A car salesman is shown shaking hands with a customer in the middle of a short-term car rental place.

Car Rental 101: Common Questions and Answers

No one is born knowing how to rent a car or what terms and conditions to be aware of, yet it is something so commonplace that it is easy to feel foolish asking fundamental questions about it. However, asking questions is always a good idea. Before jumping into anything—even something as straightforward as a short-term car rental—it is vital that you understand what is going on. Today, I will take you through some basic information you need to know about how car rentals work, the conditions you should have in mind, and some common reasons why people rent a car.

Why Do People Rent Cars?

There is a wide range of reasons why people rent cars, but it generally comes down to one thing: needing a vehicle and not having it. One of the most common reasons for renting a car is when someone travels to another location by flying and needs to have a vehicle while staying at their destination in the short term. This is why you will see so many car rental places at airports, so travelers can land, rent a vehicle, and be on their way with minimal hassle.

Car rentals are often essential after someone has been in a collision and needs to have a vehicle they can use while their car is being repaired. Similarly, suppose a vehicle is no longer drivable after a crash. In that case, a driver might need to rent something while waiting for their insurance company to finish handling a claim and paying them for a replacement. Dealerships can offer car rental services to help people who need repairs that will take a while or are waiting on insurance after a crash. You can even rent a car from some dealerships as an extended test drive, trying out a specific model for a weekend or longer to see how well you like it before deciding whether or not to buy it.

Are There Mileage Limits on Car Rentals?

This entirely depends on where you are renting a vehicle from and the specific terms and conditions in the vehicle rental agreement, so pay careful attention to these details. In some cases, you can rent a vehicle with unlimited mileage over a certain period of time. So you get to use the car for five days (for example), paying per day, but you can drive as far and as much as you want throughout that duration.

Other times, however, a car rental agreement might have limited mileage, which is just what it sounds like—you can only drive a certain distance while you have the vehicle. Going over this limit will incur a penalty per extra mile; rates on this penalty vary, but it will be clearly indicated in the rental agreement paperwork you sign. Limited mileage is typical when a car rental company runs a particularly good deal or for specific models like large SUVs and exotic cars. Make sure you look carefully at your rental agreement and know whether you have limited or unlimited miles before you hit the road.

Can I Return a Rental Car Early?

In general, you can return a car you have rented before the full duration of the rental without any penalty or problem. There are two things to consider: First, if you are trying to return a vehicle early when a dealership or rental location is closed, then that might not be allowed. Some airport locations allow rental returns outside operating hours, but most other places require a rental to be brought back while they are open. The second thing to note is that you might still be charged for the total duration of the rental, even if you return it early, or you might only pay for the days you had it. This depends on the policy of the company or dealership you rent from and the specific terms of your rental agreement, so know the details before you return a car.

A close-up of a person holding a car key towards the camera is shown.

What Is Required to Rent a Car?

Usually, you will need a valid driver’s license and a credit card for use when renting a vehicle. The company or dealership might set other requirements you are looking to rent from, so be sure to check with any company before you head there for a rental. In most states in the US, you have to be 25 years of age or older to rent a vehicle legally; in some states, you can rent a car if you are over 18 or 21 years old, but rental companies often charge a young driver fee.

Do I Need Auto Insurance to Rent a Car?

This can vary depending on where you rent from, but most car rental companies do not always require that you have auto insurance to rent from them. If you do have insurance, they will not need you to buy extra coverage from them; in the case of a collision or similar incident, your insurance will have to cover whatever happens. You can typically purchase insurance coverage through the rental agency regardless of whether you have auto insurance, which will handle things if there is any kind of collision. If you do not have auto insurance already, then you will be required to purchase rental insurance through the company you rent from.

What Kinds of Vehicles Can I Rent?

This depends entirely on where you are renting from, but you can generally rent just about any vehicle you can imagine. Large rental companies have massive fleets of cars, trucks, and SUVs that they offer for rent to their customers. This can include comfortable sedans for getting around town and enjoying yourself, along with sports cars and similar performance vehicles that provide an exhilarating driving experience.

SUVs are incredibly popular rental options, and you will find a variety of models in different sizes and styles available when you are looking to rent. In particular, large SUVs are more likely to have mileage limits on them than smaller models, so keep that in mind. Some rental companies offer trucks through secondary rental programs—these trucks are generally intended to help with moving—but you can find trucks for rent at dealerships and many other locations. No matter what you need, you can probably get it.

A black sign in an airport with the words "car rental" printed in orange text is shown.

Can I Tow Using a Rental Car?

Again, this depends on the specific terms and conditions set by the company or dealership you rent from. Generally, you are not allowed to tow anything using an SUV or similar vehicle you rent. Towing with a truck is more likely to be allowed, mainly if you rent the car from a service specifically intended to help people with moving or as a commercial truck rental service. You will need to ask about this and be sure you know before you sign anything and get the vehicle you need.

Keep Asking Questions and Getting Answers

I have only covered the basic kinds of information you should know when looking to rent a vehicle, but asking these sorts of questions is essential when you rent. You should continue to ask questions and be sure to get answers to these and other inquiries before you agree to a rental; know whether you have unlimited mileage or if there is a mileage limit; and find out the company’s procedures in case of an accident. Never be afraid to ask these important questions and know the answers before you agree to anything—more importantly, ensure the information is part of the rental agreement you sign and matches what you are told. Renting a car is a great way to get around when you need to and to try out a vehicle as a type of extended test drive, but it is essential that you are informed and ready to drive with confidence.