Crowded family car rentals
Crowded family car rentals (Photo: Shutterstock)

Family Car Rentals: How Not to Overpay When Renting a Car

Renting a car that’s big enough to hold everyone in your family can be expensive on its own, never mind the added risks you assume in actually driving the rental car. Fortunately, you can minimize both your costs and your risks with just a little forethought. 

The biggest potential pitfalls for family car rentals are the same issues that can trip up just about any kind of traveler—buying insurance you don’t need, getting gouged on gas prices, overpaying at airport locations—but there are a few rental car problems that hit families especially hard. 

Common Car Rental Issues for Families

Beyond the problems that all renters face (and we’ll get to those in a minute), families face two additional and very specific challenges when renting cars.

1. Renting a car that’s too small. 

The biggest mistake most families make is attempting to get the lowest prices by renting a car that’s too small. Unless you’re using the car only for short errands, you’re going to spend many hours in that rental car, especially if you’ve rented it for a family road trip.

The back seats in today’s compact cars are almost always too tight for teenagers, adults, and especially seniors. You might even find your middle schooler doesn’t have enough room in a compact car rental, and little children in car seats might also be a tight squeeze alongside luggage and other travel essentials. 

So, when renting a car for your family, you’ll probably need at least an intermediate-sized vehicle. Most rental companies now offer a wide choice of SUV options or passenger vans with adequate back-seat accommodation for child seats and day packs, which is an even better solution for family car rentals. When in doubt, always choose the larger vehicle.

2. Paying extra to add a second driver. 

Typical car rental agreements these days allow only the person named on the contract to drive the car. If, as is natural for a family, you want to share driving chores among two or more adults, each likely driver must be listed on the contract. 

Those agreements often call for an extra-driver fee of $5 per day (or more), but there’s an easy way to avoid this little gouge on family car rentals. Membership with AAA, AARP, or your car rental company’s frequent-renter loyalty program (generally free to join even if you’re not a frequent renter) will often allow you to get the added driver fee waived. 

Car Rental Issues That Everyone Faces

Whether you’re traveling as a family with kids, a solo vacationer, or business traveler, renters of all stripes face a few additional issues common to everyone looking to get a good deal. 

3. The rental car insurance scam. 

Car rental insurance has always been the number one minefield when renting a car. You definitely need car insurance, but you usually don’t need the expensive options the rental company tries to push on you. 

Liability for an accident caused by your driving is the biggest-dollar risk when renting a car. It covers the cost of damages or injuries you might inflict on someone else or their property. This isn’t just a rental issue: You should never get behind the wheel of any car—or even get out of bed—without adequate liability insurance. But your risk is no higher in a rental car than in your own car. 

The liability insurance included with your rental car is absurdly inadequate, so you need better coverage. Your own auto or homeowner insurance policy probably covers you, and you should also have a maximum umbrella policy—even if you never rent a car. In the unlikely event you don’t already have adequate coverage somehow, you will have to pay for the rental company’s overpriced option. But if you already carry liability insurance, you should not have to pay twice to get the car rental company’s insurance on top of your own.

Collision insurance covers damage to, or loss of, the car you rent. Obviously, when you’re using someone else’s car, you’re liable for the costs if it is damaged when in your control. The rental company will try to sell you a collision damage waiver (CDW) that eliminates your risk but roughly doubles the daily cost of the rental. Instead, you can rely on either your own automobile insurance, which may cover you in a rented car; or your credit card, which may cover what your regular insurance doesn’t.

But either of those options means a big hit on your personal policy, which may increase your rates. To avoid that, you can buy rental-car collision coverage from a third-party source for about one-third of what the rental company asks. Most online travel agencies offer this option when you rent through them, as do specialist agencies such as Bonzah and Insure My Rental Car.

4. Overpaying for fuel.

The best way to avoid being overcharged for gas is to start your rental with a full tank and return it full. Sometimes, when you’re returning a car at a departure airport, finding a convenient gas station can be a problem, but if you don’t return it full, you can expect a refueling gouge. When you refuel, get a receipt; you may have to show it.

You can usually “buy” a full tank when you start, but you donate whatever is left in the tank to the rental company. Also, some rental companies charge a flat rate for short-term rentals where you drive only a few miles—a rate that’s substantially more than what you’d pay for the gas you used.

5. Airport and rail location fees. 

Renting at some airports and—in Europe, rail stations—can add hefty “premium station” fees. You can avoid them by renting from an off-airport or downtown rental car location, but then you have the hassle of getting to the alternative rental office. It’s your call, but especially if you’re traveling with kids, this might be one fee you’re better off absorbing into the cost of your vacation. Paying a cheaper price in exchange for extra time and travel hassles is almost never the best option when considering family car rentals. 

You can also encounter a couple of minor problems: limits on where you can drive and per-mile charges. Smaller companies, in particular, may impose these limits, but you can almost always find a rental company that doesn’t, especially if you’re renting with one of the major car rental companies.

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Ed Perkins
Ed Perkins is a longtime consumer advocate and reporter. He spent 25 years in travel research and consulting and was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004). He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union. Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America,” "The CBS Evening News," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.