Rental car in the USA

If you want to enjoy your vacation in the USA to the fullest, you should get a rental car. As a designated motorist country, the United States will reward you with unforgettable adventures. However, there are major variances in rental vehicles in the USA you should be aware of.

The best rental cars for USA trips

Some vehicle classes and car rental combo deals are better suited for a USA trip than others. Let us compare the best car rental deals for you:

Find a rental car for the USA

When looking for the best car hire in the USA, you can choose between many providers, various vehicle types, and different rental models. The major car rental providers in the USA include:

Furthermore, you can book a rental car for the United States from your home country.

Rent a car from home or book in the USA?

You could certainly save a few euros with a rental car booking on-site with a thorough price comparison. However, you would lose valuable vacation time, which you can alternatively spend on a romantic road trip through the USA.

That's why we recommend booking your car from home - preferably as early as possible, e.g., at the same time as your ESTA application. It allows you to start your US vacation without any worries as soon as you get off the plane.

Which car rental class for the USA?

The USA's landscape is so diverse that the choice of your rental car class should primarily depend on your travel route. For example, if you want to drive on unpaved roads in one of the national parks, you will need an SUV.

A coupe is sufficient for a romantic road trip in the Indian summer in Vermont or Maine, and if you want to hit the West Coast in California, a stylish convertible will do.

You can choose between the following categories when booking your rental car:

  • Regular vehicles from small to mid-size cars
  • Off-road vehicles (SUVs)
  • Vans/minibusses
  • Transporters

In addition, you can also rent sports cars and limousines from the upper, premium, and luxury classes.

Attention
You will be guaranteed a specific car rental class when booking, but not a specific model. The vehicle class only determines the size and equipment of your rental car in the USA.

Are you unsure which rental car class you need for your trip to the USA? If in doubt, book one size larger than you would typically do because the immense distances in the USA are often underestimated. Your travel comfort should be at the top of your list on the long routes through this unique country.

Which car rental plan for the USA?

Before you decide on the cheapest offer in the jungle of car rental price comparisons, you should consider the requirements you have for the car.

After you've decided on your route, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many miles will I travel?
  • Do I want to start and end my trip in different places?
  • How much insurance coverage do I need?
  • Will I be driving alone or with an additional driver?
  • How long will my road trip through the USA last?

After clarifying all relevant questions, you can find the best rental car offer for you in a price comparison calculator and book it directly on the Internet.

Requirements for rental cars in the USA

If you want to rent a car in the USA, you must meet certain requirements. These usually include:

  • A valid driver's license
  • A valid passport
  • For special vans: Possession of a commercial driver's license
  • Minimum age of 21 years (exceptions possible with "young driver fee")
  • For special transporters: minimum age of 25 years
  • Possession of a credit card (not a prepaid card)

The minimum age can be reduced by paying the young driver surcharge. Details can be found in the rental conditions of the provider.

There are usually no age limits for renting a car in the USA. In rare cases, however, they can occur. In such cases, they range between 75 and 80 years of age.

Which driver's license do I need in the USA?

To drive in the USA, you need a valid driver's license printed in the Latin alphabet. If your driver's license is printed in other scripts (such as Cyrillic or Arabic), you must carry a valid International Driver's License.

Advice
We generally recommend that all drivers obtain an international driver's license for the USA. This safety measure is mainly due to the typical faux pas in dealing with irritable road cops and the sometimes erratic changes in the law at the US state level.

Traffic rules in the USA

The traffic rules in the USA are not difficult to understand, but there might be some differences to the traffic rules in your home country:

  • Speed is measured in miles per hour (mph).
  • It is forbidden to overtake school buses.
  • If the police stop you, you are not allowed to get out of the car until you are asked to do so. Your hands must remain on the steering wheel.
  • Each US state has its own speed limits.
  • Alcohol may not be transported in the driver's compartment.

Also, be prepared for toll expressways (turnpikes), where you'll have to whip out your credit card. In some places, you may even need to put coins in the machine.

How do I book a rental car for the USA?

After you have found the perfect offer for your car trip in the USA via a car rental price comparison, you can reserve it directly on the internet. Select the desired additional services when making the reservation, enter your data, and complete the booking.

Often, you will see the phrase "available on request," which means that an offer will be finalized after your booking with the owner of the rental car. Allow a maximum of 48 hours for this.

As a rule, you can follow the status of your booking online - either through e-mails from the provider or through a customer account that you can log into. The status message "confirmed" informs you that the rental car of your dreams is now reserved for you.

What is a car rental voucher?

After your successful booking, you will receive either a booking confirmation directly from the provider or a so-called voucher. You must present the voucher when picking up the rental car in the USA.

Check all data on the voucher, print it out, and add it to your travel documents. You will not be able to pick up your rental car without this piece of paper.

How do I pay for a rental car in the USA?

You almost always need a credit card to pay for a rental car in the USA. It must be issued to the (main) driver and may not be a prepaid card.

When you pick up your rental car, a rental deposit will be blocked on your credit card, which will not be available for any other purpose for the entire duration of the rental relationship. Therefore, we recommend that you apply for a second credit card when preparing for your trip, which will get you through your USA vacation comfortably despite blocked deposit amounts.

Rental car pick-up and drop off in the USA

Your travel route determines where to pick up and return your rental car(s). For both, we recommend a small checklist to ensure you don't forget any important steps.

Car rental pick-up checklist

When you receive your rental car in the USA, you must pay attention to a few things:

  1. Document mileage and fuel level, and make sure to write both down in the rental agreement.
  2. Read the rental agreement thoroughly before signing it.
  3. Check the vehicle for any damage to the paint or bodywork.
  4. Check that both the accessories ordered and the legally required equipment (e.g., first aid kit - depending on the state) is complete.

Car rental exchange in the USA

For longer trips across the USA, be prepared to change your rental car at least once. This can be for three reasons:

  • You're moving outside the contracted driving area.
  • You will save extra costs for border crossings.
  • You would otherwise exceed the maximum rental period of six weeks.

If you spontaneously want to return a car that you had actually booked for a longer period, you can usually return it to the next station of your rental car provider. For such an unforeseen return, a special fee is usually due. Clarify this in advance with the car rental provider.

Rental car return checklist

When returning the rental car in the USA, you must pay attention to a few things:

  1. Stick to the agreed refueling policy
  2. Be on time at the agreed drop-off location. Otherwise, additional fees will apply.
  3. Make a note of the mileage and fuel level and have both confirmed in the handover protocol.

Refueling regulations for US rental cars

When signing a rental car contract in the USA, you can choose between two fueling arrangements in most cases: "Full/Full" and "Full/Empty."

Full/Full

With the full/full tank arrangement, you receive your rental car with a full tank and also return it filled up. This variant is the cheapest because you only pay the amount of fuel that you have actually used - at the price you chose.

The car does not have to be filled to the brim, but only as full as it was when you picked it up.

Full/Empty

What sounds practical at first can lead to expensive surprises because with the full/empty refueling arrangement, an employee of the car rental company handles the refueling after the rental car is returned.

There is a separate fee for this service, and it's a hefty one. In addition, there is a high probability that you will not return the car as empty as you are allowed to, thus giving the remaining amount of gas to the rental car company as a gift.

How much is a rental car in the USA?

The cost of a rental car in the USA can vary greatly depending on the state, city, provider, and vehicle class. The age of the driver, as well as the agreed insurance benefits and extra services, also play a role.

The bill for your car rental booking will roughly consist of the following fees:

Entry fee

For the mere conclusion of a contract with a rental car provider, there is usually already a service fee.

Basic costs

The basic costs are the fixed rent for the agreed type of vehicle in the contract period, including the agreed inclusive kilometers

Concession

The location of your pick-up and drop-off station has an impact on the rental car price. If you pick up the car at an airport or train station, you will usually be charged a location surcharge.

Additional insurances

Adding or dropping certain insurance services, such as theft, glass, and tire insurance will affect your rental price. Generally, a fixed minimum insurance package is required for foreigners in the USA, so your influence is limited.

Routes / Regions

Driving on unpaved roads, across national borders, or into risky areas can be barred by your rental car provider in advance. However, there are also cases where you can secure an extra adventure through an additional agreement, for which you have to dig more or less deep into your pocket.

Age of the driver / Young driver fee

As a rule, rental cars in the USA are only issued to persons 21 years of age or older. Some US states make an exception here, but you pay dearly for it.

Most providers have set fees that are charged to drivers up to the age of 25. At worst, you can pay up to an additional $60 per day as a very young driver.

Car delivery to the hotel

If you do not want to go directly to a rental car agency after your arrival, you can also have the rental car delivered to your first accommodation. Of course, there is a special fee that varies depending on the provider, location, and driving distance.

Additional driver

We strongly recommend that you add an additional driver to your rental agreement because the USA is really huge and you will be very happy to have a break from driving. In some cases, an extra fee is charged for an additional driver.

An exception to this is, for example, the US states of California, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin, where at least the spouse is allowed to drive without an extra fee, as long as they have a valid driver's license and meet the minimum age requirement.

One way rental fees

For longer road trips through the USA, one-way rental is advisable. This means picking up the car in one place and dropping it off in another. A one-way fee is usually charged for the additional time and effort this causes at the rental car company. This fee varies depending on the provider, location, and time of year.

Accessories for rental cars in the USA

The accessories you choose will, of course, also be reflected in the rental car bill. What you really need on your trip to the USA depends on your route, the expected weather, and your personal (family) situation. The following additional options are possible when renting a car in the USA:

Child seat

If you have a child with you on your trip through the USA, they most likely need to be in a child safety seat during the trip. Child safety seat regulations in the US are set by each state and change frequently. Check with the Governors Highway Safety Association shortly before your trip.

Winter tires

When renting a car in the winter or in snowy areas of the USA, ask for winter tires if the standard all-weather tires are not enough for you. However, you can usually get away with all-weather tires.

Snow chains

On a winter road trip through Alaska, New Hampshire, Michigan, or Colorado, you'll be glad to have some snow chains in the trunk. You should find out in advance whether your car rental company offers snow chains.

Technology

Many drivers are happy to have a professional navigation device that does not rely on cellular reception and cell phone battery power. Carrying a satellite phone or radio can also be a good idea in particularly remote areas.

A very handy tool is a toll transponder, which many rental car companies give to their customers: with this device, the toll is paid automatically, and you don't have to keep your credit card or tons of change handy.

Are you a digital native and need good internet on your road trip through the USA? Then your rental car provider can even provide you with a so-called Car-Fi.

Other accessories that can be useful on a road trip through the USA, especially in the vastness of the countless national parks, are:

  • a camping fridge
  • a water canister
  • an emergency signal transmitter
  • a gas stove
  • a roof tent

Which insurance for rental cars in the USA?

Beyond a mandatory standard insurance package (comprehensive), several other insurance options may be useful, depending on the route, time of year, and personal situation.

Rental car comprehensive insurance

As a non-American, many rental car companies will include a standard comprehensive insurance and theft protection package, which is already included in your booking.

The comprehensive insurance covers all damage to the car - unless you have caused it through gross negligence. In your rental car voucher, this insurance is abbreviated as "CDW" (Collision Damage Waiver) or "VDI" (Vehicle Damage Insurance).

You can (and should) deselect a possible deductible for the comprehensive insurance to be completely carefree on your car trip through the USA.

Other possible insurances for your USA trip with a rental car include:

  • Theft insurance
  • Glass and tire insurance
  • Passenger insurance
  • Limitation of liability
  • Property insurance for personal belongings

With rental car liability, both the driver and their spouse are usually automatically covered. The liability coverage amount should be between €1,000,000 and €7,500,000.

Campervan travel insurance for the USA

For trips with a camper or RV, you can choose from various insurance packages and combine these in a modular system:

  • Collision damage waiver (cdw) deductible reduction
  • Travel cancellation insurance
  • Trip interruption insurance
  • Luggage insurance
  • Camper interior insurance

Who is covered by the rental car insurance?

Make sure that any insurance you purchase for your rental car automatically covers your additional driver(s). With many rental car insurances in the USA, this is automatically the case. However, we strongly recommend that you clarify this with your provider beforehand.

Banner Komplettschutz

Car rental USA: What documents do I need?

If you want to rent a car in the USA, you have to present some documents. These usually include:

  • a valid driver's license in the Latin alphabet that qualifies you to drive the class of vehicle you have chosen and is valid beyond the rental period.
  • a valid passport
  • a covered credit card (not a prepaid card) that is in the name of the primary driver of the rental car
  • a rental car voucher and booking confirmation
  • depending on the case: return flight tickets, hotel reservations, and other documents proving the planned return of the rental car
  • depending on the case: an International Driver's License

We recommend carrying an International Driver's License regardless of your origin or chosen itinerary in the USA to be prepared for traffic controls and spontaneous changes in the law.

How far am I allowed to drive in the USA with a rental car?

The terms and conditions on your rental car provider's website and in your rental agreement specify special rules for driving in certain areas and across state and national borders.

Special rules to watch out for on a road trip through the USA:

  • trips to Mexico (are often prohibited)
  • trips to Canada (sometimes subject to special requirements)
  • driving in US states that are not contiguous to the state of origin rental or
  • driving on unpaved roads and gravel roads
  • overseas trips, e.g., on a ferry to Alaska

If you deviate from the established rules, you will be subject to separate charges per mile driven.

Attention
You must clarify any breaking of the rules with your car rental company in the USA beforehand, as unregistered driving on unauthorized routes will result in the loss of all insurance coverage.

How to find a cheap rental car

In order to get the best car rental deal for the USA, we recommend that you do your research early. It is best to start researching the best car rental companies for the USA and possible special deals and discounts at the same time as your ESTA application.

Price comparison platforms on the internet as well as special car rental offers from your airline (e.g., "Fly & Drive") are very useful for this. Searching on platforms with various filter settings for vehicle types and other attributes is also convenient.

Accident with the rental car: what to do?

If you have had an accident with your rental car in the USA, inform your provider immediately and ask for the correct procedure - given that you are okay and no one was hurt. Your rental car company will probably need a police report to handle the case, and you will have to call the cops.

Provided you have comprehensive insurance with no deductible, you will not be charged (except for gross negligence). In your rental documents, you will find an accident report, which you can fill out directly. Also, a possible accident opponent must help and disclose his personal data.

If the damage to the vehicle is minor, a short stop at the nearest police station may be enough to complete the accident report. For the insurance company, the report is very important, so you should not ignore this duty.

If you need a replacement car, your car rental company will organize it for you. Be sure to have a damage report issued and signed for the exchange of the vehicle.

Both after an accident and when you first pick up your rental car in the United States, you need to take a walk around the car and look for damage and other defects. Here is what you should look for:

  • scratches, dents, and cracks (paint, plastic parts, chrome parts, and windows)
  • tire damage (bulges, cracks, lack of air)
  • engine noises (anything that does not sound right should be reported)
  • flashing warning lights in the console
  • function check (brakes, lights, turn signals, washer system, windshield wipers)

Rental Car USA FAQ

Do you have further questions about car rental in the USA? Then you will certainly find what you are looking for in our FAQ for travel to the USA by rental car:

Are there alternatives to renting a car in the USA?

The USA is known for being a motorist country. There are not even sidewalks in many places, which can make getting around without a car quite exhausting. Also, there is a drive-in for just about everything in the USA, such as ATMs, supermarkets, churches, doctors' offices, and wedding chapels.

However, you can find environmentally friendly alternatives to traveling around the US, namely Amtrak and Greyhound.

Amtrak

The silver trains of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation brand Amtrak have been speeding through the USA since the 1970s and have cult status worldwide. On its 34,000 km route network, Amtrak travels to more than 500 locations in 46 US states.

A particularly iconic train route in the USA is, for example, the route between Chicago and San Francisco with the California Zephyr. You'll be on the road for almost three days. But don't worry, the Amtrak trains are really comfortable with their wide and cozy seats, beauty lounges, showerbaths, and good restaurants.

Fun Fact: US President Joe Biden got the nickname "Amtrak Joe" because he commuted between Delaware and Washington D.C. every day on the Amtrak for 36 years.

Greyhound

Where the Amtrak doesn't travel, one of the famous Greyhound buses certainly does. Traveling around the USA by Greyhound is a very affordable way to get around, and it guarantees you exciting encounters with all kinds of people.

Automatic or manual?

If you rent a car in the USA, you will most likely drive with an automatic transmission. Only a few models (especially SUVs) still have manual transmissions in the United States.

How do I pay the road toll in the USA?

On your way through the United States, you will be asked to pay tolls from time to time, e.g., on highway-like roads (turnpikes), in tunnels, and on bridges. As a rule, you pay the tolls with your credit card. However, change is still required at a few toll booths in the USA.

The pay-by-plate transponders are very practical, which automatically charge your tolls after affixing a sticker to your car and registering your license plate. If you are traveling in a rental car and using a toll transponder, you can log in to an external service provider to find out about the toll charges incurred and download receipts.

How does refueling in the USA work?

In the USA, you drive up to a gas station and first deposit security (in the form of your credit card) before you are allowed to fill up your car. As a rule, you can pay for this directly at the gas pump with your credit card.

If the fuel pump does not work for you (e.g., because you can't think of a US zip code on the spur of the moment, which is a mandatory entry here), you can also deposit your credit card with the counter staff before the fill-up.

In the USA, there is a distinction between "regular," "mid-grade," and "premium gas." Which fuel you need is written in your rental documents and on the inside of the gas cap.

American Express Green Card

What to consider when parking in the USA?

There are a few special parking rules in the USA that you should know before driving your rental car into densely populated areas. For example, parking is prohibited near fire hydrants, next to a red-marked curb, in crosshatched areas, near bus stops, and in the second row.

Also, you often have to pay attention to fixed times for street cleaning, during which you must have removed your car in time to avoid being towed. In some parking lots, you are only allowed to park in one direction ("head in only"), and you have to leave personal data when pulling a parking ticket.

As is often the case in the USA, there are different parking rules for different states and cities. Therefore, find out in advance about the specific parking rules in the US region you will be passing through with your rental car.

Safe travel in the USA

You now know everything there is to know about renting a car in the USA, and you can book the rental car of your dreams with just a few clicks. Do you need more support in preparing for your trip? Then we'll be happy to help you choose your credit card for the USA or find cheap flights to the States.

We wish you a great vacation in the United States!

ESTA – visa-free to the USA

With an ESTA, you can stay 90 days visa-free in the USA. Apply online now!