Mar 09 2012

11 Things: Tips for Renting a Car in Southern California

When I asked on the Travels with Children Facebook page if there were any requests for topics from our California trip, Northern Plain Living responded with “car rental/driving tips.”  It’s a great idea for a post, especially if one lives in a place far from California and has heard nightmare stories about Los Angeles traffic.

While I’m far from an expert in this matter, I do have recent experience with it, and I hope what we’ve learned will be of some value to others visiting sunny California.  First, some tips for renting a car.

Tips for Renting a Car in Southern California

  1. Reserve early.  As soon as you know your travel dates, reserve a car.  If the price goes down, you can rebook at the lower rate, but if it goes up, you get the rate you reserved at.  If your trip falls through, you can cancel it.  I booked the car rental for our February trip back in July and then kept checking it periodically to see if the price had dropped.  Though it stayed steady for several months, in the weeks before our trip the rate doubled.  I was glad to have done my homework ahead of time.
  2. Shop around. Unless you have a fierce loyalty to a particular rental company, check rates at all of them.  When I was looking, rates for a minivan for our family ranged from less than $600 to over $3000 for the same dates and locations.  It takes time to check all the companies, but if saving money is your goal, it’s worth it.
  3. Use a discount code and/or coupon. If you’re a member of anything, check to see if there’s a car rental discount code you can use.  I plugged in every code I was eligible for — AAA, Costco, Farm Bureau, Entertainment Book, Delta Airlines — and used the code that gave me the best price.  You can find codes in your membership materials or by doing a web search.  I also got some good ideas at Mousesavers.  Some car rental companies will allow you to use both a discount code and a coupon.  Be aware, however, that many coupons are good for up to a full-size car, and won’t be eligible for use on a minivan or SUV that your family may require.
  4. LAX is not your only option.  Again, it can be time-consuming, and you’ll have to figure it along with the price of airline tickets, but it may be cheaper to rent from an airport other than LAX.  We rented our car at Orange County (SNA), which is conveniently close to Disneyland, and returned it at San Diego (SAN), for less than what a rent/return from LAX would have been.
  5. Consider convenience. If you rent at LAX, you’ll have to load your luggage onto a rental shuttle, unload it to check in at the rental counter, and then load it into your car.  Renting from SNA, a porter put our luggage on his cart, walked us down to the parking garage where I checked in for our rental, and then helped us load it once the car was brought to the counter.  The speed and convenience were definitely worth the porter’s tip, and not having to deal with a shuttle was welcome after a long day of travel with four kids and all our luggage.  When we returned the car to San Diego, the National agent gave us our receipt as we drove up and then asked if we had a lot of luggage.  We replied, “yes!” and he got an employee to drive us in our loaded car to the airport ticketing area so that we wouldn’t have to deal with our luggage and the shuttle.  I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have gotten the same offer at LAX.
  6. Know the extra-driver policy for the rental company.  Many companies will waive the extra-driver fee for drivers who have the same last name and address and are above a certain age (often 25).  If you don’t fit into this category, check with the rental company to see if and how much you’ll be charged to have two drivers listed on the rental.  My husband almost always drives the rental, but if a migraine puts him out of commission or I need to run to Target without the whole family it’s nice to have me listed on as well.
  7. Check your insurance coverage. Before you go, check with your insurance agent to see if you need to buy the coverages the rental company will offer you.  Do you need the coverages that can cost $15 or more a day?  You may also consider a third-party car rental policy; we have one through our American Express card that costs $20/rental instead of $15/day.  The rental companies want to sell these policies whether you need them or not, so know before you go whether you’re going to say yes or no.  Also, before you drive off with the rental car, look it over carefully for any dings or dents or damage.  If you see something, take a digital photo at the least, and even better, show the damage to the rental agent so it can be noted as preexisting on your contract.  You don’t want to be charged for damage that was done before you got the car.
  8. Be prepared for upgrade offers.  Our $50/day rental was for a Chrysler Town & Country.  At the counter, the rental agent offered us an upgrade to a Toyota Sienna (claim: 8-passenger and better mileage) for a few dollars a day, or an SUV (Dodge Durango, if I recall) for a small upcharge.  For a heftier upgrade fee, we could have had a “Suburban,” but when I asked if it was a full-size Suburban, he said no, it was a Tahoe.  We politely declined the “upgrade” offers and stuck with the minivan, as it fit our needs as well as our luggage.
  9. Take your own GPS. The rental companies are happy to rent you a GPS for a daily charge.  While I do recommend a GPS for navigating new cities, take your own if you have one, and remember the charging cable and mount for it as well.  If you don’t have one, consider purchasing your own pre-trip rather than paying the rental company for it.
  10. Remember the carseats. Check the child restraint laws for the area you’re visiting and take your own carseats.  (Check with your airline for getting them to your destination.  Some can be used on the plane, and others checked as baggage or gate-checked, usually without a baggage fee.)  Car rental agencies may offer carseat rentals, but you don’t know what you’re getting.
  11. Take all your stuff home with you. To be sure we didn’t leave anything behind, we removed everything from the car the day before we left.  We then packed everything into the luggage we’d be taking on the plane.  This way, we only had to grab the big, visible bags from the car, and weren’t scrambling for tiny things like Lego minifigure heads under the seat while in the airport dropoff lane.

Do you have any other car rental tips to add for families traveling to southern California (or anywhere)?

The “11 Things” series is designed to give tips for traveling families to destinations well-known or off the beaten path.  Learn how to share 11 Things about your favorite destination, or read other 11 Things posts.


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2 comments so far

2 Comments to “11 Things: Tips for Renting a Car in Southern California”

  1. Nancy on 09 Mar 2012 at 10:26 am

    You can use the GPS on your smart phone! Less to pack.

  2. Melissa on 09 Mar 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Great write up! For those of us not ‘travel savvy’, car rentals can be very daunting. Knowing there are good options other than flying into LAX is so helpful as well.

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