If there was one destination that had been on my travel “to do” list for a very long time, it must have been the West of the USA. In June 2016 the moment had finally arrived and with a group of 5 friends we took a 3-week road trip through the amazing national parks and international cities of this part of the world.
There were a couple of things we planned in advance, like a selection of parks and cities we wanted to visit, the songs to include in our road trip playlist (very important!), a place to sleep for the first night (we would camp or stay in motels for the rest of the trip), and renting our car.
A car is an absolute necessity if you plan to visit national parks in the USA, as you need to cover a lot of miles and public transportation will not get you everywhere. As this car was going to be our second home for the coming 20 days, we really wanted to make a good decision here. The car had to be large enough to carry five people with all our luggage, but also comfortable to drive or take naps in.
Here are 10 “golden rules” that I’ve learned on this – and previous – road trips that will come in handy when renting a car abroad.
- Rates. Weekly rates usually start for a rental period of 5+ days, so if you extend your trip from 4 to 5 or 6 days, this can actually reduce the price. Or vice versa, to qualify for low weekend rates, you usually have to pick it up on a Thursday afternoon and return it before noon on Monday. So by adjusting your flights or pickup/return times, you might be saving a lot of money!
- Location. Off-airport car rental locations will have lower rates and fewer fees (airport taxes, shuttle fees etc.). It might be a little extra hassle to get to the location, but it can be well worth it if fees are significantly lower!
- Round trip vs. one way. Usually you will get a lower rate when returning the car to the same place where you picked it up. That’s also why we decided to pick up and leave our car at Los Angeles, where we landed.
- Insurances: at the counter you will often be offered expensive insurance to cover any damages, but be sure to check if your credit card company or regular travel/car insurance doesn’t already cover (part of) it.
- You might be paying more if the driver(s) are under the age of 25. Most car companies won’t even allow drivers under 21.
- Even if your drivers are all above 25, you are still likely to pay extra for each additional driver. So think carefully about how many you need, and make sure to check whether there will be extra costs. As we really had to cover a large distance, we decided to all take turns so the 5 of us all drove. Luckily there were no extra costs charged for this.
- Fuel: there are usually 2 options here: return your vehicle with a full or with an empty tank. When you don’t return it with a full tank, you will get charged for the gas you didn’t put in. And rental car companies will usually charge significantly more for gas than local gas stations. So returning your car with a full tank will save you money…and stress. Unless you like filling up gas a couple of times at the end of your trip and constantly drive “in the red”.
- Bring your own extras: fees that rental companies charge for GPS systems or child seats can be very high when not included in the standard price. So be sure to check this up front and – whenever possible – think about bringing your own!
- Make sure the name on the credit card is the same as the actual driver – or you will simply never get the car keys. I’ve experienced this once myself in Italy which was not exactly a great start of a relaxing holiday!
- Mileage. Most car rentals will allow unlimited mileage, but some may restrict the number of miles and start charging you extra for each and every additional mile. So pay attention to this up front!
We rented a car in the FFAR (Full Size SUV) segment and were fortunate to get an upgrade to a GMC Yukon XL… which was truly a HUGE car for us, as in Europe we are certainly not used to this size of vehicle. This full option car had everything we dreamed of: GPS system, air conditioning, seat cooling and heating (the cause of many jokes of my friends to me…haha), 2 TV Screens, Lane Keep Assist, Parking Camera, 4G WI-FI Hotspot, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Forward Collision Alert, Side Blind Zone Alert with Lane Change Alert, Cruise Control, Rain-sensitive front wipers and many more. We could not feel safer and happier. And what’s even better: we got a very good rate for it, too!
As our group of friends always gives a name to a car, we decided to call her Patrice, after a character of the series “How I Met Your Mother”. Now we were really ready to hit the road with our dear Patrice.
Patrice took us from LA to the wonderful trees and cactuses of Joshua Tree National Park, to the decadence of Las Vegas, the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, the immense beauty of the Grand Canyon, the orange rocks of Antelope Canyon, the cliffs and arches of Capitol Reef, to Salt Lake City on our way to the bears, buffalos and geysers of Yellowstone, to the volcanic landscapes of Lassen, the sequoias of Redwood, the vineyards of Napa Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, to end with the beautiful views of the Pacific Coast Highway on our way back to LA.
We had an amazing time. There’s something truly exceptional about the flexibility and freedom of driving a car in a unique scenery like this. We saw breathtaking nature, unique wildlife (avoid hitting that buffalo on the road!) and experienced crazy moments in the cities of Las Vegas, San Francisco and LA.
After 5000 miles on highways, natural parks and dust roads in no less than 7 different states, you can imagine that our car was in (very) high need of some cleaning. Although this was supposed to be included in our rental price, we were simply too embarrassed to leave our car looking as it was, so we did decide to take it to the car wash after all… which was probably a wise decision.
It was a truly great experience and I’m looking forward to many more road trips to come… hopefully with a car as nice as Patrice!
Annelore has been an employee of Bare International since September 2011 and is based in the Antwerp Office. She has a Master’s degree in English & Spanish literature & linguistics and a Master’s in Management. She likes discovering new places, travelling, reading and going out with friends to enjoy some very good (Belgian) beers.
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