Last updated on March 8th, 2019 at 05:28 pm
Our family usually rents a car when we travel with kids. But, it can add a lot to our vacation budget. Find out my top car rental tips and how you can save money on your next family vacation. May contain affiliate links.
My family has a long history with car rentals. My mom used to rent cars online in Hawaii when I was in high school and college.
I used to work with her in the summers helping families choose the right vehicle where they could get the most bang for their buck. I’m all about maximizing!
And my husband managed a car rental office in Los Angeles for several year after college.
Because of our backgrounds, we know the ins and outs of the car rental business. Here are few tips that can help you with this important step of the vacation planning process.
Top Questions Parents Have About Rental Cars:
I belong to a LOT of Facebook groups for families who love to travel and these are answers to some of the questions that continually pop up:
WHEN’S THE BEST TIME TO BOOK A CAR RENTAL?
The sooner, the better! Especially if you're traveling during a school break to ensure your car is
reserved when you need it.
We usually book our airfare, hotel, and then car rental all in the same week. Then, we move on
to our activities closer to the trip.
WHAT IS REQUIRED TO RENT A CAR?
To rent a car, you’ll need:
- To meet the minimum age requirement (usually 21 years old, though fees may apply for
drivers under 25)
- A valid driver’s license
- A credit card
HOW DO I TRANSPORT MY CAR SEAT?
If you are traveling with kids, it’s always best to bring your own car seat. It’s familiar in the sense
that you know how to install it and your kids are comfortable sitting in it.
Thankfully, it’s free to check a car seat. But, transporting it through the airport can be rough.
If you plan to check your car seat, invest in a car seat bag. We like to add diapers and wipes to
the car seat bag, too.
Or you can gate check it. I’d use either a rolling or backpack style bag to get it through the
And with babies and toddlers, installing their car seats on the airplane can make the plane ride
smoother and more comfortable for your whole family.
SHOULD I BUY THE INSURANCE?
The first thing you should do is check with your car insurance company to see if your normal
coverage extends to rental cars.
And if you’re planning on using a credit card, check to see if it also covers rental car insurance.
IS IT CHEAPER TO RENT A CAR OR DRIVE MY OWN?
It really depends on the length of your trip and condition of your car. I suggest doing the math to
find out for sure.
Personally, I like renting a car because the vehicle is clean (which is a novelty in our family with
a toddler and preschooler.)
My husband loves to rent a car he’s thinking about buying in the future. And he gets giddy
playing around with all the new features.
CAN I BRING MY PET IN A RENTAL CAR?
If you’ll be traveling with your pet, check to make sure they are allowed.
Many times, you’ll need to keep your pet crated. Otherwise, you’ll risk cleaning or detailing fees to remove pet hair.
Top Kid-Friendly Destinations
Since I’m a family travel blogger and blog about top kid-friendly destinations, I think it’s only fair that I highlight some of the most popular destinations.
Renting a Car in Hawaii
Since I blog a lot about traveling with kids to Hawaii, I also get tons and tons of questions about
renting cars there.
Hawaiian vacations are interesting because they vary so much from family to family.
Some people go specifically to lounge by a pool and take advantage of on-site childcare. That
sounds super relaxing and you’d probably just need to get to and from your resort.
Paying for a car rental might not make sense in that scenario.
Others are doing a Hawaiian islands cruise and just have one day on each island. In that case,
your options are to either rent a car or join a shore excursion to see a bit of the island.
And the rest of families are planning to explore the island(s), visiting Hawaiian beaches, taking a
boat tour, hiking in the mountains, going to a luau, etc.
SO, DO YOU NEED TO RENT A CAR IN HAWAII?
While you don’t have to rent a car in Hawaii, it makes life so much easier!
I feel compelled to talk about Waikiki specifically since it’s such a popular spot.
It’s really easy to spend your whole trip not leaving the Waikiki-area. In that case, you can use the Waikiki Trolley or walk to get around.
However, if you’d like to see the rest of the island, I’d encourage you to rent a car so you can explore at your own pace.
This is especially crucial if you want to head to the North Shore for their famous shrimp trucks,
AULANI, A DISNEY RESORT & SPA
If you are staying at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on Oahu, there’s an Alamo Rent a Car located right across the street.
This makes it easy to rent a car for just a few days of your trip if you plan to do a mix of resort days and exploration days.
You can also rent a car from Alamo just for the day to avoid parking fees at the resort.
Renting a Car for Disney Vacations
SHOULD I RENT A CAR AT DISNEYLAND?
We’ve done it both ways. It really depends on where you are staying.
If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel or one within walking distance, you can use take a hotel shuttle or the Disneyland Resort Express bus.
DO I NEED A CAR AT WALT DISNEY WORLD?
Again, this depends on where you are staying. If you are staying at a Disney property, you can use their free bus/monorail system.
However, if you are staying in a condo or a hotel off property, renting a car will probably be your easiest way to get to and from the Parks.
Plus, you’ll be able to drive to Disney’s Character Warehouse at the Orlando Premium Outlets to stock up on all kinds of discounted Disney souvenirs!
Why You NEED a Rental Car in Seattle
Now that Lonely Planet named Seattle one of the top 10 travel destinations of 2019, I’m seeing more and more families planning trips here.
But, I’m finding that a lot of these families with young kids aren’t planning on renting a car.
I actually get stressed out when I hear that.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE Seattle and I’m so lucky to call this city my home. However, it’s extremely difficult to get around the city without a car, especially if you have babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who need car seats.
One of the most iconic spots in Washington State is Mt. Rainier. It’s an active volcano and it’s stunning Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall.
Driving is the easiest way to get to the different areas for hiking, dining, and activities.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS
If you are visiting Seattle in the summer and have a few extra days, you really must head up North to the San Juan Islands!
The easiest way is to rent a car and drive to Anacortes. Then, you can take a ferry to see one or more of the San Juan Islands.
If you are planning on visiting Seattle for a week or more, you have plenty of time to drive South to Portland, Oregon.
It’s just 3 hours from Seattle and you’ll find tons of incredible dining, quirky activities, and unique attractions!
5 Car Rental Tips to Avoid Making Costly Mistakes
Ok, if you’ve been reading and decided you do want to rent a car on your next trip, here are some tips to save you some money:
1. Book Early
The sooner, the better! Especially if you’re traveling during a school break to ensure your car is
reserved when you need it.
Check to see if you have free cancellation. That way, in case you find a better car rental rate,
you can cancel your first reservation to save some money.
2. ALWAYS Ask for Discounts
You know the saying, “if you don’t ask, the answer is always no?”
Don’t be afraid to ask if there are any discounts as soon as you get to the rental counter. There are often savings for military members, senior citizens, AAA, or through your employer.
This also applies to hotels, attractions, and anything else travel-related.
We discovered that my husband’s company offers a really good car rental rate, so we always check that first before comparing rates online.
And be sure to check to see if your car rental company offers some sort of free membership. A lot of times, these memberships come with discounts, free upgrades, and often let you skip to a special line.
Find out about Alamo Insiders program.
We did this for a trip to L.A. last year and not only did it give us an upgrade to a swanky car, but we also bypassed the longest car rental line I’ve ever seen!
3. Reserve the Smallest Car You’d Be Willing to Take
The trick my husband usually uses is to reserve a smaller vehicle online and then when he gets to the counter, he asks for discount upgrades to the next size up.
The thinking is that a lot of car rental companies oversell their cars and might not have the car you reserved in their inventory. This happens a lot during high season like summer and school breaks.
Often, we are able to upgrade to an SUV without paying an arm and a leg.
4. Limit the Number of Drivers
For many car rental companies only the primary driver is included. You’ll pay for each additional driver.
And drivers under the age of 25 usually have to pay extra for being a “young driver.”
So, really think about your trip and who actually needs to be a driver. Just because someone can drive doesn’t mean they need to.
5. Fill Up The Gas Tank Before You Return
It’s no secret that car rental companies charge a premium to refill the gas tank. But, it can be hard to remember to fill it up before you get to the airport, especially if you are running late.
So, I suggest setting a reminder on your phone to leave 20 minutes earlier than needed to make sure you have enough time to swing by the gas station before returning your rental car.
Insider tip: If you are a Costco member, map out the nearest Costco on your way to the airport.
This vacation planning toolkit can also help you with all the other steps in the planning process.