspect there is some gray line between live-in domestic partners, but I didn’t follow up on that line of questioning.


The rental car company will want you to get insurance in case something bad happens. The reason they do this is because this is a nice little revenue maker for them and usually completely useless for you to buy. I say ‘usually’ because each person should make up their own mind as to whether it is worth it or not. 99% of the time I decline because a) my car insurance covers rentals and b) the credit cards I use to reserve the cars have coverage on them also. I know this second point for a fact.

Several years ago I rented a car in Anchorage, Alaska. I was a travel rental newbie back then and while I noticed the crack in the windshield, I figured the agency surely knew it was there and so I drove off without telling anyone about the crack. I returned the car and about a month later I got a bill in the mail for $350 for a windshield replacement. The person who rented the car after me must have reported it and I got stuck with the bill. I contacted my credit card company and went through the process to get the bill paid. It was taken care of in full and I learned a few valuable lessons.

Always check out your rental car and say something if you see anything that is off. In Spokane, our rental had a few scratches on the bumper so I took some pictures on my phone and went and got the guy at the counter to sign off on them. Just in case.


The rental car company will want you to prepay for a full tank of gas. The reason they care is because this is a nice little revenue maker. The idea behind this one is that you can prepay for your gas and return the car empty. It seems good because you don’t have to worry about swinging into the gas station on your way to drop off the car. It also seems like a pretty good price on gas (most have these listed).

The money maker part of the transaction is that most people don’t return their cars on E. So even though you prepaid for a full tank, you really wouldn’t have needed to buy a full tank of gas. If time is money and your time is worth more than the hassle of filling it up, then feel free to prepay. I’m too big of a cheapskate to buy gas for the person who rents the car after me so I always decline.


The rental car company will offer you all sorts of upgrades or extra items. I decline these too; since I know what type of car I am getting when I rent it, there isn’t any reason for me to upgrade to a bigger one. If I wanted a big car, I would have rented one in the first place. Another big offer is GPS.

If you have cellular data on your phone, there is no reason to rent a GPS. Google Maps or Apple Maps does just fine. I have only paid for a GPS once and that was in a foreign country where we didn’t have access to our phones. In Costa Rica we decided on a whim to rent a GPS unit. It turned out to be worth its weight in gold. The roads in Costa Rica don’t have street signs like they do here. If we hadn’t had someone telling us when to turn, we would have been pretty much hosed.

Sign on the dotted line

Initial, sign, sign, initial…..the rental car company will have you go through several screens or pages of information that basically says if anything happens you will pay for it. Different companies ask different things: in Spokane I had to initial that I wouldn’t stand on the roof of my Nissan Sentra. Okay, sure thing.

Mazda car rental in front of leaves turning colors
Our rental car Mazda, Mo, took us all through the Southeast


Just after you check out your car for damage and throw your gear in the trunk, it is a good idea to prepare yourself for the drive. There’s nothing worse than merging onto an interstate in a strange car and realizing you don’t know where you are going and can’t see out of the mirrors. When I get into a car for the first time, I’ll get my mirrors ready, pull my electronic cables and iPod and phone out of my bag and either figure out my route (if I’m by myself) or make sure my co-captain knows where we are headed.


Most rental cars are new; they pretty much all have USB, auxiliary jacks and cigarette lighters. You should also check how many miles are on the car; if it is only a few thousand you might have free satellite radio if the Sirius trial period hasn’t expired.

You used to have to make sure you had unlimited miles on cars when you rented a car. In most cases, cars are unlimited. But if you know you are going some distance, you should just double check. In Spokane they had a limit of where you could take your car (most border states ask if you are taking the car into Canada or Mexico) but I haven’t ever come across that before. Good thing. When B and I did a road trip through the south, we hit 10 states and put about 2,000 miles on our rental car.

Returning the Rental Car

After you return the car to the designated area, the car rental person will do a quick walk around, ask you how your trip was and print you a receipt. Ever since the aforementioned Alaska incident, I always keep my receipts handy just in case I need to reference something. We’ve talked about the gas option above; if you opt to fill up the tank yourself, it is a good idea to hang onto your receipt. Some rental car companies ask to see it to make sure you’ve filled up within 10 or 15 miles of the airport.  

Lastly, you should always always do a look through to make sure you haven’t left anything in the car. This includes sunglasses holders and jockey boxes (for you non-Idaho drivers, a jockey box is the glove compartment) as well as the secret place under the seat where items go to disappear. I left my iPod in a rental car not too long ago. Trust me, it is a pain and pretty expensive to get your stuff back…if you do at all (we left my Grandma’s handicap sticker in a rental car once and never saw it again.)

Rental Car Agreements
Hang on to those rental car agreements for a little while


We love renting cars. Since B drives a truck and I have a station wagon, we will usually opt for a rental car if we are going on a quick weekend trip. They are cheap on the weekends and the money we save on gas mileage typically pays for the price of the rental car (and we don’t have to put miles on our vehicles). By following the ‘how to’ above, renting a car can be a quick and non-intimidating process and you won’t have to end up like the poor family in front of us in line in Spokane.

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