Common rental car mistakes — and how to avoid them

There’s one rental car cost that only age can help with: Once you turn 25, it’s a lot easier (and usually cheaper) to rent a car. For everything else, smart planning can help you avoid unnecessary hidden fees and costly oversights.

Even frequent travelers can get tripped up by not reading the fine print and get hit with extra fees when renting a car. Here are some of the most common rental car mistakes and how to avoid them.

Going over the maximum miles per day

Not all rentals come with unlimited mileage. For example, U-Save Car and Truck Rental has hefty charges if you exceed the mileage in the stated policy for each location. If you rent from the Costa Mesa, California, location at John Wayne Airport (SNA), unlimited mileage is only allowed for travel within California (and Las Vegas with prior authorization). Outside of that coverage area, the charges are 50 cents per mile.

Not paying tolls yourself

Toll plaza and cars waiting to pass through Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in New York. EDUCATION IMAGES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

There’s no such thing as a free toll payment, especially when it comes to your rental car company. Ever driven through a cashless toll in a rental car without your own E-ZPass or another transponder to pay the toll and wondered how the fee would be paid?

Your rental car company will cover it — but it’ll cost you. Dollar Rental Car even charged one TPG contributor $59.99 for a single toll. It turns out most companies charge anywhere from $3 to $10 per day, either in administrative fees (not including the tolls) or in administrative fees plus the cost of tolls.

As part of its e-Toll program, for example, Budget charges rental car drivers in Florida a convenience fee of $5.95 per day up to a maximum amount of $29.75 per rental period (not to exceed 30 days), on top of the toll amount. To opt out, drivers must make sure the toll transponder included in the car is closed and that they pay for the tolls directly at the booth or online.

The best way to avoid the extra fees is to bring your own transponder and opt out of using the one from the rental car company. Many toll passes work in multiple states. For example, you can currently use the E-ZPass in 18 states. If you don’t have a toll pass for the state you’ll be visiting and the state only has cashless billing, you may also be able to pay tolls online using the vehicle’s license plate number. Or, you can even sign up for a toll transponder through that state’s tolling agency before your trip.

Related: Stop at this vending machine in the Orlando airport to save on car rental fees

Paying for insurance

If you have a personal car insurance policy or a credit card that covers rental car insurance, then having additional insurance from your rental car company could be yet another hidden cost you don’t necessarily need to pay. In one instance, it added up to a $200 mistake for a family that already had primary and secondary coverage through their credit card and personal car insurance.

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If you’re considering using your credit card for coverage, make sure your card issuer offers a primary collision damage waiver, the type of car you’re renting is covered (luxury and off-road vehicles are often not included, for instance) and the country you’re in is covered (to avoid repeating this reader’s rental car mistake). Just remember, credit card collision damage waivers do not cover personal injuries to you, your passengers or pedestrians involved in an accident.

Related: Should I purchase rental car insurance for a rental car booking?

Picking up and dropping off at different locations

Changing your rental car’s drop-off location from the pickup location can easily drive up the total cost — doubling or even tripling the rate.

Even if the two locations are within easy driving distance — as in two different airports within the same metro area, such as Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) or two major cities (Boston and New York City) — having a different drop-off and pickup location can add extra costs to your rental.

Dropping off at a different location may be more convenient for you, but it’s almost always not convenient for the rental car company. They’ll impose a hefty surcharge for the trouble.

Paying extra for a later return


Rental car companies like Avis define rental car periods by the day (24 hours). If your return time is later in the day than your pickup time, you’re essentially paying for an entire additional day, even if it’s just a few hours difference.

Some rental car companies have a grace period of anywhere from 29 minutes to up to two hours when you return the vehicle after the designated return time, meaning you’ll either get hit with no additional charge or will receive a discounted hourly rate.

So, if you know you’re going to have to return your car two hours later than when you picked it up, it may be best to still input the return time to be the same as the pickup time and use the grace period rather than paying for a full extra day.


If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, you can get a complimentary four-hour grace period when renting from Hertz using the designated discount code. That’s often enough extra time to keep you from paying for a full additional day, which could translate to significant savings.

Booking through an online travel agency

Booking with a third-party site like Kayak may be attractive for the low-cost pricing, but it comes at its own cost if things go wrong. Booking directly with the rental car company can save the hassle of going through an online travel agency if you need to alter your reservation or get a refund.

Also, some companies do not allow earning points or rewards through their loyalty program if you book with an OTA. If you have car rental elite status, you may not receive your elite benefits when you book through an OTA.

Paying for extras


Need to add a car seat, navigation system, satellite radio or extra driver to your rental? Adding those extras to your car rental can easily increase your total bill on a multiday rental by $100 or more.

On a sample reservation with Alamo on its website, selecting all the available extras — including SiriusXM, a navigation device, a carbon offset credit and various children’s car seats — for a two-day, full-size car rental from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) added $117 to the total bill.

You can save on these conveniences by booking through a provider that won’t charge extra. For example, with Audi on demand (formerly Silvercar), add-ons like a car seat or additional drivers are free. If you have a AAA membership, you can book a rental with a free child safety seat and a complimentary additional driver with Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty.

Not being smart about your rewards

Travelers beware: Earning frequent flyer miles instead of points or credits through the rental car company’s loyalty program isn’t always free. Yes, they’ll sneak in a surcharge that costs anywhere between 75 cents and $1.50 per day.

On the flip side, joining a rental car company’s loyalty program can help you avoid extra charges like second-driver fees, and you could earn free rental days.

Don’t forget to check your cards for perks like elite status with some rental car programs. For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express all offer top-tier Hertz President’s Circle status as a benefit to cardholders.

You may even be able to match your elite status from one rental car company to another.

Upon enrollment, accessible through the Capital One website or mobile app, eligible cardholders will remain at upgraded status level through December 31, 2024. Please note, enrolling through the normal Hertz Gold Plus Rewards enrollment process (e.g. at will not automatically detect a cardholder as being eligible for the program and cardholders will not be automatically upgraded to the applicable status tier. Additional terms apply.

Driving away without checking the vehicle

Sometimes, all you want to do is grab the key and hit the road. However, it’s important to give your rental car a thorough inspection before taking off. Check that the car has a full tank of gas (and if it doesn’t, be sure it’s noted so you don’t have to pay for more gas than you used). Also, take photos and a video of the car, noting any damage (including scratches and dents), and make sure they’re documented with an agent. Otherwise, you might have to pay. You may also want to check the car’s vehicle identification number for information about the car’s features and any recalls.

If you think you’re renting a car with all-wheel drive, for example, you’ll be paying a premium for that drivetrain. Checking the VIN (which should be on your rental car agreement) is a fast, easy way to tell for certain if you’re getting what you paid for. Plus, if you encounter any issues with the vehicle during your trip, past recalls could indicate that the problem isn’t your fault.

Related: The 1-minute video you should take every time you rent a car

Returning the car with an empty tank


Travelers should always return the car with the gas tank filled to the level it was upon pickup. Otherwise, the car rental agency will charge a special rate, which will cost more per gallon than carving out a few extra minutes to fuel up at the local gas station. Also, never prepay for gas. You could pay more per gallon, which will result in you not getting refunded for any gas you don’t use.

To really come out ahead, be sure you’re paying for gas with a credit card that earns bonus points or extra cash back on purchases at the pump. With the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, you’ll get 3% back at U.S. gas stations, and with the Citi Premier® Card (see rates and fees), you’ll earn 3 points per dollar.

Related: Feeling the pain of record-high gas prices? Here’s how to save money and earn rewards on gas purchases

Not considering alternatives

Depending on your itinerary, a combination of public transportation, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and even car rental alternatives like Turo and Getaround may be more cost-effective. So, if you only need access to a car once or twice on a trip, consider forgoing the rental car and choosing a different service instead.

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