As an experienced adult who travels, you’re probably familiar with this scenario: you get off the airplane – perhaps tired and hungry – find the rental car desk, sign the agreement, hop in the car, and away you go.
In seconds, you’re usually in one of two surroundings: scary busy airport traffic or you’re in the boonies. While you’re trying to get your bearings, you’re swerving to avoid bus and taxi drivers as they speed along, trying to interpret lots of signs, and blindly groping around for the right knob to turn on headlights, window controls, adjust the temperature, and more.
In short, you are committing every driving sin you’ve ever cursed at other drivers for displaying.
The first and most important thing to remember when you get in a rental car is this: you are not familiar with this car.
While it’s likely that you’re not familiar with your location and surroundings either, the fact that you are not familiar with this car is the biggest cause of accidents within a few hundred feet of the car rental parking lot. Here’s how travel insurance covers rental cars.
Take a look at these rental car safety tips before you rent your next car.
1. Before you reserve a rental car
The bottom line before you reserve a rental car is getting a good deal and knowing how you plan to insure your rental car.
- Check with your insurance provider and your credit card travel protection to understand your current coverage for rental cars.
- If you need supplemental car rental coverage – add it to your travel insurance plan when you buy it.
- Check with your road service provider to see if your coverage extends to rental cars where you’re going.
- Tuck a small flashlight or headlamp into your carry-on. You’ll need this to poke around in your rental car if you pick it up at night.
- Have a camera with a flash available in your carry-on too – we’ll tell you why in a minute.
See our review of car rental collision coverage for details on supplementing your current insurance sources.
2. At the rental counter
At the rental counter, the key is making sure you’re getting the price you expect and that you know whom to call for help if the rental car breaks down.
- Ask the representative when the car last received vehicle maintenance. If the clerk can’t answer this question, start to get suspicious.
- As the representative who you should call if the car breaks down or you lose your rental car keys. Note this number on your rental agreement or store it in your phone.
- Get a few paper towels from the bathroom before you leave the rental car office – we’ll tell you why in a minute.
3. Before you leave the lot
Once you find your rental car, you want to make sure that you aren’t held responsible for someone else’s damage and that the car you’re renting is relatively safe and well-maintained.
- Walk around the car and snap photos of all panels. If there’s damage, mark that down on your paperwork. The photos will come in handy if the rental agency tries to hold you responsible for damage later.
- Visually check the tires to be sure they’re well inflated and that there is no significant uneven tread wear that could indicate a problem with the vehicle.
- Check the odometer – if the car has more than 25,000 miles it’s considered a senior rental car and you should be suspicious of that as well.
- Open the trunk and look for the spare tire and check that it’s properly inflated. Verify that there’s a jack and lug wrench for changing the tire as well (many tools disappear from rental cars).
- Open the hood and check the fluid levels – this is why you brought the paper towels (and the headlamp if it’s dark). If you know how to check the oil, antifreeze, and washer fluid great; otherwise a quick visual inspection is probably all you can manage.
- Get in the car, turn it on and let it warm up while you check that the gas gauge reads ‘full’ and adjust the temperature controls.
- Familiarize yourself with the car. Adjust the seat and mirrors (rear-view and side mirrors), turn on the hazard lights, check the window controls, try the windshield wipers, the turn signals, the headlights, etc.
- When you’re ready, take the car for a quick spin around the lot: turning, braking, and listening. If there’s a problem or a strange sound, it’s best to find out now before you get on the road.
- If you’re unfamiliar with the area, consult your map or directions and/or engage your GPS. Most rental car agencies are away from the airport and if you take a wrong turn you could find yourself driving through baggage claim all over again.
- If you want music, figure out the radio before you drive off the lot.
As you drive off the lot and head for the exit, try a few of the controls again just to be sure you’ve got them down.
During your trip, remember that rental cars are like candy to thieves and use these tips:
Avoiding Rental Car Break-ins and Theft