Renting a car with debit card or cash? Expect to try harder


A survey of 45 car agencies across the U.S. finds you can rent a car without a credit card, but you have to jump through more hoops.

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See the 2009 version of this story, Rent a car with a debit card? Yes, you can

Thought you couldn’t get a rental car if you didn’t have a credit card? That’s probably what you’ve heard for years from rental car agents at airports, but it may be getting easier for some travelers to rent a car without a credit card. A survey of the top rental car companies indicates that nearly all of the companies allow you to rent their vehicles without credit cards. However, it may take some work on your part — and patience — to get the vehicles.

You can rent a car with no credit card, but expect to try harder. There are more obstacles and restrictions.If you don’t have a credit card or have one and don’t want to use it, debit card transactions are now more widely accepted by rental car companies. (See 12 tips for renting a car without a credit card) Unlike credit cards, which require users to borrow money from credit card issuers to pay for purchases, debit cards draw funds from the user’s own checking or savings account. Debit transactions are limited to how much cash is available in those accounts and banks may impose daily limits on the amount of transactions processed with these cards.

The survey includes nine major car rental companies: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, E-Z Rent A Car, Hertz, National, Rent-a-Wreck and Thrifty. A total of 45 locations were surveyed. called five different locations of the same rental company — some at airport sites; others away from the airports in cities — to ask if they allowed customers to rent vehicles without credit cards. The first response was often a curt “no” from many of the customer service representatives working the desks. That answer quickly turned to “yes,” however, when a follow-up question was asked: Do they accept debit cards?

Answers vary; call around

The answers varied from one location to another, largely because the majority of auto rental agencies are franchise operations allowed to set local policies about payment acceptance. So a credit-cardless customer who is turned away by a car rental agent at an airport site may be accepted at another location of the same company. It pays for consumers to call around. The manager at one rental car agency may agree to relax the requirements to accommodate a frequent customer or if they want to make a sale and the only way to do so is to accept a nontraditional payment method.

Of the 45 rental locations contacted, all eventually indicated they accept debit cards — meaning credit cards are not required. The companies prefer customers use credit cards, however, and impose a variety of additional hurdles and restrictions for those paying with debit cards or cash.

Debit card acceptance
For years, major auto rental companies stood by policies to only accept credit cards for their vehicle rentals. As one rental car agency representative puts it: “It has something to do with the fact that they’re giving you a $20,000 car, and we need a credit card to back it up.”

According to the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, about 70 percent of U.S. families have credit cards. However, some families may have reasons to use their credit cards more prudently these days. With mortgage foreclosures rising and debt mounting for many American families, a growing number of people may choose to pocket their plastic. Some people may be close to their credit limits and do not want to risk incurring over-the-limit fees charged by credit card issuers. Others may have been advised by credit counselors to shred their credit cards to remove the temptation of using them. Still others may simply prefer to conduct business in cash and not borrow to pay living expenses.

One car rental company spokesman said his company is more confident in debit card users today. Users are screened more closely by banks due to increased scrutiny of customers caused by laws passed after Sept. 11, says Jason Manelli, director of marketing and communications at Rent-a-Wreck of America.

“Post 9-11, banks are doing a better job of managing those who open checking accounts, from proof of residency to credit checks, etcetera,” says Manelli, whose firm has rented cars to customers without credit cards for at least 15 years. “With what the banks have done, we feel good about accepting debit cards, and it gives us a better-qualified customer. When we rent a car for cash, we don’t really have anything to connect us to our customer when he drives that car off our lot.”

More limits, restrictions, scrutiny
The survey reveals that while the companies allow debit card rentals and payments, many have restrictions and additional requirements for those not paying with credit cards.

Additional documents may include any of the following:

  • Credit checks.
  • Valid driver’s license or U.S. passport.
  • Recent (within the past 60 days) utility bill (i.e., telephone, gas, cellphone).
  • Copy of return airline ticket or e-ticket itinerary.

Additional requirements and restrictions may include:

  • A ban on in-state residents, leaving the rentals only to out-of-state travelers.
  • Exclusion of luxury and large SUV cars.
  • A prohibition on drivers under 25 years of age, or additional daily fees for young renters.
  • Extra deposits and other fees.
Have debit, want car:
How one rental agency’s policies differed
Shop around: Car rental agencies’ policies about accepting debit cards vary. This example shows how five Avis rental car locations responded to inquiries. All accepted debit cards, but had different restrictions, deposit requirements and “holds” placed on bank accounts.
CityDebit card requirementsAmount of hold Length of hold
AtlantaDrivers over 25$300 minimum depositUntil car is returned
ChicagoMust have major credit cardMinimum $250 depositUntil car is returned
Dallas (DFW airport)Must have Mastercard logo; credit check; no specialty car rentalsMinimum $300 depositUntil car is returned
MiamiDrivers over 25; credit checkDepends on price and length of rental14 days after car is returned
Washington, D.C.Drivers over 25; credit checkMinimum $500 deposit14 days
Source: research

Car rental companies say they must take extra precautions when renting to people without credit cards because not having a credit card is often a sign that the renter is a credit risk — and may not be trusted to return a $20,000 to $30,000 vehicle.

“It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that we started accepting debit cards again,” says Kevin Meyer, director of communications for Avis/Budget Holdings, which owns both Avis and Budget rental car companies. “Unfortunately, they were costing us a lot of money. Some of the customers that use debit cards are higher-risk rentals.”

He adds, “We figured out a way for it to work better, such as improving our system for processing debit cards and implementing some changes of policy, such as background checks, for example.”

Meyer draws an analogy between renting a car and another popular rental item. “Let’s say you’re going to your cousin’s wedding, and you need to rent a tuxedo. You can go out and rent one tomorrow, no questions asked. You can go to the wedding and destroy the rental, and you’re going to be responsible for a couple hundred dollars. When you rent a car, the net worth is around $30,000, or $50 a day. It’s really just a numbers game and we need to have some way of being sure that the risk is not higher than it needs to be when we rent you a car.”

Car rental companies must weigh the risk of damaged or lost vehicles with the cost of the rental and deposits or fees. Meyer says, “We try to balance it and be fair to everyone that we can, but ultimately, it’s just costing us too much money. Any kind of public business will have its risks.”

3-step rental process
A rental car transaction typically involves three phases: reserving a vehicle, picking up the car or truck and then paying for the rental. Auto rental companies prefer customers use credit cards for all three steps. Their premium customers — those who are processed quickly at airports and require little or no waiting in line before they’re on the road in borrowed wheels — use either their own cards or corporate credit cards.

Without a credit card, reserving a vehicle may be difficult, especially if you want a certain kind of car. Reservations made online or through national toll-free hotlines may accept only credit cards. Customers may have to call a particular rental car agency and ask to speak to the manager to reserve a car with a debit card. They may require a co-branded debit card (one with a Visa or a MasterCard logo).

At pick-up time, you may be required to show proof of insurance (covering collision, comprehensive or liability coverage) as well as undergo a credit check and other background checks. All of the companies allow customers to pay with cash or debit cards when they return cars and complete the transaction.

Holds of up to 14 days
Almost all of the rental car agencies place holds on debit card accounts that can last from 24 hours up to 14 days, depending on the amount of time it takes the card owner’s bank to release the funds. A “hold” blocks access to funds in the checking or savings account linked to the debit card. Typically, the amount of the hold is determined by the cost of the rental car plus taxes and an additional $100 to $500 deposit. Depending on the amount of cash in the bank account, this could pose a problem for some travelers who may be relying on the funds to pay for other aspects of a trip or for automatic payments of other bills.

Paying with cash
Several rental car agents said customers may pay their final bills with cash or prepaid debit cards after reserving or picking up cars with credit or debit cards.

Budget allows customers to pay with cash, but they must preregister and prequalify. Customers must call a toll-free hotline — (866) 371-4978 — four to six weeks before their trips to prequalify to pay in cash. A $15 nonrefundable processing fee is assessed and must be paid by check or money order. Renters are given a Budget ID card.

At Rent-a-Wreck, a national chain of independently owned franchise car rental agencies, the policy has always been no credit card, no problem, says spokesman Manelli. “As a rule, most of our franchise locations rent to customers with debit cards,” he says. “Some locations rent to cash and check customers, but that is becoming much less prevalent. Debit cards have become more of a norm.”

He says the small company caters to those who have often been turned down by major rental companies such as Enterprise, Hertz, Avis and Budget. As its company name implies, Rent-a-Wreck vehicles are more advanced in age than other agencies’.

“We have to find our niche, and one of our niches is serving a market who isn’t being served by the bigger companies. One of our niches is under-25 customers — we always try to find a way to get them in a car. Another of our niches is debit card and cash customers. If there is a market out there that isn’t being served, we want to find a way to get them in a car. We’re not going to mandate across the board who can and can’t rent from us.”

See related: 12 tips for renting a car without a credit card, 2009: Rent a car with a debit card? Yes, you can, Drive for rewards pushes old-style gas cards in the ditch, Compare gas credit cards

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