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I will be renting a car at SFO International Airport - beside the usual thing to check when renting a car (damages etc.) is there anything I should know when renting a car in USA?

I was told that mostly the companies will try to upsell lots of features I would need but normaly nobody needs a tire insurance or something else.

We have made sure to rent a car with CDW and 1 mio $ insurance without retention, including my wife as 2nd driver for free. We have also added to include a navigation system which will cost some extra money - but we could not find out if there isn't already one in the car. In Germany and many other european countries it is very usual to have a navigation system included so there is no need to purchase or rent an additional one.

Is this also true for the US?

Update 1: We have choosen a standard-SUV from Budget. The car-group is IFAR.

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    One thing to note: most if not all rental companies in the USA (and in Europe for that matter) require you to return the car with at least as much petrol (gas) as you had when you took it, which often means you have to find a filling station and fill the car up before returning. Many rental companies will try to sell you "return empty" extra, which allows you to return the car empty - and they will just charge you the cost of the fuel. Usually, the price they charge is 20-25% higher than what you could get at the pump, so I would recommend to decline that. – Aleks G Jan 5 '15 at 13:49
  • Thank you for noticing. This is the default behaviour in Germany too, so I did know this. But i think you should put it as an answer as it is for sure something anyone should know and they can then see it. – Stefan Jan 6 '15 at 7:39
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A navigation system would be unusual in an American rental car below premium or luxury level. Many (probably most) of these cars are special ordered from American automobile manufacturers and they are bottom-of-the-line with respect to optional equipment. In some cases, they have fewer features than the cheapest model available to the general public. Frankly, I would suggest Google Maps is just as good, especially because I know Google Maps is tied in to the traffic reports. Rush hour traffic in the USA and in particular in the San Francisco Bay Area may be more crowded than what you are used to. SF is on a peninsula, and the bridges are packed solid at those times. There are special carpool lanes marked with a diamond for vehicles with at least 3 (to/from the Bay Bridge to Oakland) or 2 (other highways) passengers. You may drive your rental in them, if you have enough passengers.

All major rental car companies include roadside service, in case of a flat tire or mechanical failure.

The rental car company will offer you (for a fee) use of a transponder to pay tolls on the bridges. It is called a "Fastrak", and also has special lanes. (The carpool lanes at the toll gates always require Fastrak, but not conversely.) The queue can be much, much shorter than the cash-payment lanes. The Golden Gate bridge is now electronic payment only. The transponder fee is, of course, in addition to the tolls, which range from $4 to $6 and are charged in one direction only.

At SFO, all rental cars are kept at a site some distance from the main terminal. There is a new monorail to the Rental Car Center. As Aleks says, decline the option to return the car without fuel. Simply fill the tank on your way to return the car. There are many stations quite close to the Rental Car Center, and they charge much less than the rental company.

I don't know if you have driven in the USA before. Remember to use miles and not kilometers. Your speedometer, if analog, will be marked with both. Second, we have been slow to adopt international signage. Third, be especially alert to parking restrictions, which will be only in English and are sometimes complicated. Yellow curbs are for parking of commercial vehicles only. Red is a no-stopping zone. White is a brief stopping zone to get in or out of a car, usually at a building entrance. Green is a short-stay zone, 15 to 30 minutes as signed. Downtown spaces have parking meters, and are as high as $4/hour. Don't worry about needing massive amounts of coins, most of them take credit cards. (Caveat: I don't know if they will take European chip-and-pin cards.) Except in parts of San Francisco itself, parking regulations other than red and white zones are usually turned off at night and on Sunday.

Right turn on red light originated in California and is usually permitted, but if not, the sign is usually in English only. (Sometimes it is prohibited only during the day, and OK at night.) Green left turn arrows indicate that the oncoming lanes still have a red light (protected turn). Compulsory turns from lanes are indicated with black on white signage; the international white-on-blue is unknown here. The indications are usually also painted on the street itself. Pedestrians have right of way. Be alert for striped crosswalks (British call them zebra crossings). This is theoretically true in many places, but is enforced in San Francisco.

Do not leave valuables visible in your car when parked. This includes hotel lots.

Don't hesitate to ask if you have other questions.

  • Thank you for your answer. I have updated my question with the rented car-group and type. We will be staying 2-3 days in SF and then start the journey up to Yosemite and further places (grand canyon, death valley, las vegas, LA and some NPs between those spots) - I don't think we will be driving much in SF:) I would be interested about speed limits, I already know that it differs in city to city (15, 25, 35) to interstate (55 ?) and highway (75) - but have also read that highway does not need to be 75. Are there always signs or any other indication to speed limit if its not default? – Stefan Jan 6 '15 at 7:48
  • You should check for Yosemite driving conditions, which change daily. (Last week, when I was there, a tree fell across one of the main roads leading to half-day closure.) Link – Andrew Lazarus Jan 6 '15 at 7:52
  • There are speed limit signs. City streets default to 25 (mph of course). Wider avenues may be signed for 30 or 35. Urban Interstate freeways 55 to 65 [Highway 101 dates to the early 1950s and is not up to current standards for curve radius], rural Interstate freeways are 70 (California) or 75 (Nevada). Unlike Europe, going over the limit by 5 is normal and extremely unlikely to interest the police. Go with the flow of traffic. By the way, I despise Las Vegas but I guess everyone should see it once, watching bored pensioners throw money into slot machines. – Andrew Lazarus Jan 6 '15 at 7:57
  • Which reminds me: American highways are almost always referred to by number, not name. In San Francisco this is true even inside the city. In Los Angeles the name is used for some of the highways (Hollywood Freeway) and the number for others ("The 405"). – Andrew Lazarus Jan 6 '15 at 8:00
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    You can rent chains near the entrance to Yosemite if necessary. You may be required to have chains while requiring you to use them is a separate step in case of actual snowfall. Snow in April is possible, although the last two years we have had a terrible drought with almost no snow at all. The east entrance to Yosemite (Highway 120) is never open as early as April. – Andrew Lazarus Jan 6 '15 at 8:30
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Good to know when driving in the US is that some states require you to have an international driver's permit, and some don't (at least when the driver's license is not issued in English). Consider checking the rules for all states that you want to drive through.

Whether they will try to upsell depends on the employee and time of day, so it is hard to predict. The last time I was at SFO (renting at Alamo), the representative told me to just pick any car from the "economy" section of cars. So they didn't even try to upsell.

As far as the navigation system is concerned: at least the lower classes will not have one pre-installed. Some newer cars even have built-in screens, but no navigation assistant. The screen is then used only for the radio and the backwards camera.

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