Over the years, I’ve written a lot of stories about rental car insurance—this is one of those areas that can trip up even the most seasoned traveler. In my opinion, it cannot be said often enough: Never, ever rent a car until you are certain of your insurance needs.
Most of us have credit cards, and most of us have car insurance—it takes very little time to figure out if you’re covered, and if so, how well. I don’t know about you, but if sitting down with my various policies and agreements and a cup of strong coffee can save me hundreds of dollars the next time I rent a car, well, hey, that’s time well spent.
Many people are surprised to learn, on these deep dives into the fine print, that while they often are covered, it’s only to an extent. Credit cards can offer quite a bit of coverage; some of the higher-end cards will even act as the primary insurer, in some cases. Most cards, however, typically ofter what’s known as supplemental coverage, which backs up your car insurance. But what about that car insurance—how far does it go? Does it function while you’re on that dream road trip through Tuscany? How much are you on the hook for, if you rely on them to help you out of your rental car scrapes?
Either way, no matter what kind of coverage they actually have, many people remain uncertain as to what’s what. And as the old saying goes, that’s how they get ya.
Uncertainty is the rental car agent’s best friend. Are you absolutely, 100 percent certain that you don’t want our $39.99 per day Loss Damage Waiver, friend? And how about our supplemental personal effects reimbursement thinger? Say, how do you know you’re covered, in case of a fender bender?
Well, geez, you say to yourself—I don’t want to spend my vacation obsessing about who will be covering all of this—better to be safe than sorry, right? Yes. Yes it is. But the time for choosing safe over sorry should be happening long before you even book your next car rental. If your existing policies have you feeling vulnerable, there’s a simple, quick fix, and it lasts forever. Here’s how you do it.
#1 Get an American Express card. (We’ll wait.) No, seriously. This is the first step. Lots of you will already have one (or more) of these. If not, get one. The card should be an actual AmEx—some of the branded cards will be fine, others will not. Even if you’ve never had one and aren’t sure you’ll qualify, have a look—their Everyday cards are typically quite easy for anyone with modest credit to snag. Even if you never use it for anything else other than renting cars, it’s worth the effort, and we’ll explain why. Note: I am absolutely not being paid to say this.
#2 Great. Now sign up for Premium Rental Car Protection. Using your American Express card, sign up for this American Express product. It doesn’t take long; you can do it right here. From here on out, each time you initiate a car rental with your American Express card, this policy kicks in, acting as your primary insurance (yep, that’s correct) for rentals up to 42 days. The cost ranges—depending on your home state—from $12.25 to $24.95, for the entire rental period. Not per day. It’s extremely affordable. As always, read the fine print—there are some countries where this won’t work, for example, but for most travelers and for most trips, it’s a must-have, not to mention an absolutely ridiculous deal. It also happens to covers everything those expensive, over-the-counter policies would cover, with one major exception, and that’s liability.
#3 You’ve come this far—don’t leave liability to chance. For years, the counter-side insurance upsell was part and parcel of renting a car; after I began using American Express cards exclusively, most agents never even bothered. The few that started up were effectively silenced with the words: “Thank you, my card has Premium Protection.” These guys aren’t dumb—they know the product; they also seem to understand that someone walking into their branch, having done that kind of advance legwork, isn’t someone they need to waste time on. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, you’re being treated like a serious person, instead of a sucker, which is always nice. On the other hand, you now bear the responsibility for answering the important question: What about liability? You have two options, if your goal is complete coverage. The one, of course, is to be certain that your car insurance policy covers your liability for accidents you cause while driving another car, or while driving another car in a foreign country. (Very, very important detail, that one.) Then again, you could always cave and buy the over-the-counter liability supplement—often running about $6 or $7 per day, it isn’t nearly as overpriced as the Loss Damage Waivers that can add hundreds of dollars to your final tab. For a few days in the car, that’s not a lot of money for total peace of mind.
How to rent a car
Daunted by the search for the best rental car deals? For the most favorable results, always begin by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy is a great place to begin. Here, you can check multiple sites in one place and sometimes score some pretty great deals from places you otherwise might never have thought to include in your search. Always remember that bundling car, hotel and flight (or any combination thereof) can at times save you a significant amount of money—search your dates at Orbitz and Expedia to see just how much. Don’t want the run-around and just need a car? While it’s hard to say one agency is head and shoulders better than the others—they’ve all declined significantly in recent years, leaning on scammy fees and overpriced insurance to pad their losses—I’ve found over time that Hertz remains one of the best options for people who rent cars with any kind of frequency. Best of all, their loyalty program (something you should join every single time you rent a car) is actually improving, of late—their Ultimate Choice initiative is not to be sniffed at. (Because who doesn’t want a free upgrade from a Chevy Spark to a Mercedes? It happens.)