How to rent a car

Renting a car on KAYAK takes less than 10 minutes if you know what you’re looking for. Learn all about how to rent a car and get a good deal.

How does car rental work?

So you’ve decided to rent a car. You may be gearing up for a long road trip with your family, touching down in a city for a short business trip, or just picking up a car to move some furniture. No matter your reason for renting a car, it’s good to get familiar with the process so you can get a great deal. At very least, you should be able to answer how long it takes to rent a car, how to get a cheap car rental, how booking and payments work, how different types of insurance work, and how pick-ups and returns work. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can rent the right car for your trip in under 10 minutes. Let’s start with how to rent a car on KAYAK.

How to rent a car on KAYAK?

KAYAK searches through hundreds of car rental companies at once so you can filter and compare all the results for your given destination and dates. You can shop around for car rentals and compare rates on one site without opening a dozen tabs and browsing for hours. Here’s how to find a cheap car rental on KAYAK:

1. Select your dates

The first thing you have to do is select your pick-up and drop-off dates. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but try to be specific about the times you plan on picking up and dropping off, because it affects the price and availability of cars for the rental. You can also select between “same drop-off” point and “different drop-off” point so you can rent a car for a road trip and drop it off at your final destination.

2. Apply filters

Car type

Filter by car type if you already know if you want a compact car, a full-size sedan, an SUV, a luxury car, etc. KAYAK has simplified the filter terms to just small, medium, large, SUV, luxury, and pickup truck to avoid any confusion with industry terms. However, if you want to know more about rental car types, check out this article.

Filter by either passenger capacity or bag capacity if you’re not sure if the car type you have in mind will comfortably fit the number of people or bags you’re traveling with. This narrows your search across multiple car types.

Rental agency
Filter by rental agency if you have an existing membership with one that includes perks, or you just prefer one over the other because you’ve had positive experiences in the past. Check out our ranking of the top-rated rental agencies from our 2019 Travel Hacker Awards.

Filter by policies including unlimited mileage, free cancellation, fair fuel policy, and enhanced cleaning. Check out our article on how far you can drive a rental car to help decide whether you’ll need unlimited mileage, or if you’ll be okay with a mileage cap.

Total price
Filter by total price (including taxes) if you have a strict price range in mind.

If you search for a specific city, you can filter by airport or non-airport pick-up. There are advantages to both, and prices are usually comparable across locations. However, it’s always cheaper to pick up and drop off at the same location.

“At terminal” or “Shuttle”
If you search for an airport, you can filter between cars you can pick up directly at the terminal, or cars that you have to take a shuttle to pick up. These shuttles are typically free and are conveniently located so you can get to the car from the airport.

“Pay now” or “Pay at counter”
If you select pay now, you’ll enter your card payment information online and complete the transaction. If you select pay at the counter, you’ll complete your booking online and pay in person when you pick up the car.

3. View deal

When you’re ready to book a particular itinerary, select “view deal” to continue. Depending on the deal, you can complete the booking on the KAYAK site, or go to the rental car company’s site. The price will be the same either way, but you might have to take this small extra step sometimes.

4. Complete booking

When it’s time to complete your booking, you’ll be able to review the details of your deal again and add extras if you’re interested. One final thing to keep in mind is that you’re booking the type of car, but the exact model you pick up depends on availability.

Search for rental cars

Rental car pick up

When you’re ready to pick up your rental car, remember to bring a valid driver’s license, any additional driving permits, and a second form of ID. Come with the form of payment you already paid with if you paid online, or a form of payment you want to pay with at the counter. Always review the terms and conditions to check everything one last time before paying.

The car rental company will give you a short report on the condition of the car, but take pictures before leaving if you want extra security about any small dents or scratches that may have already been on the vehicle.


Rental car drop-off

When it’s time to return the car, refill the gas if you need to, clean up, and hand over the keys by the agreed upon time. You don’t want to risk any extra costs from missing your return time. Finally, get confirmation that you returned the car in the same condition as when you picked it up, and get a receipt.

  • Plan your route in advance to ensure you arrive on time or even a bit earlier
  • Choose the closest gas station to the return location to refill the car on the way
  • Once you arrive, take some photos of the car inside and out in case you decide to dispute any potential damage charges.
  • Double-check all compartments and make sure you have taken out all your belongings.
  • Ensure you leave the car in the state you picked it up in. If you return the car dirty, the rental company may impose extra charges to have the car cleaned to a professional standard.

How to get a cheap car rental

KAYAK answers the question of how to rent a car, but you’re probably still curious about the best way to get a cheap car rental. The most important thing is to book ahead. Booking two weeks ahead of time typically has the best deals, but you should check a month in advance first and check regularly as the date gets closer.

If you’re traveling with passengers, it’s more comfortable to split driving time with another person, but additional drivers mean additional fees. Check to see if your rental agency offers a free second driver, or if you can add a second driver for specific days instead of the entire journey.

You can also try your luck at getting car rental coupons from rental agencies by signing up for their mailing lists and joining membership programs. These coupons may come around periodically during major holidays or during the off season.

Once you’re out on the road with your rental, make sure you fill up the tank before dropping it off. The price you pay at a gas station to do it yourself is cheaper than the price the rental company will charge for the same amount of gas.

Check out our article on getting a cheap car rental for all of our insider tips.

How booking works

You may already know that you can only rent a car with a credit card, and not a debit card. This is because car rental companies like to charge the deposit amount up front, and refund you when you return the car safely. With that said, there are exceptions to this rule, but it’s not common. If you find a rental agency that accepts debit card, you must have enough money to cover the entire cost of the rental up front.

Check out our article on car rental payments to learn more.

How to pick the right car rental insurance

Every rental car company offers a range of policies when booking, which include the following varieties in the US and Canada:

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)

This is for any costs if the rental car gets damaged or stolen within the conditions of the contract. Your existing car insurance or a premium credit card offers this already, so check your policies before paying extra for this coverage.

Supplemental Liability Protection (SLP)

This is for additional liability coverage for claims made by third parties against you.

Personal Accident Insurance (PAI)

This is for medical and death benefits for the driver and passengers in the event of an accident. Your existing health, life, and car insurance policies may offer some degree of this already.

Personal Effects Coverage (PEC)

This is for theft of personal items in a rental car up to $1,500.

Read more about rental car insurance types in our guide to rental car insurance.

Rental car booking – FAQ

It can vary depending on the company you book with, but car rental days are usually calculated on a 24-hour basis. This means that renting a car for 25 hours (for example, picking it up on Monday at 10am and returning it on Tuesday at 11am) may actually cost double than returning it just one hour earlier! Also keep in mind that many rental companies have a weekly rate which is cheaper than their daily rate, meaning that it can be worth your while to book for a full 7 days rather than 5. If your plans are flexible, you can try playing around with your dates and pick-up/drop-off times to see if you manage to find a better deal.

Read more tips on how to save money on a rental car in our payment guide.

Some car rental companies offer a service to either pick you up at your home or the hotel you’re staying at, or deliver your rental car to a specific address. Keep in mind, the availability of pick-up services may depend on your distance from the car rental location and pick-up service might cost more than picking up the car yourself. Some car rental companies that may offer a pick-up service include Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and Sixt.

If you arrive at your scheduled pick-up time and the agreed-upon type of car is not available, you have a few options. The rental company might offer you a larger or smaller car. If you get a bigger car than the one you’ve booked, the counter staff should not ask you to pay for the upgrade. If you receive a smaller car, or a cheaper car group, ask for a refund of the price difference from what you originally paid.

If the replacement cars offered don’t work for you or there aren’t any replacement cars available, call the company you booked with and see if they can help you. They might be able to help find you another car rental as well as helping you get a refund for your original booking.

Your best chance of scoring an upgrade is by being a member of the rental company’s loyalty program. Some rental companies also have online coupons you can find on their website and bring to the counter for a free upgrade. Being a member of AAA, AARP, or paying with certain credit cards might also help you get a good deal on an upgrade. Of course, if you’re willing to pay for an upgrade it’s usually possible to get a better car simply by asking at the counter.

Check out more tips on how to get the best deal on a rental car.

If you’ve already reserved your car rental and you want to extend it, you have a few choices. If you haven’t picked up your car yet, you may be able to cancel and re-book your car for free with new dates, or make changes for free to your rental. However, you should keep in mind that prices can change and you may not find the same price you originally booked.

If you’ve already picked up your car and want to change the drop-off date, it’s probably possible. You’ll need to contact the rental company you booked with and ask them if you can extend your rental. Keep in mind that some companies might charge an additional change fee on top of your daily rental fee. You will also likely be charged at a higher daily rate than you found when booking the car.

You can return your rental car earlier than planned, but you may not receive any money back – in fact, some rental car companies might even charge you extra for an early return. For example, some car companies charge a weekly rate that costs less than a daily rate, meaning that a seven day rental could actually cost less than a 5 day rental. If you return your car earlier, you may be charged on the daily rate instead of the weekly rate, meaning you’d have to pay more. Some companies charge a flat fee for any change to the rental agreement. It’s always safest to check in advance with your rental company what might happen if you return the car earlier.

Many car rental locations at airports are open all year long, including on Sundays and national holidays. However, some non-airport locations may run different schedules. It’s always worth checking before you reserve your car, as some agencies may also charge an “out-of-hours” fee for an early or late pick-up or drop-off time that is outside of usual operating hours.

After-hour pick-ups might be offered depending on the location you rent from. Sometimes airport rental counters will stay open to accommodate passengers whose flight has been delayed. However, this sometimes incurs an “after-hours charge”. Non-airport locations may also offer out-of-hours pick-ups at specific times of the day; however, this could cost more than a pick-up during regular hours.

Many rental car agencies also allow you to return your car after hours. This is usually done with a key drop-box: you’ll park the car in a pre-approved parking space and then drop the keys in the box. Keep in mind that the car keys will usually be time-stamped with the time they were dropped off, so even if the station is unattended, you should try to return the car before the time recorded in the rental agreement. Even after returning the car, you may still be responsible for any damage or theft that happens to the car until it has been checked in the next morning, so it’s always a good idea to park the car in a brightly lit spot, near a security camera if possible, and to photograph the car from all angles when you drop it off. Depending on the agency and location you rent your car from, returning your car after hours may be charged an additional fee. Make sure to check the details in advance when making your reservation and when picking up the car.

Returning a rental car doesn’t have to take long. In most large airports or locations it can be a fairly quick 5- or 10-minute procedure – you’ll simply pull into the return lot, flag down the nearest agent and allow them to go over the car’s condition with you.

If you’re returning after-hours, it’s even simpler. You’ll just drop the car keys in a drop-box and then you’ll be free to leave.

Remember, many car rental agreements are full-to-full, meaning you should budget time to refuel the car before you return it. It’s also a good idea to photograph the car’s exterior and the mileage and gas level meters on the dashboard when returning the car so you’ll be able to prove the condition the car was returned in, if necessary.

Most major car rental companies will allow you to rent a car even if you are under 25. Bear in mind that you will likely have to pay a “young driver surcharge” and some car models may be off-limits, although you may be able to avoid added fees if you’re a AAA or USAA member.

Read also about age regulations for driving a rental car in other countries.

Certain companies are more flexible when it comes to adding a second driver. In the US, rules vary by which state you rent in and the company, but if the second driver is a spouse or domestic partner, companies like Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Fox, Payless, and Silvercar are a good bet as they don’t charge a second driver fee. Some companies like Hertz and National will also waive second driver fees if you join their rewards program.

No, If your drivers’ license has expired or will expire during your rental, the rental agency will not allow you to pick up your car. Your drivers’ license must be valid for the entire duration of your rental period.

Learn more