As more and more people become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the travel industry is expecting pick-up in a major way. So much so that Forbes recently warned of a “car rental apocalypse” because car rental companies had so little business last year that their fleets are short-stocked.

So, if the major companies are short on cars to rent at the airport, how can you protect yourself against renting from someplace sketchy? 

This question is particularly important to me because the last time we flew we rented a car from an off-airport company, one we had never heard of, because we found a deal online. When we arrived we waited for almost an hour for the “every fifteen minute” shuttle, had to fight our way on to the van because so many people had accumulated, and ended up riding to the car lot with more people than seats in the shuttle van. 

When we arrived, we saw that the lot only had Jeep Wranglers. That’s it. We had optioned for a Toyota because that’s what we’re used to, but every single person ended up with a Jeep. Luckily, my husband was comfortable driving it because I wouldn’t have been. 

The rental office was chaotic as everyone tried to rush to the counter for service before being directed to another area where the scramble happened again. No one was accompanied to their rental vehicles, we were just told to “keep pressing the unlock button” to see which car was flashing. 

Needless to say, we arrived at our hotel (which was 20 minutes away from the airport) 2.5 hours after landing. It was not an experience I’d recommend to anyone. 

To avoid finding yourself in the same stressful scenario, follow these tips.

Research the Company

This crucial piece of advice could have saved us a lot of headache with our car rental company. A quick Google search revealed that every issue we had was pretty typical of this particular car lot, so do your research before you travel. 

Rick Chen, director of communications for Metromile, also suggests checking with someone you trust who knows the area, or airport staff to make sure you know where you’re going. 

“If you are going somewhere new, check with a reliable source, such as a trusted friend, online guide, or airport information desk,” he said. “Ask about the safest way to get to the rental car center, such as a private drop-off or airport shuttle, and past experiences with rental contracts or staff at different companies.”

Related: What Not to Buy at the Airport: The Most Overpriced Products

Plan Ahead

Giving yourself time to research different rental options will help ensure you are working with a reputable company. Off-airport car rental companies can be great, economical options, but just like with all travel planning it’s important to protect yourself. 

Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA, suggested utilizing a travel agent when renting a car. This could be a particularly helpful solution if, as in Chen’s advice, you’re traveling somewhere new.

“They can make expert recommendations, advise you on booking with a reputable car rental company, and they serve as your advocate before, during or after your trip,” Twidale said. 

In addition to planning ahead with the actual car renting, Chen suggested a little thoughtful planning before arriving at your rental location. He said to have your reservation, credit card and driver’s license out so you can spend as little time as possible at the facility. If you have these things at the ready you can hit the road much faster. 

Take Pictures and Know Your Policies

When you are shown to your rental vehicle, be sure to take pictures of the car’s body before you take off. Especially if the rental company staff aren’t with you. Documenting any existing damage can protect you from being charged later on if the company spots something wrong with the car that was there when you received it. 

Be sure to know your auto insurance policies too before agreeing to any supplemental insurance through the rental companies. The policies aren’t always necessary if your insurance is already covering it. 

“Your insurance policy may transfer to rental cars without an extra fee, and your travel rewards credit card or bank's card might also provide some additional coverage,” Chen said. “Some rental companies charge high rates for their insurance or protection plans, and you might not need the pricey add-ons.”

Related: The 10 Best Underseat Carry-On Bags for Basic Economy

Trust Your Gut

If something doesn’t feel right about a company, the car or your experience, it probably isn’t. Even the most prepared traveler can have a surprise bad encounter with a company and you should feel empowered to say something about it. If you ever feel in danger when renting a car anywhere, leave the situation. 

Even if it means losing out on a deposit, be sure to protect yourself first and worry about the financial ramifications later. 

All products and services mentioned on Airfarewatchdog are independently selected by our team of expert travelers. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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