Tips and tricks for getting car rental bargains when visiting the US.
Barring a few major cities – New York, Boston and Washington DC are rare examples of getting it approximately right – the United States is hopeless for public transport. This means that for most trips to the land of obesity, bad spelling and plastic cheese, you’ll need your own wheels.
The good news is that car hire in the States can be relatively inexpensive. And, despite the bitching and moaning of our American cousins, fuel prices are relatively low by European standards too.
Dodging the excess charges
There are a few tricks worth considering if you want to get a proper bargain. The first is to abandon any loyalty to one particular firm. The big car rental companies really are much of a muchness, and the differences tend to be in the levels of excess they charge.
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These charges can be negated by taking out annual excess insurance that covers you on all car rentals throughout the year. This is inevitably a lot cheaper than taking the hire company’s often outrageously-priced upgraded insurance (although it won’t stop them trying to sell it to you). A few companies sell this excess insurance, although I currently use Insurance4CarHire.com (£). Their Worldwide 60 (£) policy covers unlimited rentals of up to 60 days for £79 a year.
With the excess charge factor taken out, you’re free to shop around. Price comparison sites are the best way of doing this. Most of the time, I use Carrentals.co.uk (£) and have found some incredibly good deals that way in the past.
Using these sites, you’ll be presented with a list of options that basically price things up according to the size of the car. The smallest cars are usually cheapest, but there can often be some bizarre anomalies – it’s worth looking at the results in the columns for the bigger cars too.
Upgrades to bigger cars?
However, if the bigger cars aren’t cheaper, there’s no point in going for them (unless you’re a family of five and are carrying a lot of luggage). For solo travellers and couples, the smallest option will almost always be perfectly adequate for your needs. Americans really don’t get the concept of small cars – the one described as “compact” on the comparison site will inevitably turn out to be medium-sized by British standards.
When you go to pick up, they will of course try and tempt you to upgrade. Don’t bother unless it’s free.
And yes, sometimes the upgrade will be free. Especially if you’ve booked to pick up and drop off the car at less popular locations. Big airport depots will always have lots of vehicles on site, but smaller pick-up points may only have a limited number of cars at any one time. Because Americans wouldn’t dream of driving a ‘compact’ car, the small outlets might only have one available. If that’s hired by someone else, they’ve no choice but to give you a bigger one. Free upgrade joy ahoy.