Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Written by Sara Routhier
Director of Outreach

Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florid...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Jun 22, 2022

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Renting a car is often required when traveling to cities where mass transit is distinctly lacking, or the destinations designated for a given trip simply lie outside the bounds of conventional mass transit systems or taxi services.

Though rental vehicles represent a significant and affordable convenience for most business and pleasure travelers, they also typically come with quite a bit of fine print and a number of things that should be checked before the rental ever leaves the company’s lot.

Possible Extra expenses if you don't check these items before renting a car.Note: As illustrated, the lower cost (in blue) can be charged to your account when returning a rental car. If you didn’t fill the fuel tank, incurred a lot of vehicle damage, or missed something in the contract, you can incur higher charges. Such as the amount illustrated in green.

By reviewing these things in advance, according to Fox News, major expenses and several potential headaches can be easily avoided.

Fuel Levels

Never, ever drive the car for a significant distance away from the dealer’s lot without checking the initial fuel level.

Virtually all rental companies require that the car be returned with the same amount of fuel that was in the tank when the car was given to the renter.

Fuel gauge in a vehicle.

Note: Rental car companies make a killing on customers not filling the tank when they return the vehicle. It can be $4 or more per gallon. If you rent a large vehicle with a large fuel tank the extra costs can escalate into the hundreds. Plus, there will be a surcharge on top of the price of the fuel.

If the car comes back without that amount of fuel in the tank, the rental company will charge the customer the “fair rate” for each gallon of fuel to make up the difference.

Additionally, the company will charge a hefty surcharge for the convenience of letting rental agents fill the tank after the car’s safe return.

Oil Levels

A rental car is no good if the engine oil hasn’t been changed in a while, or if there is simply not enough oil in the engine.

Both situations can result in a car that quickly overheats, breaks down, and is virtually totaled. The rental company may cover these damages, but they may not.

Checking the oil in a vehicle.

Note: Checking the oil is easy. Lift the hood, pull the dip stick out, and make sure you have the proper level of oil. If you don’t have the proper levels take the car keys back to the rental company and ask for a new rental car.

In order to avoid this kind of roadside trouble, simply check the oil before driving the car off the rental company’s lot.

Ensure that the oil comes to the proper line on the dipstick and, if possible, verify the mileage when the last full oil change was performed.

If the car is lacking an oil change or has insufficient oil, insist on a different vehicle with a better maintenance record.

Vehicle Damage

Rental companies will charge consumers for any damage that they think was done on the consumer’s watch.

This means that consumers could easily be charged for damage that they legitimately did to the car, but it also means that any company oversights could result in a customer being charged for the last person’s reckless driving.

Small dents on the hood of a vehicle.

Note: It is really hard to tell if there are dents on the top of the car. If you suspect dents on your rented vehicle notify the agency before pulling it out of the lot. If not, you will be charged for the damage. Which can easily run hundreds of dollars or more.

To help eliminate the possibility of such misunderstandings, most rental companies supply a piece of paper that indicates that car’s condition and documents any known damage to the inside or outside of the vehicle.

Do not drive the car off the lot until verifying that this damage is accounted for, and that no additional damage has been done to the car without appearing on the company’s release form.

The Contract

Car rental contracts are almost entirely made of fine print, with a number of “gotcha” moments and expensive surcharges that are easy to avoid with a careful reading of every page and every sentence.

Be sure to look through this document in order to thoroughly understand the fees associated with accidental damage, engine trouble, insurance costs, and more.

Signing a rental car agreement.

Note: Rental car agreements (or any for that matter) can be burdensome to read. To make sure you aren’t doing anything outside of the agreement make sure to read it. For example, if you rent a car in San Diego near Mexico you probably cannot bring the car to Mexico. Simple, and sometimes silly, items like that can cost you hundreds of dollars.

Also, be sure to understand when the car must be returned, if there will be a fee for half-day rentals or late car returns, and how the car’s fuel situation must be handled. Here is some example how the contract should look.

Never leave a company’s car rental office without understanding the terms and conditions of the rental contract.

Doing so can easily lead to major financial oversights that will result in hundreds, or sometimes even thousands of dollars in unplanned for expenses.

Be Astute and Rent with Caution

Renting a car is highly convenient but, in all too many cases, rushed or uninformed renters can expose themselves to major liabilities and huge expenses.

Be sure to check fluid levels, inspect for damage inside and outside the vehicle, and thoroughly understand the contract before leaving the rental office.

By doing each of these things, costs and stresses can be eliminated rather easily.

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