14 Costly (But Common) Car Rental Mistakes You Can Avoid

Before you rent your next vehicle, watch out for these costly issues.
Last updated June 1, 2023 | By Jenny Cohen Edited By Chris Kissell
Row of different used cars

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As you prepare for another exciting trip, you might book hotels, find flights, and reserve a rental car. Make sure you’re getting the most out of your car rental experience and not wasting your money.

Here are a few mistakes to look out for that could help you avoid money stress before you book that rental car.

Not understanding your own car insurance

crizzystudio/Adobe insurance officers hand over the car keys after the tenant

Don’t pay for rental car insurance offered by the rental agency until you check with your own car insurance company. Your personal insurance policy might cover any accidents or damage that occurs while you are driving the rental car.

Pro tip: Paying too much for your car insurance? Check out these smart tips for saving on car insurance

Not asking for an upgrade

littlewolf1989/Adobe car dealer presenting new car to the customer

If you are stuck with a smaller car, ask if you can upgrade to something larger for the same price. This may or may not work, but it can’t hurt to try.

Pro tip: Some of the best travel credit cards may help you get an upgrade or discounted rental before you actually pick up your car. Check with your credit card provider to see what kind of deals it can get you.

Pre-purchasing gas

coreyfrey/Adobe gas pump

When you pick up the rental vehicle, you may be given the option to pre-purchase gas. This means you pay the rental agency for a full tank of gas and then don’t have to worry about refueling the car before you return it.

But if you don’t use a full tank, you don’t get a refund or credit for the extra gas you paid for that you didn’t need. So, you can often save on a rental car by skipping the pre-purchase and taking the extra step to refuel before you return the vehicle.

Pro tip: If high gas prices are getting you down, try these smart money moves to help reduce the pain at the pump. 

Forgetting about discount codes

creative soul/Adobe Discount code

Check online to see if there are any discount codes available for the particular rental company you plan to use. You also may want to look into deals or discount codes available through organizations you may be a member of, such as AAA or AARP.

Paying extra fees at airports

Robert Wilson/Adobe airport

If you rent a car at the airport, you may be on the hook for additional costs, including airport fees. Find out if taking an Uber from the airport to a nearby rental lot — and renting the car there — can save you from these additional fees.

Leaving your Costco membership behind

MelissaMN/Adobe Hand holding a Costco Wholesale Executive Membership card

When you think of the warehouse retailer, you may imagine the Costco food court and the good deals on food in bulk. But one genius Costco hack is the ability to rent cars.

You might be able to find a lower price and get other perks — such as waived cancellation fees — if you book through Costco.

Failing to note damage

PiyawatNandeenoparit/Adobe backside of silver car get damaged by accident

Before you drive away from the rental agency, walk around the car with an associate and document any damage you see. That way, you won’t be blamed for damages you did not cause.

Remember to check out the exterior of the car as well as the interior for any damage or excessive wear and tear.

Not rebooking at a lower rate

Tiko/Adobe rebooking car rental

If you have already booked a rental car through a company, you might still be able to get a better deal than the original rate you locked in. Some companies might allow you to change your reservation, or cancel and then rebook to get the lower rate.

Keep an eye on rates and be prepared to make changes, but also check with the company first to see how it might handle adjusting a reservation.

Paying for accessories

luckybusiness/Adobe car GPS

You don’t need a GPS to help you find your way in a new city, so don’t get talked into paying for that add-on for your rental car. The same could be true for other accessories, such as Wi-Fi in the car.

Instead, stick to the GPS and other apps on your smartphone. That should cover you.

Waiting too long to book

nicoletaionescu/Adobe a woman is frustrated

Car rental costs can fluctuate depending on when you need the car. You might pay more if you book during the holidays or wait until the last minute, for instance. By contrast, you may be able to save some extra cash by booking early.

Pro tip: Some rental companies have no-fee cancellation policies. It may be a good idea to lock in a price now and if it’s cheaper later, you can cancel and rebook at the lower fare.

Forgetting about extra costs that add up

fizkes/Adobe an adult man unhappy with the cost of car rental

When you’re booking your car rental, think about fees you may incur once you leave the lot. Perhaps your hotel charges a parking fee or you may have to pay tolls as part of your driving.

Take these extra fees into account and see if you can save money by using a ride-sharing app or public transportation instead.

Skipping the loyalty programs

Studio Romantic/Adobe a happy couple renting a car

Many car rental companies have loyalty programs that are free to join and can help you earn rewards for future rentals. And depending on how many times you rent a vehicle, you may be able to earn free upgrades for being a part of the program.

You also can sign up for loyalty program newsletters to find out about rental deals that can save you money during a future trip.

Not looking into where you’re going

SeanPavonePhoto/Adobe new york city skyline

Look into the best way to get around a city before you book a rental. In some cities, a car might not be necessary — for example, in New York or London, which have extensive mass-transit systems.

If you are staying in an urban city center, there might be plenty of things to see and do within walking distance. If so, a car might not be necessary.

Forgetting the mileage limits

I Viewfinder/Adobe car mileage

Check your rental agreement for any daily mileage limits to make sure you don’t go over them. Exceeding these limits can be a costly mistake, depending on how much the company charges for overage.

If you’re going to be doing a lot of driving, look into upgrading your mileage package if possible.

Bottom line

Olivier Le Moal/Adobe starting a rental car

A car rental can help you get around during your next trip. But if you’re not careful, it can also trip you up. Remember to check the contract for any issues before you sign it, and give the vehicle a good look over before driving it off the lot.

Performing due diligence can ensure you enjoy the trip — and your rental car. Some of the best travel credit cards also offer upgrades or discounted rates before you even pick up your car.

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Jenny Cohen Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer who has covered a bit of everything, from finance to sports to her favorite TV shows. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and FoxSports.com.