Things to know when purchasing rental car insurance

Avoid potential pitfalls by understanding types of coverage available


By Christopher B. Dolan and Casey Hultin

Today’s question comes from Wesley in Portola: With COVID-19 still limiting international travel options, it looks like our family will be traveling domestically this summer. How does rental car insurance work?

Dear Wesley: This is a great question. At the beginning of the pandemic when travel halted, rental car companies kept afloat by selling off their fleets of cars. Rental car companies also cut their routine orders for new cars. Now, in a summer where domestic travel is the most common option, customers may have to wait several hours for a rental car once they arrive at their destination. Going to the car rental counter with an insurance game plan will help you get through faster, especially this summer, when the continuing rental car shortage may cause added stress.

When you go to the rental car counter, the person working for the rental car company may offer you some type of insurance. Generally, what the rental car company calls insurance is really a property damage waiver, meaning that the rental car company will not come after you financially if the rental car is damaged or stolen. Having coverage for property damage to the rental car is purely voluntary and is not required by law in California. The rental car company can also sell you liability insurance coverage, which covers any harm you cause to a third party, if, for example, you get in a car accident. However, you may already have the insurance coverage you need.

Your own personal car insurance may cover you if it includes liability coverage. Any additional coverage may extend to your rental car. If you do not currently have car insurance, you will at least need to buy liability coverage from the rental company. If you are traveling out of the state of California, check to make sure you have sufficient liability insurance under the laws of the state you are visiting. California’s liability car insurance requirements are the lowest in the nation, as such, many states require drivers to carry more liability insurance. You can purchase a supplemental liability insurance policy at the car rental counter to make sure you have enough coverage. Liability insurance sold by car rental companies typically covers liability up to $1 million.

Your credit card may also have rental car property damage coverage if you pay for the car rental with that credit card. This is similar to the property damage waiver insurance the rental car company most often tries to sell at the rental car counter, and again covers any damage to the rental car. Credit cards can offer two different types of coverage: primary and secondary. Primary means that the credit card insurance policy pays out before your own auto insurance gets involved. Secondary means the credit card insurance policy pays out after your own auto insurance gets involved. Secondary insurance is also used to pay the deductible on your auto insurance policy, for example.

Be careful if more than one person is going to drive the rental car. The person listed as the primary driver on the rental agreement assumes liability for any damage to the car or any accidents the car gets in, even if the primary driver is not, in fact, driving the rental car at the time of the damage. Basically, if you rent a car and let your friend drive it, and your friend does not have insurance, you will personally be on the hook for any damage they cause. Your insurance policy will likely not cover the damage. You can avoid this by making sure that any additional drivers are also listed on the rental agreement and have their own insurance coverage. Credit card policies do often cover a second or third authorized driver, so your credit card rental car insurance protections may apply if you list the other drivers as authorized drivers on the rental agreement.

While you may be hesitant to incur the additional fees involved with adding another authorized driver to the rental agreement, potential fees can likely be minimized through smart shopping. Any fees incurred are worth it to avoid the risk of being held personally liable in the event of a collision. Many states, including California, prohibit car rental companies from charging additional authorized driver fees when adding the spouse or domestic partner of the primary driver to the rental agreement as an authorized driver. Similarly, many car rental companies do not charge additional driver fees for spouses or domestic partners regardless of state. Other car rental companies will waive additional authorized driver fees for members of their loyalty programs, which are free to join.

This summer may also be a good time to reconsider uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage to make sure that you have sufficient insurance coverage for your injuries in the event you are in a collision and the driver at fault is uninsured or underinsured.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm, PC. Casey Hultin is an associate attorney based in our San Francisco office. We serve clients throughout California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions and topics for future articles to: Our work is no recovery, or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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