Renting a Car Cheaply is More Complicated Than You Thought. Here’s How to Come Out on Top

rent a car

I always thought the car rental process was pretty basic.

Step one: Be old enough to rent a car (25 in many cases).

Step two: Choose a rental company based on location or price.

Step three: Drive the car.

But it’s not that simple. And anyone who’s looked at a super-cheap rental car rate online only to later find a sheet full of fees on the bill knows rental car companies aren’t in business to make your life easier.

“You can’t afford to approach [renting a car] like an art,” Kriston Capps writes at CityLab. “Rent a car like a scientist.”

He writes that renting a car is like a complex game, and the only way to win — and get your money’s worth — is to play the game aggressively.

In his article, Capps interviews several auto travel and consumer-protection experts to learn how to play the car-rental game. They’re full of tips on how to help your money go further when it’s time to rent some wheels.

You Should Buy Car Rental Insurance, But Not at the Counter

Consumer-protection attorney Steve Lehto offers a crucial tip for worrywarts and nervous types: Buy your insurance in advance.

Everyone wants the financial security and peace of mind of rental insurance, but do your research instead of making a last-minute decision under pressure.

Does your credit card offer rental insurance? Call and ask before it’s time to pick up your car. If you own a car, does your auto insurance cover rental car issues? Again, find out well before your reservation date.

If you need to pick up insurance for your rental period, do it ahead of time. “You can buy insurance from the rental company, or you can buy it from anybody else if you want to,” Lehto tells CityLab.

But the coverage you’re offered at the rental counter is by far the most expensive option. Instead, opt-in for insurance coverage when you make your reservation online, or call ahead to ask about insurance options.

You’ll still have to pay for coverage, but you’ll at least know your rental company of choice isn’t taking your wallet for a joyride.

Head over to CityLab for the full low-down on how to play the rental car game.

Your Turn: What are your favorite tips for saving money on car rentals?

Lisa Rowan is a writer, editor and podcaster living in Baltimore. She hates renting cars unless she can upgrade to something with more leg room.