Never Rent a Car Without Doing This First, Experts Say

Flights are definitely optimal for long-haul trips, but renting a car offers you freedom and flexibility when traveling. With a rental, you don't have to rely on cabs, public transportation, or rideshare services like Uber and Lyft—and who doesn't love the convenience of door-to-door transportation? Renting a car is pretty straightforward if you have a valid license and meet the age requirements, but some drivers make one critical mistake during the process. Read on to find out what experts say you need to do before driving your rental off the lot.

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Rental cars have been scarce lately.

Renting a car became a bit challenging more as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a shortage of semiconductor chips delayed auto manufacturing, according to The Washington Post. Rental companies were left with fewer cars, but increased demand for travel. The situation became so dire, it was dubbed the "rental car apocalypse."

As happens with supply and demand, prices skyrocketed and were still elevated during the 2022 summer travel season, per Bloomberg. If you're lucky enough to find a rental car at a price that won't break the bank, however, you'll need to take a few extra minutes before heading to your final destination.

Pay very close attention to detail.

Renting a car is already pricey right now, and you don't want to be saddled with extra fees. That's why you need to inspect your vehicle for any defects before you leave the rental company lot.

"We recommend inspecting the vehicle thoroughly before starting to drive it because any unnoticed or unspotted damage, or even a slight scratch, can be undocumented and left there by the previous customer," Matas Buzelis, head of communications and auto expert at carVertical, explains. "If the company did not document the damage [from the previous renter], they might approach you with a notice of new damage or scratches, which you will be inevitably charged for."

Mike Clancy, head of the nonprofit organization Car Donation Center, adds that without documentation, it'll also be difficult to defend yourself if you're fined.

"When asked [by the rental company], how can you prove the scratches or dents were not your fault? The result is a [long-winded] argument, which often ends with you paying for said damages," he tells Best Life. "It is always a good practice to record any visual damages, before riding off to the sunset."

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Make sure everything is working properly, too.

Taking a magnifying glass to the body of your rental car is a great way to protect yourself, but you should also be sure that everything else within the vehicle is up to snuff.

Margarette Stine, automotive expert for 4WheelOnline, recommends checking the tires and the rims, looking under the car for any leaks, and documenting any stains or damage to the interior. Clancy stresses the importance of a "performance checkup," just to ensure that the radio, air conditioning, lights, seats, mirrors, and fuel gauge are functioning, as well as any navigation system or technology the vehicle is equipped with.

Lastly, check on the vehicle's fluids. "Before you drive off, check that all of the car's fluids are at proper levels," Joe Giranda, director of sales and marketing for CFR Classic, an international car shipping and relocation company, tells Best Life. "This includes engine oil, coolant/antifreeze, brake fluid, and washer fluid."

Consider adding extra insurance, and read the fine print.

No matter how many precautionary measures you take, accidents and damage do happen. As such, you'll want to have proper coverage in place. If you have car insurance, your provider may cover you even if you're driving a rental, but take a minute to double-check your policy.

"You will also want to ensure that you have rental car insurance, whether that means being covered by your personal auto insurance policy, purchasing coverage from the rental business itself, or being covered by your credit card," Kathleen Ahmmed, co-founder of USCarJunker, explains.

Lastly—to make sure that no box is left unchecked—read the rental contract closely and make a pitstop at the gas station before dropping the car off. "Always return the vehicle with a full tank of gas. Otherwise, you may end up being charged for a fill-up with most rental car companies often charging significantly more than the typical gas station rates," Ahmmed explains.