12 tips for renting a car with a debit card

By Steve Holt and 

Don't have a credit card or don't want to use one to rent a car? A survey of the major rental car companies found it's more difficult, but almost always possible to rent a car without a credit card. Keep these 12 tips in mind the next time you approach the rental car counter with no credit card in hand. It just might help you avoid a frustrating rental experience.

You can rent a car with no credit card, but expect to try harder. There are more obstacles and restrictions.

A survey of the major rental car companies found debit card users face more hurdles, but no outright bans. These 12 tips will help you know what to expect and smooth the way:

 1. Call around and compare.
 2. Give yourself more time.
 3. Have your debit card ready.
 4. Know your "holds" and "blocks."
 5. Check your card's acceptance.
 6. Expect a credit check.
 7. Bring your papers.
 8. Names must match.
 9. Local? Expect a cool reception.
 10. Size matters.
 11. Age matters.
 12. Just in case, bring a credit card.

1. Call around and compare. If your rental options are flexible, find the rental car agency with the fewest hoops to jump through -- or at the least, the fewest number of restrictions. Consider a company such as Rent-A-Wreck, which generally has more relaxed policies toward noncredit-card renters than its competitors. Call several branches of the same company, as policies often vary from lot to lot. Compare whatever you hear from the rental agents to what you read on the corporate website. In short, do your homework.

2. Give yourself more time. While paying with credit cards allows you to quickly drive a car off the lot and then return it without ever having to stand in line at a rental car counter, you don't have that luxury when paying by other means. Yours will not be a typical transaction for the company, and smart travelers will allow themselves more time both when picking up and dropping off rental cars. Paying with a debit card or cash may mean standing in line longer, waiting while the agent confers with a manager, does a credit check, verifies your ID and insurance or calls your bank. Factor in enough time to arrive at your destination or catch your flight.

3. Have your debit card ready. Many car rental customer service representatives contacted by first said you cannot rent without a credit card, but when pressed, said debit cards are accepted. Some locations allow customers to pay their final bill with cash, but you will need some sort of plastic -- either a debit or credit card -- to drive a car off the lot. This is the reality, so be prepared.

4. Know your "holds" and "blocks." When using a debit card, plan ahead. Count on a $200 to $500 deposit -- known as a "hold" or a "block" -- being placed on the checking or savings account linked to your debit card. This is in addition to the cost of the rental car. These holds can tie up your money, leaving you without access to that portion of your account for 24 hours to as much as 14 days. Rental car companies say the amount of time varies depending on how long it takes your bank to release the funds. Make sure you have sufficient funds in the checking or savings accounts to cover the full rental cost and deposit, and still have enough left over to pay the rent and other bills. To learn more about holds and blocks, read the article "Gas buyers fume at card limits, blocks." 

5. Check your card's acceptance. Not every agency accepts every card. Avis, for example, only accepts debit cards with Visa or MasterCard logos. Check to see if your card matches the rental company's requirements.

6. Expect a credit check. Many rental car companies run credit checks on renters paying with debit cards. Think about it: If you don't have a credit card, it may be a red flag to the rental car companies that you are a credit risk and should not be trusted with a $20,000 to $30,000 vehicle. Be aware that credit checks show up on your credit report as inquiries. Too many inquiries can have a negative effect on your credit score and potentially hurt your chances of getting a mortgage or other types of loans. If you already know you have bad credit, it may be best to look for alternative means of transportation or find another driver with good credit and a credit card to help you make the trip. 

7. Bring your papers. Some rental car locations require customers not paying with credit cards to provide a recent utility bill, proof of auto insurance and a return plane ticket or itinerary. Don't get caught without the right paperwork.

8. Names must match. If you've thought about using a friend or parent's credit card or debit card to rent a car, think again. The names on the credit cards and debit cards, driver's licenses, insurance cards and other documentation (i.e., airline ticket, utility bill) must match or they will not rent you the car.

9. Local? Expect a cool reception. Some companies allow only out of town -- or out of state -- customers to rent vehicles without credit cards. These agents also require customers to show a return or round-trip airline ticket or a copy of your trip itinerary (for e-ticket purchasers).

10. Size matters. Several agencies ban rental of luxury cars, large SUVs or other specialty cars if customers are not paying with credit cards.

11. Age matters. Are you younger than 25? Many companies will not rent to you if you're under that age. Some car rental agencies, however, will rent to those 21 years and older, providing you pay an additional $25 to $35 a day fee.

12. Just in case, bring a credit card. Some people are dead set against racking up credit card debt, or simply don't have good credit. The reality, however, is that the car rental system heavily favors customers who use credit cards, and acceptance of debit cards is often grudging. Ultimately, you have to play by the agency's rules, and while our survey found no one outright refusing to accept debit, you could.

See related: Gas card survey finds pedestrian rewards, Blog: 3 tips on buying gas   

Updated: November 23, 2009

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