My travels often bring me to smaller cities without meaningful public transportation, so I often find myself in need of a car at my destination. When you are traveling with a little one (or two or three), car rentals may present whole new logistical and financial challenges. Here are some tips for what to consider when you rent your next car with kids in tow:
Will You Need to Rent a Car Seat?
Car seat rental fees average about $8-$12 per day, per seat. If you find yourself on a week-long trip with two kids along, those car seat rental fees can start nearing $200! Be sure to compare the car seat rental fees between the different companies when deciding on a rental (in my experience, Enterprise is almost always the cheapest). And don’t forget to explore options for free car seats — for example, Hertz waives car seat rental fees if you are a AAA member.
Will Your Spouse or Travel Companion Need to Drive?
Often when traveling with family, you may find it convenient to have more than one driver. Car rental agencies are truly all over the map when it comes to extra driver fees. You have to read the fine print closely. Some will waive the fees for spouses. Others will only waive the fee for spouses if you are a member of their frequent rental program. Some will not waive the fees when you rent through Priceline or another discount site. State laws limiting these fees vary as well, so you will find that a Dollar in New York charges a different fee than a Dollar in Alabama.
One hack: if you need your spouse to be an extra driver and are a Costco member, consider renting through Costco Travel. All rentals offered through Costco Travel currently include an additional driver without extra fees.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet to the extra driver fees (but always check the fine print on your rental to be certain or you may need even to call the local office to be sure):
- Alamo: $Fee$ (Note: Alamo used to waive the fee for one additional driver for Alamo Insiders but that policy has ended)
- Avis: Free spouse/domestic partner
- Budget: Free spouse/domestic partner
- Dollar: $Fee$
- Enterprise: Free spouse/domestic partner
- Hertz: Fee waived for spouse/domestic partner if #1 Club Gold member (free to register)
- National: Fee waived for spouse/domestic partner or immediate family member at same address if Emerald Club member (free to register)
- Thrifty: $Fee$
Will You Have to Pay to Park at Your Hotel or Other Stops Along the Way?
Often families with small children incorrectly assume that a car will give them more flexibility in their travels. While this may be true in many destinations, it isn’t always the case. Many hotels charge exorbitant fees for parking that just aren’t worth it if you aren’t going to be using the car a lot. You may be better off taking a taxi, ride-sharing service, limo, shuttle or even public transit in some cities (Note: if you need a car seat on a trip to or from an airport to your hotel, some car services will include one for free if you ask!).
Is Your Rental Car Agency Conveniently-Located to the Airport?
All car rental locations are not created equal, particularly for families. Some have cars parked just steps from the airport exit, but still others seem to require you to take planes, trains, and automobiles before you ever get the keys! When you are traveling with kids and all the luggage they entail, you will want to minimize your time with shuttles or trains. I’ve found that the information on Expedia and other travel sites about the car rental location is often wrong, and sometimes even the ground transportation page on the airport website itself isn’t that helpful in allowing you to meaningfully distinguish between company locations. I always use Google Maps to map out the precise location of the car rental companies before I make a final decision. A few quick guidelines that may help you along the way:
- Discount car rental agencies (Fox, Payless, Rent-a-Wreck) are almost always off-site. That’s why they are cheap. I don’t recommend them when traveling with kids as the logistics are much harder.
- Enterprise historically has had more off-airport locations, but that is becoming less true as time goes on. For example, the JFK Enterprise was off-site for many years, but is now in the same building as all the other majors.
- Hertz and Avis are the most-likely to have the most convenient locations. But they are almost always the most expensive. In airports that have one central rental car center (e.g., JFK, RDU, ATL), you can often save a bundle going with someone else.