Youth can be a paradox: If you're age 18 or older you're considered mature enough to be able to vote, pay taxes, and even go to war. But, until recently, if you were under 25, many rental car companies wouldn't trust you to drive their vehicles.
Because drivers under 25 statistically get into more auto accidents than other age groups, car rental agencies have long penalized young drivers—even those with good driving records—by charging high daily underage fees, restricting the types of cars that can be rented, and even banning drivers (particularly those ages 18 to 21) from renting at all. So, what's an underage road tripper to do?
The picture actually isn't as bleak as it was a few years ago when many of big car rental companies didn't allow anyone under 25 to rent. Drivers ages 21 to 24 can now rent at most locations operated by Advantage, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, and Thrifty.
In the vast majority of cases, drivers ages 21 to 24 still have to pay a daily surcharge (varying by location) that averages around $25 per day. Pricier rental car categories such as luxury vehicles, vans, and SUVs are usually off limits to renters in this age group as well, although some companies may allow you to drive specialty vehicles for an even higher daily surcharge.
To avoid paying the highest rates, you'll need to compare fees and restrictions at the rental agencies in the area where you want to rent, as these can vary by owner. You may also want to check and see if you are eligible for corporate or organizational rates that may include underage fee waivers. If you have a job or are doing an internship and need to rent a car, see if your company has a corporate account with a rental car agency. Some companies have special contracts with rental companies that allow employees to rent at reduced rates and avoid paying underage fees.
Some organizations have similar agreements. For example, USAA, an organization for military personnel and their children, has a partnership with Avis that allows members ages 21 and up to rent cars without paying an age surcharge.
Drivers ages 18 to 21 are, for the most part, completely unable to rent from the big rental companies. The exception is rentals in New York and Michigan, where state laws require agencies to rent to drivers ages 18 and up. However, you'll pay dearly for the privilege, especially in New York, where some companies may charge drivers under 21 an additional daily fee of more than $100. The age penalties in Michigan usually aren't as high, ranging from about $25 to $50 per day.
In other states, you may be able to find smaller or lesser-known agencies that rent to drivers under 21—for an extra charge of course. For example, Rent-A-Wreck, a used car rental agency with more than 350 franchise locations, rents to drivers under 21 in certain locations. @West Rent A Car rents to 18- to 21-year-olds at its Los Angeles locations for an extra $45 per day. If you're under 21, you can try browsing online to find independent car rental agencies in your area or destination that may rent to you. You'll have to call each location or visit its website to find out what its policies are.
One further exception to the under-21 rule is rentals to U.S. Government or military personnel. Members of the military or government workers as young as 18 who are traveling on official business can rent from most agencies at special government/military rates.
Related: Worst Rental Car Rip-Offs
Overall, renting a car is going to be expensive until you're 25 and difficult or impossible until you're 21, so take a look at all the available transportation options. Having your own vehicles may be convenient but the expense may not be worth it if there are other transportation options. You'll have to calculate the cost of the base daily rental fee with the daily underage fees, the daily insurance fees (unless you already have coverage), and taxes and fees, and then measure that total with the costs of other travel options. Once you've tallied the numbers, taking the bus or sucking it up and asking mom and dad to borrow the family minivan might not seem like such a bad idea. You can always put the money you've saved towards buying your own car.