IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Wheel World

The keys to a smooth rental car experience are contained in these ten hints for business travelers.
Image: Filling up
Don't pre-buy gas or return the tank empty. Fill it yourself, which means giving yourself extra half-hour to find a gas station before dropping off the carKim D. Johnson / AP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

After a long, cramped flight, there’s nothing quite like feeling of freedom when slipping into a rental car, sliding a key in the ignition, pumping the accelerator (and the local rock-and-roll radio station).

But hang on. Before choosing that two-day business trip out-of-this-world ride and unleashing your inner Bruce Springsteen, check out the fine print on your agreement. Even those with Trump-size expense accounts probably don’t want to be tricked into paying exorbitant, hidden, and often-unnecessary fees that rental-car companies are quick to tack on.

What else to watch for? Dozens of states are poised to ban chatting on your cell phone while driving. Make sure the renter won’t hit you up for unlogged extra miles, or gallons of high-priced gas. And don’t trust the maps stuffed in the glovebox, geared toward finding more places to rent cars.

Finally, heed safety. There’s no harm in taking in extra five minutes to kick the tires of the car before pulling out of the lot. The sing-along can wait.

Below, some tips for the business traveler driven to private transportation:

1) Public enemy number-one? Unnecessary auto insurance

For years, car companies have milked profits by charging renters for things like "extended protection" and "safe trip insurance." Nowadays, these types of insurance are usually not needed, because the major credit card you used to rent the car probably covers it already.

In fact, as of March 1, 2004, almost all levels of Visa cards—not just the Gold and Platinum cards—cover car rentals against collision damage.

If your plastic doesn’t cover it, your regular auto insurance probably will; most policies are extended to rentals.

Lastly, if the car is damaged in any way, there’s a decent chance that plain old homeowner’s insurance will pay for it. Politely declining extra car insurance is usually a safe bet.

2) Beware surcharges

Which airports have a reputation for the most add-on fees? Number one is Houston Bush Intercontinental, which on average tacks on an additional 71.7 percent in additional taxes and fees, according to a report issues by travel website Travelocity last September. (Keep in mind this doesn’t mean Houston has the most expensive rental cars on the market, just those with the biggest cap between the list price of the rental car and the grant total.) Dallas/Ft. Worth International (61.1 percent) landed in second place, and in third came Austin Bergstrom (55.8%). Texas clearly likes its taxes.

On the flip side, the smallest gap between list price and actual price is at Sacramento’s airport, with just a 7.7 percent increase. In fact, the state of California is known for being up-front about what renting a car will cost; Palm Springs (7.8 percent) and Fresno (7.8 percent) were tied for second in the survey.

Of course, you can utilize an off-site car rental company, some of which will pick up the tab of picking you up, but for many business travelers, the time factor makes this option less desirable. Also, many offsite rental facilities are usually under-stocked with nicer cars and less accustomed to biz-travel needs, because their market is typically people whose own cars are in the shop for repairs and simply need something temporary to clunk around in.

3) Know the rules about gassing up

It’s fairly obvious that you won’t return the car with a completely empty tank. The two-and-a-half times price that the rental company can charge per gallon in some markets is outrageous.

But what about the pre-buy option, where you agree to pay slightly above the going rate per gallon to make sure you don’t get stuck shelling out the big bucks? That, too, rarely makes sense because it’s hard to time exactly how much will be left in the tank when you return it. In other words, if you pre-pay for a completely full tank, you basically break even only if you return the car with a completely empty tank, and even a NASCAR driver would have trouble gauging that. So, it’s lose-lose for the customer.

The third option is to return the car with exactly the same tank level you left with, but that’s usually a logistical nightmare. “I’m not usually conspiracy-minded, but I do think it’s odd that you never see a gas station near a rental car drop-off,” says Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel advocate and editor of the travel tips website “You have to drive a few miles to find one, so—boom—again, you get hit for gas.”

His recommendation: Don't pre-buy gas or return the tank empty. Fill it yourself, which means giving yourself extra half-hour to find a gas station before dropping off the car.

Where is it? One strategy could be the “one exit early” rule; there may be a Hess or BP, with reasonable prices-per-gallon, hiding just a few miles before the turn-off for the airport.

4) On longer trips, watch the weather

Studies have shown that business travelers are spending more time in their rental cars.

Before 9/11, executives would tolerate about a three-hour drive to their destination, according to the Association for Car and Truck Rental Independents and Franchises (ACTRIF), a trade association based in Minneapolis that represents 300 car companies nationwide, includes large operations with several stores.

After 9/11, with oppressively long security lines at many airports, executives are increasingly opting to drive. This has stretched the length of a typical business car trip to five hours.

Yet what many forget is that the climate can change pretty dramatically in that time frame, especially if you’re heading north. This means checking the types of tires and their pressure, which should hover around 32 to 25 pounds per square inch. (While you’re at it, familiarize yourself with rear-view mirror controls and stereo buttons, too.)

“You should always wonder, how is this vehicle going to do in bad weather?” says Nancy Castleman, a consumer advocate and co-founder Good Advice Press. “Does it have rear wheel drive? Does it have snow tires?”

5) Befriend your car renter

“Managed” business travelers—in other words, those who use an agent—account for about two-thirds of those on the road, according to’s Elliott. These fortunate travelers can enjoy corporate discounts of as 30 percent on their rental cars, Elliott estimates.

By using the same car rental companies every time, agents can also simplify the reservation process; they will know exactly that, say, their harried sales reps love roomy four-door red Dodge Neons.

It’s a lesson that should also be learned by “unmanaged” business travelers—the other third, those who make their own reservations—who, by using the same renter again and again, can develop a friendship that produce perks, like “allowing you to drop off in another city with no extra charge,” says Castleman of Good Advice Press.

Lastly, talking a lot with a rental company can lead to more fundamental changes in company policy, like in the types of cars offered. Hybrid gas/electric cars, for example, which are currently available only in selected regions, might be a more common sight in the parking lot.

“If more people specifically ask for them, it will trigger car renters to respond to the demand,” says Marianne Sullivan, president of ACTRIF.

6) Don’t get stuck inside with your mobile

In 2002, New York State banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving; it’s also currently illegal in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (though cops can’t pull you over for it in those two areas). In addition, four states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and New Jersey—are considering total bans, meaning no use of even headsets.

Furthermore, 24 other states are debating “distracted driver” bills, according to Mantill Williams, a national spokesman for the American Automobile Association.

This could make gabbing on the Motorola while zipping down I-95 downright illegal, or at least annoyingly inconvenient. Crossing state lines might mean having to strap and unstrap cell phone headsets. It’s probably good to have a working knowledge of the laws before setting out, because the laws are changing fast.

7) Forget complimentary maps

They’re good for about one thing: finding the next Budget or National franchise. In fact, they too often cover that critical highway interchange with a colorful, oversized logo. Don’t rely on them. In fact, if you don’t know the area that well and will be spending hours behind the wheel, it’s probably better to pick up detailed maps or an atlas beforehand, to cut down on losing time by getting lost.

8) If allowed, accrue miles

Who gets those miles that are racked up in rental cars if a corporate travel agency does the renting? It depends on “internal company policies,” according to the ACTRIF president Sullivan; technically speaking, miles are assigned to an account number, not necessarily a person or a corporation.

“Rental car companies have no control over that,” says ACTRIF’s Sullivan. “Best to double-check the policy before they confirm their travel.”

If the company doesn’t mind you grabbing miles earned for yourself, then go for it. While they don’t add up as quickly as airline miles, auto miles get thrown in the same pot, one that could yield some gratis airplane tickets farther down the line.

9) Bump yourself up

A well-known secret among car renters is that upgrades are usually complimentary, which means even if you pay for “economy” class car, you can end up with at least a “mid-size” for the same price, saving you about a third of the cost.

For a business traveler who absolutely needs to be guaranteed a plush ride, it may make sense to reserve that higher-end car in advance, because in busy markets like Chicago and New York City, they sell out fast. However, in cities like Detroit or Charleston or Louisville, the national chains will be more than happy to send you on your way with a nicer car.

10) Finally, keep track of your mileage

Most rental companies offer unlimited mileage in their cars but charge by the mile in specialty vehicles, like moving vans. Be careful, though, because exceptions do exist.

In the case when renters do pay by the mile, it’s critical to write down the mileage before setting out.

Some travelers recount tales of rental companies getting creative with their mileage numbers to make some extra dollars. While you’re writing down those digits in the odometer, it also might not be a bad idea to check for damage on the outside of the car. Any nicks and scratches are much harder to dispute on drop-off.