Which Optional Car Rental Fees Should You Pay for and Which Can You Skip?

How to decide which ones you really need.
Couple in a convertible rental car (Photo: Shutterstock)
Photo: Shutterstock
  • As a frequent traveler and travel journalist, I’ve rented a lot of cars … and talked to a lot of car rental agents who want me to sign up for every optional fee.
  • Here’s my deep dive on which optional car rental fees are worth considering and which to steer clear of.

Whenever you make a rental car reservation or pick up a car at the rental counter, you’ll find yourself hit with a flurry of questions about optional fees that don’t always have easy answers, especially if you haven’t thought through them in advance. Should you purchase the optional collision insurance? Do you want to add an additional driver or a car seat? What about a GPS device or satellite radio?

All these optional car rental fees can all feel a bit overwhelming, and it’s often challenging to know what you should agree to pay for when you rent a car. Here’s a look at what these fees do and do not cover, and how to decide which ones you can safely decline when reserving your rental car.

COMPARE AND SAVE: 10 Best Car Rental Booking Sites for Cheap Prices

Should You Purchase Separate Insurance for Your Rental Car?

rental car parked at a vacation rental in the Cotswolds in England
On some vacations, a car rental is non-negotiable. What is flexible, though, are which optional fees you pay (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

There’s a good chance that you already have some kind of insurance coverage for rentals if you have auto insurance for your own car. But to know whether the rental company’s insurance is a good investment, you need to understand what’s covered and what isn’t.

“You should keep in mind that the limits on your current policy typically carry over to the car rental, so it’s important to know whether there are gaps,” says Benjamin Preston, automotive reporter for Consumer Reports. “If you don’t have full coverage [collision and comprehensive], for example, or if you have a very high deductible, you may want to consider opting for a supplemental plan.”

BEST TRIP EVER: 50 Best Family Vacation Ideas for All Ages

Your credit card might also provide a level of coverage for rental cars, but again you need to delve into the specifics to confirm the details. “Not all credit card companies cover rental cars, so you’ll definitely want to do your research in advance and check the fine print,” advises Preston. “But generally speaking, some will provide primary insurance, which kicks in if you don’t have car insurance, and some offer secondary insurance, such as your deductible or towing costs.”

If you’re in the market for a new travel credit card, take the rental car insurance coverage benefits into consideration along with the rewards the card offers for travel, dining, and entertainment. “Rental car insurance is not the flashiest perk of all time, but you might realize it’s a far more beneficial perk than earning 3 percent on dining,” says Sally French, travel expert at personal finance company NerdWallet.

Daniel Durazo, Director of External Communications at insurance company Allianz Partners, says that if you do need to purchase insurance for your rental, you can save time and money if you secure it ahead of time rather than waiting to add it at the rental location. And if you’ll be investing in travel insurance for a trip, some travel insurance options also offer coverage for rental cars. “If you’re a frequent traveler, an annual travel insurance policy that includes rental car coverage may be your best bet,” notes Durazo.

Does it Make Sense to Prepay for Gas and Tolls?

Most experts advise travelers to avoid prepaying for gas and instead fill up the car yourself before returning it. “The short answer is never do it,” says Chris Hutchins, host of the podcast All the Hacks. “It never makes sense unless there’s no gas station within 100 miles of the airport, which I’ve never seen in my entire life.” Apps like GasBuddy and Waze can help you find fueling spots close to your return point. In my experience as well, there’s usually a gas station within a few miles of most airport rental locations.

TAKE FLIGHT: 17 Best Flight Booking Sites for Cheap Airfares

Rental car companies have varying policies when it comes to the purchase of prepaid fuel. “Sometimes they charge you to refill the full tank of gas, even if you only used a half or quarter tank,” says NerdWallet’s French. “That can be really, really expensive. Because I don’t want to deal with reading the fine print, I always just refill the gas myself, and I have a credit card that earns great gas rewards on top of it.”

Of course, it’s important to know your own travel style. If you’re always running behind schedule or the thought of having to find a gas station stresses you out, the higher cost of opting for prepaid gas may be a price you’re willing to pay. “This really depends on the driver and their itinerary, as well as what the prepaid fuel rate is,” says Lucy Bueti, Vice President, Rental Cars for Priceline. “If your schedule is tight and stopping for gas could make you late for your flight, then prepaying for a tank of fuel may be well worth it.” Yes, opting into this fee will drive up the cost to rent, but if it buys you peace of mind, the extra cost may be worth it.

FESTIVE FUN: European Christmas markets: 10 destinations to celebrate

For the question of tolls, research where you’ll be driving and whether adding on an option for paying for tolls is something you truly need. “You should always bring your own toll transponder if it will work where you’re traveling,” says Consumer Report’s Preston. “If not, try to avoid toll roads as best you can.”

What to Consider Before Paying for GPS, Satellite Radio, and Other Techy Add-ons

If you’ve got a smartphone, you probably don’t need to add on any tech support-type items and can save money on rental costs by skipping these optional add ons. “Most cars that you rent these days are new enough that you’ve got some way to connect your phone, whether Bluetooth or a USB port, that you don’t really need to be spending money for streaming audio or GPS if you have a phone,” says Hutchins of All the Hacks.

HOTEL ETIQUETTE: How Much (and How Often) You Should Tip Hotel Housekeeping

You can also bring your own GPS navigator. If you’re traveling internationally, investigate the cost of an international phone plan versus the price to add a GPS device to your car rental. Adding on a navigation aid “might be worth it more than paying for an international phone plan,” says NerdWallet’s French.

What about Extra Driver Fees and Car Seats?

view out car rental window of Lake Maggiore
Being able to add a second driver on a rental is sometimes free, but you have to know how to do it (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

If more than one adult wants to be able to drive the rental car during a family road trip, it can pay to look for ways to avoid this add-on fee. In some states within the U.S., for example, rental companies may not be permitted to charge additional driver fees for spouses or domestic partners. Becoming a member of a car rental company’s loyalty or rewards program can also help you bypass extra driver fees. This is absolutely worth researching in advance, since rental companies aren’t necessarily forthright about supplying these details, and extra driver fees can really impact car rental pricing.

If you have a kiddo who still needs a car seat, this is something of a nonnegotiable add-on fee unless you bring along your own car seat. According to Consumer Reports, it costs an average of about $13 a day for a car seat rental. The daily rental costs add up to a new car seat pretty quickly.

TAKE THE PLUNGE: 50 Best Cruise Ship Water Parks and Private Islands for Kids

There are scenarios where renters can get this fee waived. AAA members who rent through Hertz, for example, get free use of one car seat with their rental. Silvercar provides Peg Perego car seats at no additional charge; renters must request a car seat at least one day before the start of their reservation, and availability isn’t guaranteed.

Of course, it’s not that challenging to tote your own car seat on your trip. And there are some easily transportable travel car seat options out there, from inflatable booster seats and travel vests to foldable car seats. But only you can decide if one of these options is the right choice for your family.

More from FamilyVacationist:

Beth Luberecki
Beth Luberecki is a Florida-based freelance writer who writes about travel, business, and lifestyle topics for a variety of publications and websites. She enjoys exploring destinations close to home and farther afield with her husband and teenage daughter. Visit her website at bethluberecki.com or find her on Instagram at @bethlubereckiwrites and @findingfloridafun.