Airlines and hotels get most of the ink in travel and in terms of getting the best deal. And when I write about rental cars that seems to generate the last interest. But I rent cars, on many trips I’m in the car longer than the plane and if the trip is long enough I can spend as much on airport taxes and gas as on my ticket. Cars shouldn’t just be an afterthought.
You don’t always want the cheapest option.
- You may care about the car you drive
- Total cost, not just rental rate, matter
When possible (I’m renting from one of the cities they’ve started in), and the prices (total rental cost) is close I prefer Silvercar for the nicer cars, market rate when they refuel the car with gas after I’ve dropped it off, and no extra charge added onto tolls.
But when I’m after the lowest possible price, here’s how I approach it.
- Rent off-brand. Fox, Payless, and others will often have lower rates than Avis and Hertz. The question is whether the lower rate is worth the extra hassle, and that’s a personal tradeoff. The lesser known brands may be off-airport in several cities, so more of a hassle to get to the car. (Although off-airport may be a savings in itself, see below.) They don’t all have the streamlined checkout and check-in processes that you can at least sign up for with Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, and National.
- Discount codes. Coupon codes can be found online and drop price, or throw in a tank of gas for free. Most corporate discount codes can be used by anyone without ID, but be careful of certain codes like those for rental company employees which will more often be checked. One nice thing with rental agencies is that most reservations aren’t pre-paid, so worst case scenario if you are denied a discount you’ve reserved you aren’t usually ‘stuck’ at a higher priced rental since you can always walk away and over to another agency to get a car.
- Reprice your rentals. Rates change all the time. You can outsource and automate the work by entering your reservation details into Autoslash.com. This will take your car rental reservation and check it daily for lower rates. Most people just book and call it done but often as travel dates approach prices will drop (when there are more cars left on the lot than expected). It used to be a great site for making the initial booking as well, but the major car companies didn’t like the money they were saving for consumers and banned Autoslash from making initial bookings. They can still track bookings you make elsewhere. After you reserve your car, go to the Autoslash website and enter your confirmation number and email address and they’ll do the rest.
- Rent Off-airport. You can often get lower rates off-airport, especially during the week, because rental companies price discriminate — business travelers need cars and will pay more for them, especially since they’re on a corporate dime and the upside of the travels will often justify spending more to accomplish meetings. So if you can get off airport you can save. Plus airport rentals are often loaded up with taxes, sometimes adding as much as 50% to the cost of the rental. Another tip for a longer rental is to rent at the airport on day 1 and then return the car to an off-airport location, swapping cars for the rest of the trip — combining the convenience of the initial airport rental with lower rates and taxes for subsequent days.
- Reserve the car for longer than you need to. A few extra hours on the back end of the rental may drop the daily rate, then just return it early to avoid extra hours charges. This may default you to a higher rate, but I’ve done this several times and always gotten the rental company to adjust the rate downward. Your mileage may vary on this. The broader point is to vary the check in and check out times by a half an hour or an hour before and after your intended rental times, since unexpectedly I do find that changing the time can vary the price.
- Negotiate. You may not be able to haggle price (though I’ve walked up to a counter and asked if they could match the price I told them I had with a competitor and they did), but you can often at least negotiate your upgrade for less than you’d have paid for the car type initially online. Of course what you want has to be available when you arrive. Be nice, be friendly. Don’t act entitled, I usually start with a smile and a hello, ask them how their day is, maybe sympathize with their frustrations over a previous customer in line (in a positive way, always).
- Hotwire. You don’t know which rental company you’re booking with in advance, but you know it’s one of the majors. They show you the price up front so you can compare to what’s otherwise available, I’ve seen savings greater than 50% at times but other times it’s not meaningfully better than booking direct. Since rentals are prepaid you can’t drop price later, I only like this option when the savings is big. And prepaid Hotwire rentals may not offer the same additional insurance coverage through a credit card that renting direct does, so there are tradeoffs, but the savings can often be worthwhile. (Priceline has a similar prepaid model, and can be a couple bucks cheaper, they don’t display the price up front — you might try searching Hotwire and then bidding about 10% lower at Priceline.)
- Sign up for frequent renter programs. The obvious benefit is expedited check-out, having your information on file gets your name and car space number up on a board with major brands like Avis and Hertz where you go straight to the vehicle and drive away. But the additional benefit can be free rentals — rental points with Hertz, credit towards free rentals with National. And there may be a built-in discount, e.g. 10% for Avis Corporate Awards members.
- Earning miles from rentals. Again not a discount, but can serve as a rebate. Avis usually has the best mileage offers.
- Make your booking through a cash back or mileage portal. Ebates and the Chase Ultimate Rewards mall offer rebates on your bookings for instance, just start at their sites and click onto the travel provider to make your reservation.