1. Always rent a convertibleIf you’re headed some place warm, that is (and always if you’re going from Miami to Key West). Why not? Think of a ragtop as nothing more elaborate than an upgraded stateroom, with a balcony, on a cruise ship. It only costs about $50-100 more a day to turn ordinary driving into a Route 66 fantasy.
2. Don’t skip the rental counterSure, it’s great to have gold status, which let’s you fly through the airport, right to the parking lot. But that’s for business travelers. You want to stop by the counter to chat up the clerk in hopes of an upgrade. Tell him how much you like renting with this particular company and how you’ve been planning your dream vacation for months. Then ask: “Do you have anything exciting today?” It doesn’t always work (and it’s useless to try it over the phone with a reservations agent), but results can be magical, like the time I scored a Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder in Phoenix, just because someone felt like being nice.
3. Forget city rentalsNot only will renting downtown double the price (somebody’s got to get those cars back into town), but reservations don’t always guarantee a car on busy summer or leaf-peeping weekends. Once in the middle of July, I waited for 90 minutes on Sutter Street, in San Francisco, to get to the counter, picking up bits of every foreign language on earth as I crawled through the line. It would have been easier—and cheaper—to take the BART subway down to the airport. And I’d have been halfway to Monterey already.
4. Add-on costs are not a jokeTake the insurance, for example. Please take the insurance. Or at least know some details of the ins and outs of coverage. “Many people don’t realize that, yes, most premium credit cards cover rental liability for damage, but only after their own insurance has kicked in,” says Joe Brancatelli, who produces the online newsletter, Joe Sent Me, for business travelers. (If you don’t own a car, then the credit-card company does indeed become your primary insurer.) With the collision damage waiver (CDW) now an extra $15-$25 a day, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth the charge or if you’d rather deal with an extra hit in premiums from your own insurance company in the event of an accident. I take the CDW for peace of mind; Joe thinks that’s crazy. (P.S. In some states, like New York, it’s illegal for rental car companies to charge for CDW.)