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Car rental age restrictions can be complicated. Here’s what to know.

There are rules for both younger and older drivers

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Patrick Boyle learned about car rental age restrictions by accident when he arrived in Dublin for vacation.

He had reserved a sedan from Europcar. But when he and his wife showed the attendant their passports, the employee refused to hand over the keys unless they showed a doctor’s note attesting to their health. Both Boyle and his wife are 76.

“We had never heard of this policy, and the rental agency did not ask our ages when we reserved the car,” says Boyle, a retired journalist who lives in Arlington, Va.

Undeterred, the Boyles walked over to try the Hertz counter. A representative there said they had cars but couldn’t rent to the couple without a letter from their optometrist attesting that they could drive.

Like many other travelers, Boyle was caught by surprise that car rental companies have age restrictions. They’re not always well-publicized and can change without warning.

What to know about age restrictions

There are no upper age limits in the United States, but car rental companies may restrict rentals to young drivers.

For example, Enterprise and its brands (including Alamo and National) don’t allow retail rentals to anyone under 21 in the United States and Canada, except in New York and Michigan, where state laws set the minimum at 18. Avis and Budget are the same.

If you’re younger than 25, there’s one more potential obstacle: Renters might have to pay a daily surcharge of up to $35, presumably because younger drivers are more likely to get into an accident. Car-sharing app Turo charges daily “young driver” fees in the United States of $50 (ages 18-20) and $30 (21-24), and if you’re 21 or younger, you’re required to purchase a protection plan.

What it’s like to rent from Turo, a car-sharing app

Age restrictions vary by country, too, even if you’re using the same company.

For Enterprise, the minimum age requirement to rent a car in Ireland and the United Kingdom is 25. In Germany, France and Spain, the company’s minimum age is 21. Sixt, however, lists the minimum age for renters in France as 18, as long as the driver has held a valid license for two years. Europcar’s minimum for France is also 18. In many cases, the type of car you want to rent can also affect the age limit.

“In countries where our franchisees operate, it’s slightly different,” Enterprise spokeswoman Lisa Martini says in an email. “Our franchise partners set the lower and upper limits according to local market conditions.”

In other words, the age restrictions are all over the map. Enterprise’s corporate-owned locations have no maximum age to rent a car in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, France and Spain. But in Bulgaria, it’s 75. Some companies that impose an upper age restriction allow drivers over the limit as long as they pay surcharges.

“If a company doesn’t think renting to a senior is financially worthwhile, they won’t rent to them,” says Maximilian Wühr, co-founder of the car subscription provider Finn.

You probably don’t need to worry about age restrictions if you’re between 25 and 70 years old. But because age restrictions can change, and because they depend on the company and country, there’s only one way to find out about them: You have to do your research and contact the company.

Don’t just call the corporate office. You’re better off contacting the location directly. Tell them how old you are and ask whether you need to provide any additional documentation for your rental.

Why companies won’t rent to young drivers

The age problem is even more difficult to manage if you’re young. Hagr Elweshahy, an 18-year-old senior in high school, is interning for a technology company in Linden, N.J., and needed to rent a car to attend a week-long convention. Elweshahy is a straight-A student and on track to be class valedictorian. But no rental company will rent her a vehicle.

“They explained that as nice and as responsible as I seem, statistically there is simply a higher probability of me getting into an accident because of my age,” she says.

“Generally, age restrictions exist because young drivers are less experienced, take more unnecessary risks behind the wheel and are involved in more avoidable accidents,” says Narendra Khatri, principal of Insubuy, a travel insurance company. “This drives insurance rates up and makes it financially prudent for the rental company to set a lower age limit on rentals.”

Young drivers are a risk that car rental companies don’t want to take on, says Simon Mawdsley, co-director of Grand Prix Grand Tours, which offers driving holidays across Europe in exotic sports cars. He won’t rent to anyone younger than 28. He told me that, although there may be young drivers who are responsible, it’s too difficult to screen them.

How to avoid issues with age requirements

Rent from the right company. Generally speaking, smaller, independent or franchised car rental companies are stricter about age limits. An international chain is more likely to rent to an older or younger driver. Some large car rental companies will waive their restrictions on young drivers if you rent through your employer.

Ask for a doctor’s note. Get a signed letter from your general practitioner stating that you are fit to operate a motor vehicle. This should take care of most medical documentation needs. Another way to waive the age requirement is to show a letter from your optometrist attesting that you can see well enough to drive. The letter should indicate whether eyeglasses are necessary to operate a car.

Check in online. I asked Alex Villalobos, the director of operations at Costa Rican car rental company Vamos Rent-A-Car, whether problems such as Boyle’s would persist for as long as we rent cars. Not necessarily, he said.

“As online check-in becomes far more common, drivers are submitting their ID — including date of birth — before their arrival,” he says. The systems flag the rental and can then request additional documentation, such as a doctor’s letter.

“That should help to avoid the last-minute discovery of restrictions for older drivers,” he says.

Boyle, the septuagenarian who couldn’t find a car in Dublin, finally asked Sixt whether he could rent a vehicle. It let him rent a car without a letter. He drove the car around Ireland for two weeks, “without incident,” he says.

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