Last Updated on December 10, 2023 by Laura

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Planning a road trip in a rental car? The car you rent can make a huge difference—especially if you hit a blizzard or a patch of ice along the way. Here’s what you need to know about choosing cars for winter driving.

Stick With What You Know

Most people automatically think that they’ll need an SUV or a pick-up truck in the winter. These cars might handle better in inclement weather. But here’s something to consider: You want to be super comfortable with the kind of car you rent. If you regularly drive a sedan, an SUV might be a big adjustment, due to its height, steering capabilities, and different blind spots. Conversely, SUV drivers might have a hard time adjusting to a sedan.

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The advice here: Stick with what you know, which will be easier to navigate no matter the weather. It’s also smart to take it easy the first time driving an unfamiliar rental car until you get acclimated.

Four-Wheel Drive? All-Wheel Drive? Help!

Many people think that it’s important to have four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) in the winter. But they’re probably not necessary unless you’re heading to the mountains or a snowy stretch of highway. Note that it is notoriously difficult to book an AWD or 4WD in advance, but AutoSlash has some smart tips and tricks to ensure you end up with one.

Most cars these days have front-wheel drive and all-season tires, which should generally do the job for most trips outside of mountain regions. Pro-tip: If you rent a car that can shift between 2WD and 4WD, make sure you figure out how to do it before you hit the road, so that you’re not scrambling when confronted with challenging driving conditions.

Winter Tires and Chains

In extreme weather conditions (deep snow, ice, bitter cold) or with rugged terrain, winter tires will help with improved handling and stopping distances. Some rental companies offer winter tires for an extra fee. Keep in mind that the rules change outside the United States. In Canada, for example, winter tires are required on rental cars during the coldest months and often come standard with your car. In some countries, winter tires might be required, with an extra fee. It’s rare that you’ll ever need chains, and unless the rental company offers them, you generally can’t attach your own chains. But if you’re headed to a place like Yosemite, check with your rental car company, just to be safe.

Electric Car Battery Charges

While we love renting electric cars for many kinds of trips, we don’t recommend renting one for the first time in the winter. The main reason is that extremely cold temperatures can shave as much as 40% off the car’s driving range. If you have the choice between gas-powered and electric, choosing a gas-powered car gives you one less thing to worry about in winter driving conditions.

Anti-Locking Brakes

Anti-locking brakes are a feature that you’ll definitely want in winter. Good news: Since 2012, new cars have been legally required to have anti-lock brakes, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a rental car with them. How can you tell if you have them? Check the owner’s manual or look at the dashboard when you start your engine—an ABS light should pop up.

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Bring the Right Gear

No matter what kind of car you rent, make sure your rental company has supplied an ice scraper and brush if you’re in a cold weather destination. Here are some other essentials to have on hand in case you get stranded: warm clothes, a blanket, a flashlight, water, snacks, and your chosen roadside assistance number.