How to Rent a Car

Car rental is a business that rents vehicles to the public for periods of time. These companies are often organized with numerous locations (allowing you to pick up and return your vehicle at different places) and offer a wide range of options.


NerdWallet has selected the best car rental providers by evaluating industry standing, average rates, cancellation fees and add-on offerings. Learn more about our methodology.

Choose Your Car

The most effective way to rent a car is to use a price comparison website. These websites offer a comprehensive overview of prices from several different rental companies, and are updated constantly to reflect new discounts and offers. The best time to book a rental car is often as early as possible. This is because car rental rates can change significantly based on various factors, such as the category of the vehicle, the duration of the rental, and the dates of your trip.

When comparing prices, be sure to take into account any local taxes. These are not always included in the price displayed on a price comparison site, and can vary significantly between cities and regions. Also be sure to check for any surcharges. These can include fees for out-of-hours service, refueling, and late returns. Some companies even charge extra for additional drivers.

Most of the major rental car companies offer a wide selection of vehicles. However, smaller agencies may only have a limited number of cars in certain categories or models. It is generally a good idea to rent a small, economical model with a manual transmission. This is particularly true in Europe, where large SUVs are not maneuverable on the narrow roads of many cities.

Beware of gimmicks from rental car agents, who are notorious for tacking on hidden charges at drop-off. Be sure to review your receipt carefully and ask questions if you are unclear about any charges. Be especially careful about refueling and cleaning charges, as these can be very expensive.

Book the Car

When you’re done selecting your car, complete the online rental agreement and pick it up at your selected pickup location on the day of your trip. The company will ask you to provide a valid driver’s license and credit or debit card in your name with enough available credit for the total estimated rental charges.

It’s a good idea to book as early as possible since rental cars can sell out, especially during peak travel times. Then you can choose a car that’s most affordable and likely to be in the best condition. Plus, if you’re not happy with the car or decide to cancel, you won’t be hit with any cancellation fees.

Some booking websites let you filter by car type (small, medium, large, SUV) to get the best options for your road trip. KAYAK breaks down these types further into passenger and luggage capacities. You can also add a “different return location” option to your reservation to rent a car from one location and drop it off at another.

Some add-ons can drive up the price of your car rental, like a GPS navigation system ($5 per day in New York), toll transponders ($1 per day), or satellite radio ($8 per day). Try to avoid them unless you need them for your journey. Before leaving the rental car counter, take photos of the car to document any scratches or dings—they may come in handy if the company tries to charge you for damage you didn’t cause.

Drive the Car

Modern car rental companies make it as easy as possible to book a vehicle and drive off the lot. Some even offer online payments and prepaid plans. However, you should always read the fine print of your agreement to be sure that you understand what you’re getting into.

Often, there are extra fees for mileage, damage waiver insurance (if not included in your own auto policy or credit card), additional drivers, and fuel. It’s also a good idea to compare prices between several different car rental companies to get the best deal on your car rental.

The best way to avoid extra charges is to be on time when you return the car. Many rental car companies allow a grace period of up to two hours to return the car, but after that it could cost you an extra day’s worth of fees. It’s best to call ahead if you think you’ll be late, as this gives them a chance to prepare the vehicle for the next renter.

When you’re ready to return your rental, follow the signs to the drop-off area and park in a spot that’s clearly marked. The attendant will then give you instructions on how to pass the keys and receive a receipt. If your car has a full tank of gas, it’s a good idea to fill it up before you return it. If you don’t, the rental company may charge you for a tank of gas you didn’t use.

Return the Car

When you’re ready to return the car, you should make sure that it’s in the same condition as it was when you got it. If there’s anything wrong with it, you should bring this to the attention of the attendant at the counter. Make sure to also fill it up with gas and remove all personal belongings from the vehicle.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on the odometer when you return it. Some companies will charge you extra for running up the mileage of a rental car. In addition, if you use the car to carry out illegal activities, the car rental company may hold you liable for additional charges.

Some rental companies have special procedures for returning the car after hours when the office is closed. This varies by location, so it’s important to check with the company when you pick up your car to confirm that they offer after-hours returns. In general, most companies will let you leave the keys in a designated parking area or drop box and will check in the car the next morning.

When you return the car, remember to take photos of its condition. This can help you dispute any unexpected charges that might show up on your credit card statement. Some companies will place a hold on your credit or debit card for more than the agreed-upon rental costs. This protects the rental company in case you don’t return the car as promised.