How to Rent a Car and Drive in the USA

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I remember the first time I was planning to go on a road trip to the States and had to rent a car. Where to start, what do I need to know? How much does it cost?

Where to book?

There are several options:

  • book through sites like Expedia, Net Flights and others, alongside hotels and airline tickets,
  • directly from the companies such as Hertz, Avis, Budget and others
  • on the spot in person

I have rented a car in the States several times and every time I chose I don’t have any affiliation with this website and chose to use their services because the offer was the best. It included the insurance with Alamo. Somehow every time I book, irrespective of the state, length of travel or car type, Alamo is the cheapest option. Net Flights is marketed for the consumers in the UK, but I have never had any issues buying from them residing in Latvia. I’ve even heard a story that once one of the agents at the Alamo desk was asking the consumer where they booked that they got such a good price. Every single time it was much cheaper on Net Flights than any of the direct options or other sites and I did check plenty. Depending on the season, type of car, pick up and drop off locations, the prices start at roughly 20 dollars per day with insurance. For 30 dollars a day you can get a full size sedan and a Ford Mustang could be as cheap as 45 dollars a day. If you see a site offering something for $10, check if and what kind of insurance or waiver is included (continue reading for more detailed information on insurance). My rental agreements with Alamo have been without limits on mileage. My personal record is 5500 km or roughly 3500 miles in 2.5 weeks on this lovely car.

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When renting online, you cannot choose a specific make and model of the car; instead the cars are divided in several classes. Only specialty cars (luxury) are pre-ordered by make and model. You can pick whichever is the most affordable one for you and has the needed trunk size. Beware that, although the picture might state that you will get 2 large and 2 small suitcases in, they might tell you at the rental “the small ones are backpacks”. So if you are planning to go shopping, have a long trip ahead, have enormous luggage or all of the above, like I usually do, don’t pick the economy option. You will get something like Kia Picanto, Nissan Versa and can hold your luggage in your hands all the way… Intermediate size car says Toyota Corolla, you will likely get something much smaller (or their Corollas are smaller than what I used to drive…). I usually pick full size sedan and even then it takes some time to assemble all my bags in it. SUV trunk space may be even smaller and your luggage might be visible from the outside, so I prefer completely closed trunk space due to safety reasons. If your choice is an SUV and the site offers you to upgrade for “an even bigger model SUV”, don’t bother. Most of the times in the rental it’s the same class and you will end up paying more for the exact same car.

As mentioned before, the car model is just an example and does not mean that this particular car will be available. But if you see that there are a lot of people in the parking lot and they keep bringing in new cars, it might be worth to wait a bit. You might get lucky and specific model of a car is brought it, then run and grab it. Otherwise that nice Dodge Charger might be taken by someone else who can’t decide which car to take, and extra competition will make them choose the car you want, plain human nature. While you wait or can’t decide, the rental might also run out of your particular booking class and then you get a free upgrade to the next class of cars.

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Age & Additional Drivers

If you are younger than 25 years, you might need to pay extra. Also, if more than one person will be driving, additional driver rights may need to be purchased. So if you are renting a car that your husband will be driving, it makes sense to input his data when making the booking and not yours to avoid extra charges. Additional driver could be something like $10 per day, but sometimes you can include it in the rental right away and free of charge, so check all the options offered at the time of booking (and un-check all the boxes with additional travel insurance and similar offers, if you don’t need them).

Length of Rental & Location

All of my rental cases have been from and to the airport. Usually there is a shuttle bus going from terminal to the rental company, check when exiting. It’s pretty straight forward to return the cars too, input in your navigation system and follow the return signs. Airport rental means two things, a significantly bigger car choice, but also possibly an additional hour waiting in the line, if there are many flights arriving at that time. If you are very tired from the flight, it’s not always the best option to start driving right away.

The return location does not have to be in the same as pick-up. Sometimes this costs extra, sometimes it is actually cheaper to return it elsewhere. Always leave plenty of time for yourself to return it before your flight and check if returning it an hour sooner wouldn’t give you significant savings. It might be that the extra hour is worth an additional rental day.

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A very important issue to consider is the insurance. Irrespectively of which site you book the car at, always check if the car comes with insurance and the loss damage waivers. This means that in the case of accident all of the costs would go to the insurer and not just up until some limit. If you have not heard about how much Americans like to sue everyone, you will know for sure when you will pass an enormous roadside poster with a moustache dude on it saying “Accident? Need a lawyer? Call 555-LAWYER ” for the umpteenth time.

You might get a good price at Priceline, but it might be without insurance. Insurance could even double the price. There are websites where you can purchase insurance separately and also in some countries your regular car insurance covers a rental for a certain amount of days. Never ever drive without insurance and carefully read insurance conditions when booking. There is a very good explanation on the insurance types at #4 here.

Toll Roads

Not all of the states have toll roads, but some do. For a road trip on the West coast you don’t have to worry about those, with the exception of several pay-as-you-go bridges in San Francisco, there aren’t any toll roads (or at least I did not see any when I was there). For the Sunshine state of Florida it’s the opposite. Not all have a physical booth where you can pay, those with a booth sometimes only accept coins. If you don’t pay, the rental company will charge it to your credit card with a significant fine on top. Alamo offers the service of the Toll Assistant, the last time I rented, they have me a small box that would register all the tolls I passed through and simply charged those to my credit card. The box was not for free, as far as I remember it was additional 3-4 dollars per day (on top of the tolls you incur) and there was a maximum limit how much you pay per rental period. Some navigation programs offer you to avoid toll roads, but it can be very time consuming and driving in the maze of American roads for a first time visitor will not be easy.

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If you plan on going north, always check the tires on your car. Unfortunately, it’s useless to ask the assistants at the rental. I have seen this in practice with my own eyes again and again that they have no idea about what kind of tires their cars have. One nice lady in Alamo Orlando in the month of January kept telling me „this is Florida, we have summer tires only, even the Canadian units [minivans] have summer tires!” This is just not true. We had some time to kill and spent an hour picking the best car for our road trip and I personally checked tires on at least a dozen cars. ALL of those where M+S or mud & snow. I have recently heard that it is not the case in all rental companies, but I am sure in the bigger ones you can find something with M+S. That’s additional benefit of renting in the airport, as they have a very wide selection of cars, with license plates form different states and greater chance of the tires you need. Speaking of Canada, we did go with a rented Alamo car to Niagara falls and drove back through Windsor/Detroit into States, so it’s possible. With Mexico is was the opposite, I have read that some companies ask for a significant surcharge and others simply don’t allow it. If you are planning to leave the country with the car, check with the agent when you book.

Driver’s License & Are You Allowed to Drive?

Before driving in the US, check if you are allowed to drive in a certain state with your driver’s license. The license must be in English. EU licenses have English print, so that should be enough. You might need an International Driver’s Permit, especially if your license is not in English. It is issued in the country where the driver’s license was issued.

They will make a copy of your license at the rental. Most of the times I have tried the self service desk at Alamo, but it would not recognize my documents and I still had to see the clerk.

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Upselling & Gasoline

Rental companies will try to upsell you stuff. „Would like to drive a nice 2-door cabrio on this sunny day?” Sure, and keep my 4 large suitcases on my head! „Maybe a big jeep then?” No, it’s not a free upgrade; they will ask extra money for this. Additional insurance will be offered, such as the one for flat tires, locked keys and similar cases. I have never purchased it. It is also possible to pre-order a full tank of gasoline for the car, and although the rate per gallon may seem attractive, it’s very difficult to time your car to have a completely empty tank for return. So I decline the offers and proceed to getting the car I ordered. Regarding gasoline, if you are driving up to the station and don’t know which side of the car you need to pump it, there is a small icon on the front panel with a gas pump with an arrow. Arrow shows you which side of the car you pump the gasoline to. There are several types of gasoline, check on the cover of the tank which type you need. Most of the stations will not accept your non-US credit card at the self-service pump, as you need to enter the zip code. So usually you need to go to the cashier, pre-authorize a certain sum on your credit card (or leave cash or a document for deposit), fill up the tank, then either pick up the remaining money or it will be automatically returned back to your credit card. One more reason to be sure you have a credit card when going to the US.

Getting the Car

In Alamo they let you pick your own car. They will tell you which lane is your selected class and you can pick whichever you want from those, all of them have cars in ignition or the door. Can happen that there are no cars in that particular lane, this way you might get a free upgrade. Just ask the assistant in the parking lot. Although the cars might be one class, the trunk space may differ significantly, so measure thoroughly if it is large enough for your needs. Often a regular sedan will have more capacity for your large suitcases than a small SUV. I really, really wanted to drive a true-American Dodge once, but there were no such cars in the row the assistant directed us to. Then I noticed that two rows down there was the same class number with the same types of cars and Dodge was among them. I just picked one of those. It was ready to for rental; had the paper slip in the car with mileage and was ready to go. You can also turn on the engine and see how old the car is. I once got a car that had only 6 miles mileage!

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Technical Support

If the car starts making funny noises or any type of failure or warning lights go on, such as „check engine”, be sure that you have the phone number of the support line. On my way to Smoky Mountains, while in Atlanta, my car once had this. I called the support line, and the tech told me that, although usually you can drive for a while with such light, if I want to, I can go to any Alamo rental in any state and exchange it without extra costs or previous appointment. That’s what I did! Yes, it does take some time to return it and move your stuff to the new car, but I felt safer this way.


We usually use GPS navigation in our phones, pre-load an app that does this. It can also be rented with the car, but it will be cheaper to have one on your phone. Sometimes it is not 100% accurate, so if you have a chance to get a local sim card with data plan (and your phone is unlocked and will work with it), get one. The roads can change, there is always some repair being done, so use common sense.

The offline programs we have used are:

  • Sygic – you have to pay for it, but it’s probably one of the best apps currently available
  • NavFree – also good and it’s free

If you have data plan, you can use Waze and Google Maps too.

Most Surprising About Driving in the US and Tips & Tricks to Consider

Every time I drive in the US there is still something that surprises me. But there are a few things you should know or are better off knowing before you go:

  • Before going for my first road trip I had completely missed out on something called 4-way stop. Yes, there are plenty of those. Intersections where everyone has a stop sign. The rule is simple – everyone stops at it. The first one to arrive at the intersection is the one to cross it first. If two arrive at the same time, the one on the right goes first. If there are more cars, same rule applies, but it seems that even some locals don’t know this rule, so there might be some waving. There are also 3-way stops, same rules apply. More detailed explanation here.
  • Traffic lights. First of all, those are often located after the intersection and not before. They can be horizontal and vertical. Flashing red light is the same as a stop sign. A bit about turning on red. If the right light is on, you need to turn right, you can do so, unless is says No Turn on Red. There is no extra green arrow sub-section to the traffic light, it’s just plain red light. This means that be considerate and try not to stay in the most right lane if you don’t plan to turn. Green lights sometimes have several subsections; something called the “doghouse” in this article on Wikipedia. Be sure to read it, hopefully it brings some clarity (or confuses you completely).
  • Many traffic signs are plates with words and not pictographs. NO PED XING, DEAD END and the like.
  • Driving on the 6 lane roads in Los Angeles was a challenge for me. There were very, very many cars, driving very fast (60 mph and more) and with such distances as they would be driving at barely 20. I was terrified of switching lanes. Also, when you are going on the highway, not in all places you just enter from the side smoothly, sometimes there is a light, limiting entrance to 1-2 cars at a time.
  • Check what is the speed limit in the city and outside the city in the state you will go to. They are different from state to state! Prepare that dashboard will have mph scale on it, and not the km/h! You can switch it to kilometers, but then you might accidentally exceed the limit. Many navigation programs will also show what is the posted speed limit and will make warning sound if you exceed it.
  • The driver’s mirror is different from the ones we have in Europe. It not the same angle of view, thus takes some adjusting to what you see and how far it is.
  • No one drives a stick in the US, unless it’s a very fancy car. So all rental cars are automatic.

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  • Parking can be easy, difficult and funny at the same time. There are many private parking lots where there are no booths – you just take an envelope, put your money in it, tear off the slip. Envelope goes into container, slip at the windscreen. Street parking is available, but check when it is allowed. Sometimes I had to take out my watch and my calendar to figure out if I can park there or not. Keep quarters for parking. Many places have the old fashioned parking meters for every space – you put in the quarters and it shows how much longer you can stay. Often there is a limit. If your meter is fine, it blinks green. If you have parked longer than allowed or the space is free, it will blink red (and the controllers will see that from a distance). Quarters will come in handy also for the tolls that are not covered by the toll assistant. Always keep some! Some places also have one large parking machine, those often work with credit cards too. If you have paid but no ticket comes out, sometimes it’s enough to write a note and leave it under the windscreen. I was prepared to do that once and the controller even complimented me on that and said I would not be in trouble, as the ticket from the machine had gotten stuck inside! But Americans like to tow away the cars, so always, always pay for parking.
  • If you are lucky your rental car might have Sirius XM satellite radio subscription, and I was surprised by the wide selection of music it offers. This means you will have something like a hundred digital radio stations on it. If you don’t or it has expired, there is regular radio. Some of it is just weird. Take your AUX cable with you or buy it at a Best Buy and connect your iPod or other device. My Garmin portable & chargeable local iPod „radio station” did not work, I guess it’s because of the used frequencies. An extra USB cable also will not hurt, as often there is a slot for it too. Take several chargers, as there could be an outlet at the back as well. If you will use your phone for navigation, you will need to charge it.
  • When you will be returning the car to the rental company, you will have to drive over very spiky metallic things. It seems scary the first time, but as long as you don’t put it in the reverse, no damage to the tires, as the spikes turn in. It is a security measure.
  • Don’t fill up the tank at the very last gas pump before the airport. I have seen the prices to be as much as $2 per gallon more than elsewhere!!! Even if the tank is full, most of the times they will put it at 7/8 when you return it and you will have to pay a bit anyway. I expected the cars to be nowhere near economic on gas consumption in US, but it was not that bad. In fact, the enormous Dodge I had, consumed less gasoline than Ford Fusion I had changed it from due to blinking light!
  • The prices of gas differ from state to state, from city to city. Try not to drive until blinking pump light, because it might be that you are in a remote area and some stations might be closed, especially during the night.

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  • If you are about to drive into national parks in winter, you might need chains. Check the parks website to see if chain alerts are in effect and then check at your hotel or on local forum where you can rent the snow chains. Can be tricky to put them on, but you will need them. Sometimes 4×4 cars don’t need them. Check your rental agreement if you are allowed to put them on. Also, smoking in the car is a no-no most of the time.

I hope I did not scare anyone with the details of renting and driving a car in the States. Road trips are a lot of fun, and I believe it’s the absolutely best way to explore this vast country!

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