Tips for foreigners about renting or buying a vehicle in the U.S.


Today’s post is the third in our series of “Top Ten Questions on Road Trips” based on the information published at Trip Advisor in its travel forums: tips for foreigners about renting or buying a vehicle in the U.S.

Tips for foreigners Renting or Buying a car in the US

Vintage Hertz rental advertisement

I will skip the “car buying” because it does not seem to be the best option because you could buy it without an American driver license, but you have to insure your car to be able to use it and that is not as easy as it sounds: the US insurance company can require you to provide a driving license issued in the U.S., or proof that you are a U.S. resident. Trust me, it is easier to rent a car.

Car Rental tips

We have covered car rental for your Route 66 trip in our website (visit our rental webpage here), and the main pointers are the following:

1. General Information on Renting a Car

  • If you are under 25 or over 71 years old you may not be able to rent a car. Check with the car rental company.
  • Tourist destinations are more competitive and offer better prices (think Florida and California).
  • Do not skimp on insurance you never know what may happen!
  • Almost all cars nowadays are NON SMOKING, do not smoke in them, hefty cleaning fees apply.

Downtown or Airport locations?

You will usually arrive at an airport located close to Route 66, maybe in a big city, so you will have the options of downtown or airport pick-up:

  • Airport counters work longer hours and are easier to locate. But cost more. You may drive away directly from the Airport. It will not be stressful: highway signs are clear, and a GPS will help you get out of town and on to the road.
  • Downtown pick-up will mean driving out of a congested city, but is cheaper as it avoids the airport surcharge tax.
  • Check if the car rental company has a shuttle bus to nearby hotels either at the airport or downtown. In case you want to stay at a hotel before taking to the road or flying back home.

One way or round trip?

  • If you drop-off your car at a different location to your pick-up point, it is a one-way rental. Car rental companies charge an extra fee for one-way trips. The advantage for you is that you avoid having to drive all the way back to your starting point.
  • When you book your car online you can check the extra costs involved in a one-way rental.
  • Ask the company what fees apply if you have to change your plans “en route” and return the car at a different location. They can add $100 to $300 to your total costs.

Mileage is usually unlimited, but check just in case. There may be an upper limit too.

Safety Tip:

When you reach your destination in the US after a long flight (maybe you are flying in from Europe, South America or Australia for instance), will you go straight to the car rental counter and drive off? What about jet-lag?
Perhaps you should spend the first day at a hotel in your arrival town and begin your trip the following day after a good night’s sleep.

Bonus: picking up your car downtown may be cheaper than an airport pick-up, as you will avoid the airport surcharges.

What type of car?

Size does matter, especially in America. Your car has to fit you, your party and your luggage. Bigger cars offer more space for all, and leg space is important on a road trip. Travel comfortably. Bigger cars also use more fuel, but gasoline is cheap in the US: Mileage can range from 26 to 10 mpg.

Car rental companies list their cars in size categories and bigger cars cost more: Subcompact, Compact, Intermediate, Standard, Full Size.

Rented Car in Monument Valley, Arizona

Check what cars are mentioned in each category and the information provided: capacity (passengers), luggage capacity, mileage, accessories (Air conditioning, etc.).

Remember that you are not guaranteed to get the exact car you signed up for, just a similar model; categories cover several makes and models and you may get any of them when you actually pick up your car.

Cars in the US are mostly automatic, stick shift costs more -if available, and only in bigger and more expensive cars.

Choice of car

Go online and check the different models offered by the car rental companies. Look them up on the internet. Smaller cars are cheaper to rent, and in general will cover your needs.

Make sure it can fit your luggage in the trunk and seat all passengers. Remember to pack smartly to avoid extra-big suitcases.

America is a big country, and the distances are great. While in Europe you would drive a small car, in America go for a bigger one. You will always have plenty of parking space and roads are wide. Gasoline is also quite cheap.


Having chosen the car, you can select extras: ski rack, child safety seat, GPS, additional driver, second set of keys, satellite radio, etc.
Choose what you need. Perhaps it is cheaper to buy a GPS or bring your own with you (at 15 USD/day you can recoup the costs of a GPS or a child seat in one week).
Extras cost money so think carefully about what you need.

2. The Rental

Having defined dates, locations, car model and extras you can now book your car.

Some Cost Cutting Tips

Some companies offer discounts if you “pay now”, when you make your booking. You can cancel later but there is a fee for cancellations. Nevertheless the savings are considerable.
Consider paying in advance.

Membership in some frequent flier programs, credit card programs or some large organizations (i.e. AAA) may obtain discounts for your rentals. Or you can earn miles for your frequent flier account Check before booking.

Google the keywords “coupon code” followed by the name of a major car rental company and you may find a discount code to apply to your car rental and cut your costs by 5 to 20%.

You may already be part of a loyalty program and regularly rent your cars with the same company. If you are not, consider joining one, it grants some privileges: skip queues, get upgrades or discounts.

The “Real” costs

Some advertised prices lure you in to rent a car, only to find out that the other hidden costs will duplicate what you will end up paying.

Some extra costs are: additional driver charge, drop-off charges, gasoline top-up fee, airport surcharges, local and state taxes, insurance, GPS, baby-seat, etc.

When you book online, you will see the full detail of the costs and what you will actually end up paying. Check them before confirming your reservation.

3. Insurance

Car rental insurance is not cheap, but it buys peace of mind. Do not risk driving without insurance. Remember – if the insurance doesn’t cover your loss, you will remain personally responsible for any difference.

CDW (Collision Damage Waiver)

CDW is not actually an insurance but a waiver granted by the car rental company to the renter, absorbing some of the risks, in other words it is a waiver of their right to make the renter pay for damage to the car.

It covers the risks of collision or damage, towing the damaged vehicle and may also cover other events (theft, loss of use, liability).

You will be protected only if your comply with the law and contractual restrictions: no racing, no use of mobile phones, not DUI, the authorized driver was at the wheel, etc. Check the terms and conditions with your car rental company (they are usually found on their websites).

LDW (Loss Damage Waiver)

LDW is not insurance either, it is merely an option to relieve you of financial responsibility in case the car is damaged, vandalized or stolen during the rental. And not only the damages but also the loss of revenue suffered by the car rental company while the car is being repaired of missing due to theft (loss of use).

It may not be available in all states. Check with the company.

Your personal car insurance policy may also cover rental cars, but you may not be totally protected. Check with your insurance company.

If you decline LDW coverage you can be responsible for up to the full fair market value of the car if it is damaged, vandalized or stolen during. You will also have to cover the lost revenue for the period that the car is missing or being repaired.

Although some online travel packages claim to offer insurance covering car rentals, they may not be complete. Check the terms of coverage which may only be supplemental and have some restrictions.

SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance)

This is an “extra” insurance (beyond your own personal insurance) that protects you and other authorized drivers against third-party bodily injury and property-damage claims for which you are legally liable.

PAE (Personal Accident and Effects) or PEP (Personal Effects Protection)

This insurance covers you and your passengers against accident, injury, and loss to personal property. It includes some medical expenses coverage. Check its scope when renting your car.

In South Africa I took windscreen damage waiver and it paid for itself because a truck that I was overtaking on N2 highway just north of Port Elizabeth, threw a stone at my windshield and nicked it. When I returned the car the nick was spotted but my insurance covered it.

Credit Card Insurance Coverage

Your personal insurance and some major credit cards cover some types of collision damage insurance, so you may not have to purchase the car rental company’s insurance. Check this with your credit card issuer or your insurance company. And verify it with the car rental company.

The credit card coverage applies if you use the card to rent your car and pay for it with the same card. It may not be a complete coverage (i.e. it is supplemental) and may have restrictions meaning that it does not cover the whole loss leaving you personally responsible for any non-covered difference.

4. Returning your car

It is always a good idea to locate a gasoline station relatively close to the airport and top off the tank (don’t use those right next to the return location, they have higher prices). The car rental companies charge much more than regular service stations do.

Early and Late Returns

If you return your car early (the day before) you may actually have to pay more – an early return fee. But if you return the car late, you will face a penalty fee. Car rental companies offer a grace period of about half an hour, so return your car on time.

Your rental days are calculated in 24-hour periods so if you rented the vehicle at 3 PM return it at 3 PM, if you return it at 4 PM you will pay for an extra day.

Make sure you do not forget any personal belongings in the car, glove compartment, back seat, pockets, trunk. Also, don’t forget to return any extra sets of keys (they can cost up to $20 if not returned – it happened to me).

The check-in staff will go over the car and take note of any body damage. Before signing the papers, make sure you agree with the report.

All major rental companies can be found in the US, so pick the one that suits your needs and enjoy your trip!

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