Rental car tips for winter travel

by Ned Levi on February 17, 2014

Philadelphia Street Scenes - Snowfall, photo by NSL Photography

In 2012, Europe had one of the worst winters in memory. This year in the eastern US, it’s been storm after storm; freezing rain, sleet, ice on the streets, frigid temperatures and plenty of snow.

Snow and ice on the road usually results in higher accident rates, plus stuck and abandoned cars, including rental vehicles. Driving in snow and ice is hard enough in your own car, but in an unfamiliar vehicle, often smaller than the car at home to save on rental costs, driving in snow and ice can be more difficult.

Here are some tips when renting a car, while traveling in cold locations, with the potential of winter weather.

• When choosing a car to rent in winter, where you may encounter snow and ice on the road, seriously consider a vehicle with “four wheel drive,” “all wheel drive” or at least a car with “front wheel drive.”

“Four wheel drive” (4WD) (4X4) is, of course, when all four of the vehicle’s wheels are being powered simultaneously. Some vehicles can switch between 4WD and other driving modes.

Many believe “All wheel drive” (AWD) is the same as 4WD, but it isn’t. Most of the time AWD works as if it’s “front wheel drive” (FWD), where a front wheel powers the car. When the vehicle’s wheel(s) lose traction AWD is activated. Computers are involved in most AWD systems. Sensors on each wheel monitor traction, then direct to which wheel power is sent, depending on which wheel has the most grip.

FWD is when a vehicle is powered via the front wheels only. FWD is advantageous in any kind of wet weather, compared to “rear wheel drive” (RWD), especially snow, because the weight of the engine is over the front wheels, helping to give them more traction.

Safety Note: While 4WD and AWD vehicles are better than FWD and RWD in keeping you from getting stuck in the snow, the same isn’t true about braking. All cars have four wheel brakes, so if you’re driving a 4WD or AWD vehicle, don’t expect your car to stop more quickly than the FWD or RWD car you drive at home.

• For winter weather driving, only rent a vehicle with an anti-lock braking system (ABS). ABS is an automated safety system which prevents the vehicle’s wheels from locking up (ceasing rotation), which helps avoid uncontrolled skidding. ABS automates threshold and cadence braking, which were practiced by skillful drivers with older braking systems, but at a much faster rate and with better control than any driver can manage.

Safety Tip: ABS is a major safety improvement for cars. I wouldn’t consider renting or owning a car without it.

When picking up your rental car in winter, there are several items to check before leaving the rental car lot.

• Even before you pack your belongings in the car, check your tires. Look at the tire tread. Tire Rack recommends drivers expecting to encounter snow-covered roads have at least 6/32” (0.5 cm) of remaining tread depth on all the vehicle’s tires. Tires need adequate tread depth in wintry conditions to compress snow in their grooves and release it as they roll to provide essential vehicle traction and mobility.

• Make sure all your rental car tires are properly inflated. When correctly inflated, tires are safer and less likely to fail at high speeds. Improperly inflated tires increase stopping distances, will skid longer on wet surfaces and are less able to prevent vehicle turnovers.

• Check that you have a full size spare tire, or at least a “donut/space-saver” spare. (Remember that “donut” spares are not meant to be driven long distances. Especially in winter weather, only drive with one far enough to have the bad tire repaired or replaced.) Just like the regular tires, the spare must be properly inflated and have adequate tread depth. Some spare tires are under the vehicle. Make sure you know how to access the spare.

• To use your spare tire, you’ll need a jack assembly in your rental vehicle. Be sure the entire jack assembly is in the vehicle and be certain you know how to use it. Additionally, ensure you’re certain where you safely can place the jack under the car to change the tire. There are typically a finite number of specific under-vehicle locations where it’s safe to place the jack to safely lift your vehicle.

Safety Tip: It’s not a good idea to drive for long without an available spare, especially in rural areas where road service may not be readily available. Replace or repair your bad tire as soon as possible.

• Check to make sure your windshield washer reservoir is completely filled with a non-freezing mixture. In winter, windshields can often get filthy from road spray and you can quickly empty the washer’s reservoir cleaning it.

• Make sure your windshield wipers work properly and that the wiper blades are not worn, warped, or inflexible. It’s essential for your safety that your wipers will clean off rain, snow, sleet and road spray well.

• You should leave the rental car lot with a full tank of fuel. In winter weather, it’s possible to become stuck or stranded for a long time, for a variety of reasons, including being behind an accident completely blocking an Interstate where backing out isn’t possible. Always fill your fuel tank if half empty or more, as soon as possible, in case of an emergency.

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