Airlines, charter companies, car rental companies and tour operators all offer fly-drive packages. It’s often wise to book a car in advance, particularly during holiday or peak periods when rented cars are in high demand.
Many fly-drive holiday packages (particularly when booked in Europe) include a ‘free’ rented car, although fly-drive deals may not be as good as they appear at first glance, as many contain restrictions or apply to expensive cars only. Some companies charge a daily airport access fee (plus tax) and it may be cheaper to throw away a fly-drive car voucher and arrange a local deal yourself by calling local rental companies listed in the yellow pages.
Car rental companies
The biggest national car rental companies include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National and Thrifty. National rental companies have offices in all major cities and at international airports that are open from around 8am to 10pm, and provide national toll-free telephone numbers. Of the major companies, Dollar and Thrifty are generally the cheapest, although all companies offer special rates, e.g. corporate, 24-hour, weekend, weekly, off-peak, holiday, and extended period on certain categories of cars, as well as bonus coupons for airline tickets.
You should shop around by telephone or on the internet to compare rates, which may vary considerably. However, ‘all inclusive’ doesn’t necessarily mean that and you may have to pay extra for an extra driver or local fees and taxes (plus petrol). Airports are generally the most expensive places to rent a car, followed by city centre (downtown) offices.
There are also cheaper rental companies in all major cities, ranging from companies with a few run-down heaps to medium-sized, state-wide agencies. Some nationwide chains (e.g. Rent-a-Heap, Rent-a-Junk, Rent-a-Wreck and Ugly Duckling) also rent older cars, usually three to five years old. Although cars are well worn, they’re usually mechanically sound and rental rates are around half those of new models. However, some local agencies have high mileage charges and other hidden costs. Wherever you rent a car, if you suspect that it has a fault you should return it immediately and insist on a replacement.
If you are looking to rent a bus or a limo for a special occasion, there are providers such as limofind.com that offer rentals all over the United States.
You must usually be 21 to rent a car and must have held a licence for a minimum of a year. A few companies, e.g. Avis, rent to 18-year-olds in most cities, although Hertz have a minimum age requirement of 25. Many rental companies levy a ‘young driver’ surcharge per day on all drivers under 25, although women under 25 may be charged a lower premium than men, as they’re less accident prone.
If you have a foreign licence without a photograph, e.g. an old British licence, you may be asked to show your passport. You should also have an International Driver’s Permit (IDP), which must be used in conjunction with your foreign licence (it won’t be accepted on its own). All drivers planning to drive a vehicle must provide these documents.
When renting a car it’s imperative to ensure you have sufficient liability insurance. Many states no longer oblige car rental companies to provide third party cover, so check what insurance is provided. When included in the basic cost, third party cover may be restricted to in-state only and there may be a high surcharge for interstate travel.
Check the cost of out-of-state insurance, personal accident insurance (PAI), collision (or loss) damage waiver (CDW/LDW), personal effects protection (PEP), which may be included in your travel insurance, and supplementary liability insurance (also known as top-up liability insurance) or extended protection (SLI/EP. US residents can usually extend their personal motor vehicle insurance to include rented vehicles, although your policy must usually include collision insurance (unless you pay for CDW/LDW).
If you pay for a car with a credit card (e.g. American Express or a Gold Mastercard/Visa card), your card company may provide free CDW, but check the extent of cover provided, as most pay the excess (deductible) only after your insurance company pays on a claim. In some states CDW has been banned in favour of a mandatory excess when a rental car is damaged; elsewhere you may be asked to pay.
If you’re a visitor, it’s usually cheaper to extend rental insurance before travelling to the US. If you decline CDW, you may be held responsible for all damage to a car (however caused), even minor scratches.
Rented cars and rates
Rented cars are graded into classes or sizes by body size, not engine capacity, e.g. economy or sub-compact (the smallest), compact, mid-size or intermediate, and standard or full size. Groups are usually identified by a letter, e.g. A to H. Many companies also rent coupes, premium and luxury models, convertibles (or roadsters) and sports cars, four-wheel drive or sports utility vehicles (SUVs), and mini-vans. Weekly rates are generally more economical, although you’re charged the full daily rate for each day over a full week you have the car.
Rates vary considerably from state to state: Chicago and New York are among the most expensive (around twice the national average), while Florida and California are the cheapest. Many factors affect the rate, including the day of the week and the season, the size of the town and the popularity of the local tourist attractions. When comparing rates, check any minimum periods, as some companies’ lowest rates are for a minimum period of three days and always ensure that the rate you’re quoted includes all insurance.
Local sales tax must be added to rental rates and is usually payable even when a rented car was provided free. Extras such as insurance, taxes and surcharges can easily double or treble the basic daily rental rate. Almost all rental cars have automatic transmission, radios and air-conditioning. Many larger models have power steering, cruise control and other ‘luxury’ features. Manual transmission cars won’t start unless you have your foot on the clutch and automatic transmission cars won’t start if they’re in neutral (sometimes they get stuck there and you must step on the brake to release the transmission).
Many rental companies insist on payment with a major credit card and won’t accept cash unless you make prior arrangements, including a hefty deposit. This is so that they can trace you if you steal or damage the car and also because they can deduct extra charges from credit cards. The estimated cost of the rental is deducted or ‘blocked off’ your card’s credit limit as soon as you drive off, so make sure that this doesn’t leave you short of credit during your trip. When paying by credit card, check that you aren’t charged for unauthorised extras or for something that you’ve already paid for, such as petrol. Most rental companies expect you to fill up the tank before returning the car; otherwise you are charged double or more the going price for petrol for ‘topping the tank’.
Vans and pick-ups are available from major rental companies (and U-Haul van rental) by the hour, half-day or day, and sometimes from smaller local companies (usually cheaper). You can also rent a camper (recreational vehicle or RV), motor home, caravan (trailer) or mini-bus from a number of companies (prices vary with the season). Some rental companies provide inexpensive one-way rental deals, called ‘returns’, for those who are willing to deliver a car to another city, although there’s sometimes a drop-off charge.
One of the cheapest ways to get from A to B (provided B is where you want to go!) is with a ‘driveaway’ car. A driveaway is a unique American concept, where you receive the free use of a car or truck in return for delivering it to a specified destination. There are driveaway companies in most major cities. Look in the yellow pages under ‘Driveaway Cars’, ‘Auto Delivery’, ‘Automobile and Truck Transporting’ or ‘Automobile Transporters and Driveaway Companies’.