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Renting an EV can be cheap yet inconvenient. Here’s how to rent smart.

1 week ago 52

Few things are as beautiful as a summer road trip, and many people start theirs at that least scenic of places: an airport car-rental kiosk.

Depending on where you land, you may be in for a surprise. It’s common to see electric cars available for about the same price, if not less, than a traditional car, such as a Toyota Camry. And upon arrival, you may find that electric cars are available immediately at rental counters — a tempting option when the alternative is waiting for a regular one.

Electric cars are better for the environment, and many are more fun to drive than traditional models. But is it worth renting one for your next weekend drive?

To find out, I went to San Francisco International Airport, where I rented a 2023 Polestar 2 — about the same price as a Mazda 3 — and cruised to a cottage about 140 miles away. Here is what you need to know before renting.

You can often find electric vehicles at car rental agencies but dealing with the logistics can be a bit messy. Here’s what you should keep in mind. (Video: Chris Velazco, Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

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Between big touch-screen controls and occasionally confusing door handles, EVs can be a little quirky. If you’re lucky, your rental company has some resources to get you up to speed before you hit the road. But even those materials don’t cover every nuance you might encounter.

Our advice: Learn more about the EV you are thinking about renting before showing up at the counter.

Had I done that, I would have known that the Polestar 2 has a charging port right where you would normally pump some gas. Because of that, I frequently found myself having to back into parking spots next to chargers.

I chose the Polestar because I had always wanted to try one — smaller electric options like the Chevy Bolt cost even less per day, if you can deal with the smaller size. In hindsight, though, I probably should have gone with a standard-range Tesla Model 3 for about $5 more per day. With an included adapter, the Model 3 can charge at all the same public stations I visited with the Polestar, plus Tesla’s thousands of Supercharger stations across the United States and Canada.

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Some credit cards come with nifty travel perks, such as complimentary damage or theft coverage for rental cars. These benefits can make renting cars even cheaper, because they take the place of pricey add-ons, especially because Hertz and Avis charge more to cover electric cars than traditional ones. But here’s the rub: Not all of these card benefits cover EVs.

Many Chase cards, for instance, have a specific carve-out in their fine print for expensive or exotic vehicles, which includes electric cars — even not-very-fancy ones like the Chevy Bolt. Call your credit card company just to make sure.

Plan your route carefully

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EVs such as Teslas and Polestars have built-in tools to find nearby charging stations, but if you are planning to take one on a lengthy road trip — or if you’ll be driving into fairly remote areas — it’s a good idea to identify charging stations along your route in advance.

Google Maps is pretty helpful here — if you search for charging stations along a route, it will give you a sense of how many charger units are available at each one, and it can identify which ones can charge your car at faster speeds.

Scouting these charging locations in advance also gives you a chance to prep for the different companies you will encounter. EVGo, ChargePoint and Electrify America all have their own apps and accounts you may have to work with on the road, and some companies offer discounts on charging if you (at least temporarily) sign up for small monthly subscriptions.

I didn’t bother setting any accounts up in advance, and I wound up paying about $70 to charge over four days with about 400 miles of driving — about the same as I would expect to pay in California while driving something like a rented Mazda 3. I relied on the pay-as-you-go credit card readers attached to most chargers, which didn’t always work correctly. (More on that later.)

Also, be sure to keep the weather in mind before you set out. If you’re driving an EV in high temperatures, you’ll notice that charging may take longer than you expect. That’s because these cars can slow down charging rates to keep their batteries from overheating.

Don’t worry about charging to 100 percent

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You will generally see the fastest charging speeds until your EV hits 80 percent — after that, the process can slow considerably as the car tries to protect the long-term health of its battery. If your route runs through places where charging stations are pretty common, you may be able to save some time by just hitting the road once you hit that 80 percent mark.

The biggest exception to this rule is if you know you will be passing through areas where charging stations are scarce. You may want those extra miles as a buffer, and the additional time you spend at a charger beats waiting for roadside assistance.

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Even when you’re visiting a spot that appears to be flush with EV charging stations, don’t get too comfortable — some don’t work as well as others.

One night, I went to charge my Polestar at a ChargePoint station outside a Target in Stockton, Calif. — hardly a remote area. Not only did the system not charge the car, it got stuck in a weird loop where I couldn’t end the charging session, even though the charging station already thought the process was complete.

All the while, the charging cable was stuck in the Polestar, with no obvious way to disconnect. It took about 20 minutes of troubleshooting — and then a call to ChargePoint customer service — to reboot the station and get the charger unstuck.

Then, I tried a BP Pulse charger at a gas station I had successfully used before, except this time it refused to acknowledge any of my credit cards. (The same thing happened the last time I charged there, too, but it finally worked for reasons I still don’t understand.) Strike two.

Finally, I drove well out of my way to an Electrify America charging station in front of a Walmart, which was mercifully straightforward. In my experience, Electrify America stations have been the most reliable: They don’t require you to create accounts or install an app, and they’ve been the least fussy about credit cards.

You have to charge your electric rental car before returning it

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Be sure to allot extra time before you return your rental, too. As with traditional vehicles, many rental companies require you to “refuel” before you drop off your car — a process that takes longer when you’re charging a battery.

You don’t need to charge your EV to 100% before dropping it off, though. For Avis, the magic number is 70 percent; at Hertz, you’ll get dinged if you don’t return the car with a battery within 5% of its charge level at checkout.

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