US road trips: car-hire essentials ( Chapter 1 )

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Tips for a U.S. Road Trip
Tips for a U.S. Road Trip

What car do you want to drive on your US road trip? We steer you though car-hire options, the twists and turns of insurance and fees to car pools, and tell you how to to rent your dream-mobile.

Road trip rough guide … to car hire. You want to keep that Cadillac pristine
Road trip rough guide … to car hire. You want to keep that Cadillac pristine

Best car-hire comparison sites

Kayak.com
The most popular travel search engine, which offers the best rates from all the major firms, as well as checking what rates are being offered by rival search engines.

VroomVroomVroom.com
Specialist car hire website with (perhaps) the best name.

Expedia.com
Big search engine that finds the rates, as well as handling bookings.

Best time of year to book

Naturally enough, rental rates rise during peak travel seasons, and these vary across the US. Summer, and holidays such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, are peak time everywhere, but local events, gatherings and celebrations can cause rates to spike. If you attempt getting a rental car in Florida on the weekend of the Georgia-Florida college football game in October or during the Daytona 500 in February and you’ll see what we mean. Generally, you’ll find the best combinations of good weather and low rates during the “shoulder” seasons around April or October.

Round trip or one-way trips

No matter what time of year you go, one of the best ways to save money is to plan your trip so you start and finish in the same place, avoiding drop-off fees. One-way drop-off fees, which often get disguised or hidden within the quoted rate, can add $100 a week or more to the total.

Location, location, location

Small, city centre car-hire companies charge less than those at airport locations, especially when you factor in the surcharges. Of the web search engines, Kayak does the best job of mapping car-hire locations away from the airports.

Fees and taxes

Added costs you can expect at airport companies include anything from “concession fees” to “facility charges” (sometimes both, adding $10-$20 per day to any rental.) One of the biggest contrasts can be found in the usually cheap state of Texas; at airports in Houston and Dallas, local fees and taxes add more than 50% to daily and weekly rates, an upcharge that some companies may neglect to mention until you arrive.

Insurance

This is perhaps the most maddening part about hiring a car, especially after a long flight. Staff at the service desks will bombard you with acronyms that represent optional extras in a tone of voice that makes you feel reckless not to accept.

Collision or Loss Damage Waiver (CDW or LDW) – these free you from any worry of damage to the car in exchange for a fee (anywhere from $10 to $30 a day). Whereas Supplementary Loss Protection (SLP, usually around $10 a day), helps increase your coverage for the extra fee. Meanwhile, Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) duplicates any health insurance coverage you already have.

Your existing policies may already offer you some cover, especially for potential liability, and your credit card may cover some collision or damage costs. Look into all of these possibilities well before you get to the car-hire counter, because the question of insurance is complicated and expensive. The cost of insurance to cover potential loss or damage can easily exceed the basic rate of the car rental, so consider your options carefully. Pre-paid insurance is almost always the best value.

Be Flexible

If you are open to different routes, then you may be able to benefit from one of the great open secrets of the car-hire world: the size of their fleets varies from season to season. For example, in winter, travellers flock to Florida and Arizona but as the season tapers off companies need to move the cars to other markets often offering sweet deals to drivers willing to help them out. Every April and May, Hertz offers a “Drive Out” deal from Arizona and Florida, bringing one-way, unlimited mileage rentals down below $20 a day. I once paid $29 a week, barely $100 in total, for a car I drove for three weeks from Florida to San Francisco.

Major or minor?

Avis, the second-largest car hire company in the US, used to run an effective ad campaign saying: “We’re Number 2 – We Try Harder.” Whether or not that’s true, there are differences from one company to another, and when comparing prices it is good to know why some cars are cheaper than others. Often, the car you get from a “major” (such as Hertz or Avis) will be newer and cleaner than a similar class of car from a lower-priced competitor. Also, larger companies tend to have more branches with longer opening hours, which can make a big difference if and when something goes wrong and you need to swap cars in the middle of a trip.

Dollar and Thrifty are two of the biggest budget firms (though they were bought by Hertz last year). Alamo, is one of the cheapest, with prices averaging around 10% less than Hertz.

The youngest of the major firms, Enterprise, has one “unique selling point” – it offers to pick you up wherever you are, rather than make you go to its offices. Enterprise also has a reputation for transparent pricing, with the fewest hidden charges and fees, which has won it high rankings from consumer watchdogs such as JD Power.

Pre-pay or not pre-pay?

Unlike airlines, car-hire companies usually do not require you to make a deposit to hold your booking. This makes it worth keeping an eye on rates as there’s no charge to change your booking, or to make a number of different bookings just in case. Once your plans are set, however, it is often possible to save a little more by paying for the car hire in advance. One valuable resource is Hotwire, the pre-pay subsidiary of Expedia, where you can find good deals saving you as much as 20% off any other deal from all the different car hire companies. In particular, Hotwire offers the best prices on insurance, charging as little as $9 a day for full collision, loss and damage coverage, for which the individual car-hire companies charge $15-25.