A car rental, hire car, or car hire agency is a company that rents automobiles for short periods of time, generally ranging from a few hours to a few weeks. It is often organised with numerous local branches (which allow a user to return a vehicle to a different location), and primarily located near airports or busy city areas and often complemented by a website allowing online reservations.
Car rental agencies primarily serve people who require a temporary vehicle, for example, those who do not own their own car, travelers who are out of town, or owners of damaged or destroyed vehicles who are awaiting repair or insurance compensation. Car rental agencies may also serve the self-moving industry needs, by renting vans or trucks, and in certain markets, other types of vehicles such as motorcycles or scooters may also be offered.
Alongside the basic rental of a vehicle, car rental agencies typically also offer extra products such as insurance, global positioning system (GPS) navigation systems, entertainment systems, mobile phones, portable WiFi and child safety seats.
The earliest known example of cars being offered for rent dates back to 1906. The German company Sixt was established in 1912 under the name Sixt Autofahrten und Selbstfahrer (Sixt Car Cruises and Self Drivers).[better source needed]
Joe Saunders of Omaha, Nebraska first started with only one borrowed Model T Ford in 1916, but by 1917, his Ford Livery Company was renting out 18 Model Ts at 10 cents per mile. The company name became Saunders Drive-It-Yourself System and then Saunders System. By 1926, Saunders had expanded to 56 cities. Saunders' company was bought by Avis in 1955.
The sector expanded rapidly in the US; in 1926, the American Driveurself Association assembled over 1200 delegates in Chicago.
The growth in travel after World War II led to the establishment of several well known international companies, including National Car Rental (1947), Europcar (1949), Enterprise Rent-A-Car (1957), Thrifty Rent A Car (1958), and Budget Rent a Car (1958).
Car rental companies operate by purchasing or leasing a number of fleet vehicles and renting them to their customers for a fee. Rental fleets can be structured in several ways – they can be owned outright (these are known as ‘risk vehicles’ because the car rental operator is taking a risk on how much the vehicle will be sold for when it is removed from service), they can be leased, or they can be owned under a guaranteed buy-back program arranged directly through a manufacturer or manufacturer's financial arm (these are known as ‘repurchase vehicles’ because the manufacturer outlines the exact price of original sale and of repurchase at the end of a defined term).
In the UK, the registration of rental cars can be concealed by using unfamiliar initials or subsidiaries, which can increase the resale value via manufacturer or third-party dealers. In North America, it is common to see rental companies with their own branded second-hand car dealers where the ex-rental stock is sold directly to the public. Alternatively, auctions are often used in the United States and with the advent of digital platforms, rental cars have increasingly sold the vehicles directly to new and used car dealers bypassing the auction channels.
Most car rental offices offer a range of vehicle sizes to suit a variety of budgets and space requirements and some additionally offer specialized vehicles to suit its location such as convertibles, prestige models, hybrid/electric vehicles, or SUVs and passenger vans. At major airports or in larger cities, some independent car rental agencies offer high-end vehicles for rent. Some specialized companies offer older vehicles at reduced prices.
To allow for a uniform classification and easy comparison of car rental prices, the Association of Car Rental Industry Systems and Standards (ACRISS) has developed the ACRISS Car Classification Code coding system. This describes the size, door count, gearbox type (manual/automatic), and whether the car is air-conditioned, encoded into four letters. The first letter in the Acriss Code represents the general classification of the vehicle (e.g. Mini, Economy, Compact etc.). The second letter specifies the vehicle variant on offer (e.g. 4 Door, Estate, Convertible, SUV etc.). The third letter is generally used to specify the transmission type, although it can also be used to describe how many wheels drive the vehicle, and the fourth letter describes the fuel type and whether the vehicle has air conditioning or not.
Additional classifications based on seat numbers and trunk volume were also set by the Belgian Rent a Car association in order to provide a unified system for assessing the car types in online reservation systems and airline global distribution systems.
Car rentals are subject to many conditions which vary from one country to another and from one company to another. Generally the vehicle must be returned in the same condition it was rented in, and often must not exceed mileage restrictions, otherwise, extra fees may be incurred.
For insurance reasons, some companies stipulate a minimum and/or maximum rental age. In some cases, the minimum age for rental can be as high as 25, even in countries where the minimum legal age to hold a driver's license is much lower, e.g. 14,15,16 or 17 in the United States. It is not uncommon for there to be a young driver surcharge for all drivers aged under 25.
The majority of car rental companies require the use of a credit card to charge additional fees should a defect be found with the car on its return or for road tolls, motoring related fines, or missing fuel. In lieu of a credit card, some companies require a large cash deposit. Some companies permit a debit card for deposits, typically with proof of a round-trip travel ticket, e.g. an airline, bus, or train ticket.
Although frequently not explicitly stated, US car rental companies are required by respective state law to provide minimum liability coverage, except in California and Arizona, where the driver is solely responsible. This covers costs to a third party in the event of an accident. In most states, it is illegal to drive a car without liability coverage. The rental car companies maintain liability insurance on their vehicles; however, some companies will charge for this, should you not provide your own insurance. As an example, in Maryland, the minimal level of liability coverage is $20,000 for bodily injury and $15,000 for property damage.
In the U.S., the sale of these supplemental insurance/waiver products may be regulated by each state's insurance department, and a special limited license may be required by the rental company in order to sell them. The specific coverage offered can differ substantially, depending on the state or country in which the car is rented.
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