When you think about rental cars, the rental car counters you see when you exit the airport and the shuttle buses emblazoned with company logos circling the arrivals level might come to mind. In other words, you probably haven’t thought about rental cars for at least a few months, since the COVID-19 pandemic brought air travel to a near halt.
But rental cars are still a good option for traveling, even if you have no plans to fly anytime soon. You may have little faith in an older vehicle so that renting might make sense to go on road trips longer than several hours. You might also want to consider renting a bigger car to accommodate the people in your travel squad or all of the equipment or off-roading required for a socially-distant camping trip. Or maybe you just want to get better gas mileage for the distance you’ll be driving.
Whatever the reason, your credit card might be able to help you save when you book a car. Some cards even provide varying degrees of rental car inurance coverage, which can help pay for any damages to the rental car in case you get into a rental car accident or someone breaks into your car. Here are our picks for the best credit cards for spending on rental cars.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
The popular Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is good for both redeeming points and relying on the rental car coverage.
You can book rental cars with Chase Ultimate Rewards® points and when redeemed for travel, points earned on this card are worth 1.25 cents, meaning a $150 car rental will generally cost about 12,000 points.
Unlike a lot of other credit cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also offers primary rental car coverage, meaning it’ll pay for damages before your own primary auto insurance. The coverage limit is up to the cash value of most rental vehicles.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
The more tricked-out Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers similar benefits to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, including primary rental car coverage. The coverage limit is $75,000.
Chase Ultimate Rewards® points earned on this card are worth even more than they are with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You can redeem points for 1.5 cents each, so the cost of the $150 car rental went down to just 10,000 points.
Instead of redeeming your points, you might opt to pay with cash because of some of the discounts available to cardholders. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® automatically gives you elite status with National Car Rental (yes, rental car companies have loyalty programs and elite status just like airlines and hotels).
The real highlight here is that membership in National's Emerald Club allows elite members to choose any vehicle in the Emerald Aisle and pay the midsize rate, no matter what size the car is. Cardholders can also get a cash discount at National, Avis and Silvercar through the "Special Car Rental Privileges" section of their Chase Ultimate RewardsⓇ portal.
Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card and Ink Business Cash® Credit Card
If you’ve got one of these business credit cards, you can also save on the rental car coverage. Both the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card and Ink Business Cash® Credit Card offer primary rental car coverage, up to the cash value of most rental cars.
Nerd tip: Chase Ultimate Rewards® are worth 1.25 cents on award travel bookings with the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card, but you could transfer them between cards to get higher value. If you’ve got the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you’ll want to transfer your points to that card to get the 1.50 cents redemption rate.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The oft-considered gold-standard for premium travel cards, The Platinum Card® from American Express, can’t compete on the primary rental car insurance, but it does come with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards and Avis Preferred. The elite status with both programs includes a one-car class upgrade when available and discounts of up to 15% on standard cars. Hertz’s discount increases to up to 25% off Prestige Collection vehicles. Terms apply.
United℠ Explorer Card and United Club℠ Infinite Card
In terms of airline cards, the United Airlines co-branded cards are surprisingly good options for rental cars. Both cards come with primary rental car insurance, up to the value of most rental vehicles. In addition, United Club℠ Infinite Card holders receive complimentary Hertz President's Circle status, which includes benefits like confirmed one-car upgrades and your choice of any vehicle from the President’s Circle at no extra charge.
Other airline credit cards
With airline credit cards, you’ll want to be cautious of redeeming your miles for rental cars because these types of redemptions don’t usually offer the best value when you compare them with booking award flights with miles.
For example, NerdWallet values United miles at 1 cent each for award flight redemption. So, if the cash value of the car rental is less than the value of the miles it would take to get an award rental, you might want to pay in cash instead.
If you choose to book with cash, don’t forget to include your frequent flyer account to earn bonus miles for your car reservation.
The bottom line
If you’re taking a road trip and a rental car could make you more comfortable, your credit card could make it more affordable with the ability to book with special cardholder discounts or even credit card points. Be sure to check your rental car coverage carefully. Many cards only offer secondary coverage, meaning they will only kick in after your primary auto insurance, and they usually don't cover luxury car rentals. For a fully points-funded vacation, check our hotel recommendations for road trips.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card