The one thing we knew about driving in the US is that it’s practically mandatory. Even after just a few hours here it was clear that everything is much further apart as land is so much cheaper.
This meant we needed to hire a car. Our first search direct with the car hire companies for a 16-day one-way deal gave prices ranging from $990-$1480. This felt like too much, so a lot of tip reading and searching later; I checked some aggregators and got the price down to $212, which was great, along with a $240 one-way fee.
$452 for a compact car felt much more reasonable.
On arrival at the National Car Rental office we were told that the Oregon roads were desperately unsafe and covered with ice, so we needed an SUV. To drive a standard car along the coastal highway would apparently end up with us crashing into the sea in a screaming ball of fire or similar. This sounded unlikely, but we played along.
He applied a bunch of discounts and offered us a Jeep Compass for a grand total of $770. This was quite a bit more than our original estimate, but came with a free fuel and insurance upgrade (in theory). The two tanks of fuel were worth $70 and I’m a terrible driver, so the insurance wasn’t such a bad idea. In all we’d be getting a lot more room, comfort and security for around $150 difference, which over 16 days is not bad.
We signed up for the $770.
Two weeks later…
We arrived in San Diego, handed back the car and were told the charges were automatically applied to the credit card. No damages to inspect thanks to the full insurance, no credit card signature required, and no invoice or receipt given.
Fine, we had a plane to catch and appreciated the speedy service and the shuttle to the airport.
Two weeks later…
Credit card bill arrives and there’s a charge for $770. Fine. There’s also an earlier charge for $212 to Expedia. Not so fine.
Calling National they claim that they don’t get any money from Expedia for bookings (which seems a strange business model), so don’t know how much we’ve already paid and that “Grand Total”, means “Additional Charge”.
Of course, this is mostly our fault for not checking the language used, but the terminology used by the agent is very misleading.
Unsurprisingly there was nothing wrong with the roads of Oregon, and we saw plenty of smaller cars driving along without randomly exploding, but don’t begrudge the upgrade. We had a nice car and we made use of the off-road facilities and insurance.
What grates is the deliberate use of language to misrepresent the price of the upgrade. “Total of x” or “New total of x”, is clearly very different from “additional x” or “extra x”.
US Car Rental Tips
From a lot of research, both in advance and too late, here’s a few tips to get the best deal:
- When booking direct, be wary of local taxes and fees. They vary considerably by state.
- There’s usually an extra “convenience fee” for picking up at an airport. Either take your hotel shuttle or public transport into town and visit a different rental location. On our booking this saved $120.
- Unless you have a special corporate code, the best deals were found was through online holiday aggregators. General travel providers such as Expedia or Priceline were always cheaper and more upfront about fees than specialised car hire sites such as CarRentals who suggested that a one way fee ‘may be applied’.
- Searching on non-US sites (such as Expedia UK) generally seems to be cheaper or provide better value (thanks to P.T. for the reminder in the comments)
- Upgrades – desk agents get paid commission on all desk sales, so they push hard. The full tank of gas, additional insurance, car model upgrades all equate to the agents sale bonus and are generally unnecessary.
- Lots of tips lists say decline the insurance as your credit card will provide free insurance. This is only true for US credit cards. Foreign cards generally don’t provide insurance cover, so you’ll be charged for any damage to the car.
- Always ask for the new combined total, and check whether it includes your initial payment. It seems I’m not the only one to fall for this.
Any other tips would be much appreciated