Rent a Car, Not a Calamity, This Vacation
Choosing the right rental car can put you on the road to a safer trip
For all the effort many of us put into planning our vacations, from where we’ll stay to what we’ll see, do and even eat, renting a car is often an afterthought. But nothing can ruin a trip faster than car trouble or, worse still, an accident.
Use these strategies to rent the safest vehicle possible and keep a car wreck off your list of vacation stories to tell.
Before you go
Think big. The laws of physics being what they are, a larger, heavier car will tend to do better in a crash than a smaller, lighter one. “That doesn’t mean you have to rent a tank,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “But it might be worth spending a little more to get a mid-size or larger car rather than a little one.”
Consider safety features. Today’s vehicles are a lot safer than their predecessors of even 10 years ago, Rader says. Unless you’re renting an older car (often the case in some foreign countries), you should expect safety features like side airbags and electronic stability control.
If you’re treating yourself to a luxury model, ask if it’s equipped with optional front-crash prevention, Rader suggests. That’s a relatively new safety technology that monitors the road ahead to warn you of oncoming hazards. Expect it to trickle down to more modest vehicles in coming years.
Pack the car seat. Toting a tot or two on vacation? Think about bringing your own car seats. Rental companies usually have them available if you make prior arrangements, but you won’t know whether a loaner might have been recalled or have other safety issues. Remember to pack the installation instructions too. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has advice on installing car seats on its website.
If you’re flying somewhere to pick up your rental car, you probably want to bring a child seat anyway. The Federal Aviation Administration says it strongly urges parents to secure their children in government-approved safety seats during flights. Holding a child on your lap can be risky in unexpected turbulence, the agency points out. Note, however, that not all car seats qualify. Check yours for the wording “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.”
Call your insurance agent. Once you get to the rental counter, you’ll almost certainly hear a sales pitch for optional insurance — and if there’s a line of customers behind you, you’ll probably feel you have about two seconds to decide. If you already have a car insurance policy, call your auto insurer before the trip and ask whether you’re adequately covered. Some credit cards also provide rental car coverage, so check your card agreements too.
When you arrive
Ask about recalls. Rental companies currently have no legal obligation to stop renting cars that have been recalled but not fixed, though some do so voluntarily. (There have been efforts in Congress to make that mandatory.)
You can find a list of recalled cars at Recalls.gov if you want to check beforehand. But bear in mind that there might be a different model awaiting you when you go to pick up your car. Rental companies often have several different types within each size class. If you have any concerns, ask at the rental counter if the model you’re being offered has been recalled and whether it’s been in for the proper repairs yet.
Check it out. Look the car over for any obvious signs of damage or misuse. You’ll want to do that regardless, and have the rental agent make a note of any problems, so you don’t get stuck paying for them. If you see evidence of damage beyond the usual dings, ask for another car. There’s no telling what other damage you aren’t seeing.
Master the controls. As cars have become increasingly computerized, “advances” like electronic touch screens have replaced familiar knobs and buttons. So make sure you know how to operate everything you’re likely to use before you leave the rental lot. If you have questions, ask a lot attendant. “You don’t want to find yourself out on the expressway trying to figure out how the radio or cruise control work,” Rader says.
The Federal Trade Commission has other helpful advice about renting a car on its website.