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12 Red Flags You’re Falling for a Bad Car Rental

Nothing can torpedo a vacation like a bad car rental experience. Here are a dozen red flags that you're falling for a bad car rental.

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Sign with direction to car rental

Bad car rentals

Where you rent your car from may seem like such a minor part of any vacation, but picking the wrong place can ruin your entire trip. A higher price doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting a better car or quality of service. Keep your eyes out for these clues you’re getting a bad—or even unsafe—deal, and be sure to brush up on the things rental car companies won’t tell you.

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Gas pump nozzle in the fuel tank of a bronze car.

You are being pressured into prepaying for gas

There are rare instances in which prepaying an entire tank of gas is beneficial (if your return flight is at 4 a.m., for example), but generally, you need to hold firm and decline the expensive prepaid fueling option when renting a car. There are always gas stations near airports, so fill up at a reasonable price and then return your rental car. Whether its a rental or your own car, make sure you always keep these items with you when you’re driving.

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luxury car wheel close-up

A toll road transponder costs you—whether you use it or not

It can be convenient to have a toll road transponder in your car and skip the toll booths on the highway, but double check to make sure you aren’t paying for that convenience daily. Patrick Quinn, the creator of the viral Cheerio Challenge for Life of Dad, was once hit with roughly $200 in rental car charges for using the transponder to pay for approximately $8 in tolls! Once you get back behind your own wheel, keep in mind these common ways you’re shortening the life of your car.

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Close-up Of A Black African American Man Hands Holding Steering Wheel While Driving Car. Detail of a hand holding a steering wheel.
Red Confidential/Shutterstock

The car isn’t even close to being new

Some of the smaller companies rent “hand me down” vehicles, meaning not only will they not still have that new car smell, those rental cars may be well-worn, less pleasant to drive, have outdated (or no) GPS equipment, and lack modern conveniences like USB ports, power windows, and Bluetooth connectivity. The price may be cheaper, but you are getting what you pay for!

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Modern car illuminated dashboard and steering wheel
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car

Dad blogger Brian Craig of A Dad Influence had a strange car rental experience last year in the Cayman Islands. Locals drive on the right side of the road (same as the United States), but some of the cars being rented were designed for left-side driving (like England). Steering on the left plus driving on the right equals a very bad car rental experience! Whether you’re driving your own car or a rental, be sure you avoid doing these common, dangerous things in your car.

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Woman driving her car
Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

There’s a surcharge for being young

Avoid car rental companies that charge you extra for being under 25. There’s enough rental car competition out there to shop around for a fair rate as a young traveler.

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Speedometer - soft focus
Sarach Naetimaetee/Shutterstock

Unlimited miles are not included

Every car rental should offer unlimited miles nowadays. If you see a mileage limit when booking your rental car, that’s an easy-to-spot red flag that you are getting a bad car rental deal. Consider other rental car options instead.

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airport couple suitcases travel
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

The airport car rental location is not at the airport

At some airports, all the rental car companies are located off-site: However, proceed with caution if the big boys like Hertz and Avis are at the airport, but your company is somewhere else. It is possible that the companies that can’t get a spot at the airport aren’t as reliable or on the level when it comes to hidden fees. These are the 15 things you should never, ever buy at the airport.

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Champion studio/Shutterstock

There are extra fees for things you don’t recognize

Believe it or not, you may save money by taking a Lyft or Uber to a Hertz location in town: The Hertz at the airport may add on extra taxes and fees like an airport concession charge (whatever that is).

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Close-up Of A Mature Mechanic Maintaining Car Records

There is no vehicle inspection report

When you arrive at the car rental desk to pick up your car, you should either be walked around the car to inspect it with a car rental representative or be provided with a report to look over when you arrive at the car in the parking lot. If not, ask for one—not having this report is a massive red flag you’re falling for a bad car rental! You do not want to pay for the bumps and scratches caused by the last driver. Instead, look for ways to upgrade your vacation with these credit card perks.

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Midsection of male client giving car key to mechanic in auto repair shop
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

You are asked to pay your deductible at the time of return

If you return your rental car with some damage, some rental car companies will insist that you pay your deductible before they file the claim. Verify that this will not be the case before you sign the rental agreement. You should not have to pay a deductible before the claim is filed, the damage inspection is complete, and the repair estimate has been received. Check your rental to see if it has the car safety features no vehicle should be without.

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South Afircan mechanic bust working with a racthed spanner inside of a car.
Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock

There’s an extra fee for the car being out of service if there is damage

You should not have to pay an extra fee for the rental car being out of service for repairs due to damage that occurred while you were driving the rental car. This could be a trick to milk you out of a lot of money long after you’ve returned home. Find out the cheap travel secrets booking agencies don’t want you to know.

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car key on dollar bills

The price is too good

As with anything in life, if the rental car deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. When you see an unusually low price for a rental car, check to see if your mileage is capped, if the car is old, if airport fees have not yet been added into the total, or if any ‘surprise’ additional charges will be tacked onto the price when you return the car. Done renting and ready to buy? Watch out for the signs you’re about to fall for a terrible car deal.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.