Follow our auto rental advice for better prices and coole cars--and skip the big bill and lousy wheels.
[INFO "OT - Travel Tips"]Our Best Tips for Renting a Car
Credit: Meg McKinney

We all have different automotive tastes, but if you're a leisure traveler, you may not be in the habit of reading rental agreements, damage waivers, and sorting through what make and model car to rent. If so, never fear. We can tell you how to get the best rental deals and pick a car that's right for you.

My best tip for renting a car? Find a rental company you like, and stick with it. Most, such as Hertz's #1 Club Gold program, reward frequent renters with upgrades and perks. To me, the best reward is when a company learns my personal rental preferences. Rent a few times through one carrier, and you will become a V.I.R. (very important renter). Good luck out there.

"Our Best Tips for Renting a Car" is from the November 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.

Tip #1: Save a Bundle
Rent as far in advance as possible, and ask about discounts and coupons when you make the reservation. You can also save by shopping online or traveling over a weekend because rates are often cheaper. And, by all means, inspect the vehicle before you leave the lot so you don't end up paying for someone else's damage.

Tip #2: Avoid the Airport
Rental cars get hit with all kinds of taxes. Why? Because most renters usually don't vote where they rent. Those taxes add up: A recent trip cost me an 11% airport fee, a $5.20 vehicle license fee, 8.25% more in local sales tax, and another $12 rental fee from the airport. A $50 rental turned into $76.83 after taxes. Curses. In some cities, it's beneficial to take a cab to a rental company in town and avoid the airport fees. In the above scenario, that would have knocked $17.50 off the final bill.

Tip #3: Pick Your Favorite Brand
Most of the major national rental companies favor certain manufacturers. If you love General Motors, rent from Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, or National. Ford fan? Go with Hertz or Budget. Looking for a cool new PT Cruiser or Chrysler 300? Use Dollar or Thrifty.

Tip #4: Skip the Refuel Option
Unless you're in a huge hurry or not handy with a gas pump, the refuel options are usually a bad deal. Sometimes the per-gallon rate might be lower than you'd find at a gas station, but most rental companies charge you for an entire tank, even if the car is only half empty. Consider: A half-empty 18-gallon tank, refilled at a station for $3 a gallon, would cost $27. A fuel purchase option, even at a less expensive $2.50 a gallon, would still ultimately cost more, totaling $45. Look for a gas station near the airport or rental outlet at the beginning of your trip so you can fill up before you return the car.

Tip #5: Be Cautious About Insurance
Many drivers assume they're covered by their credit cards. But the policy often relies on a driver's personal insurance company first, and the card picks up secondary expenses. Read the fine print, and, if in doubt, opt for the rental company's damage-and-accident insurance.

Tip #6: Don't Advertise Your Rental
Many states outlaw rental car agencies from putting their company stickers on the exterior of their cars. Why? Rental cars scream, "Hey, I'm a tourist traveling with lots of money, cameras, and other valuables." Be careful not to leave your rental agreement on the seat, and be mindful that some agencies have branded their GPS navigational systems with their corporate logos--making cars equipped with that option an easy target.

Know a Savvy Travel Tip?
Send it to me at Travel Editor, Southern Living, P.O. Box 523, Birmingham, AL 35201, or e-mail tips to Be sure to include your name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address. For each item published you will receive $25.