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.
Here’s how you can save money renting cars:
- 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, offers can be like 1000 SAS EuroBonus miles per 1-day rental at Avis or 9000 Club Carlson points on a 3-day rental.
- 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.
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Another option is FlightCars, available in a few cities. They park your car for free and try to rent it out while you are gone. If they succeed in renting it, you get some of the proceeds. So, instead of paying to park you actually get paid.
I do not plan to use them, out of concern that a renter might be a smoker. The company says they will charge the renter $1000 if a car comes back smelling of smoke, and will “deep clean” the interior, but in my experience there is no way to permanently remove the smell.
For those with less concern about this possibility, it looks like a good deal.
Insurance is a big issue. Choose a credit card that offers it and decline that offered by the rental card company. There are a handful of countries that require that you purchase insurance unless you can show your credit card covers it. Ireland is one. Chase provides a letter in minutes saying that they indeed cover insurance in Ireland.
Agree with Carol above, if you’re planning on declining and relying on the credit card coverage, make sure you research the policy for the country you’re going to. We recently had a problem in Costa Rica and ended up spending some time on the phone with Chase without getting a great answer. In the end the representative advised us to accept the minimum possible insurance offered by the company. This is contrary to the Chase policy. I still have no idea if it was the “right” decision. If something had happened and it turned out the advice was wrong, we’d have no way to prove what the rep told us on the phone.
Agree with what others have said on insurance. Outside the US, Canada and Italy (where CDW & TPW are included in your rate by law), you will often be strong-armed into buying coverage. It’s a good idea to fully read the terms and conditions for your rental to see what coverage, if any, you are obligated to take as this could add substantially to your rental bill. In Mexico we routinely see rates of $5 per week for rentals, however after adding in the mandatory liability insurance, it’s not quite as good of a deal.
As Gary has pointed out in the past, the Chase United MP Explorer VISA is one of the best cards out there since it’s primary coverage (no need to make a claim against a personal auto policy if you have one), and it covers you in most countries of the world. That’s the card I most often use for my own personal rentals.
At least at some airports, Alamo and Thrifty now allow you to bypass the counter and go straight to the car. Alamo’s process is a bit cumbersome (you have to print the “Bypass Ticket” in advance, and if you re-book at a lower rate viz Autoslash’s work, you have to check-in and print it all over again). But having these two now with no-counter options makes price-shopping even better.
@Miles — that FlightCars model sounds positively awful. Other than selling yourself for prostitution, I can’t think of a worse way to try to make a buck than lending your car out to strangers. 🙂
Otherwise, I consider myself to be a rental car guru, so I’ll share a couple more tricks. I find rental car pricing to be quite interesting, because each rental is different, so you need an arsenal of strategies.
The best USA strategy is codes and coupons. That said, the big brands are cracking down a bit on this — notice the code pages are gone from Flyertalk — so you need to be a little more careful on this. I think DansDeals still maintains a comprehensive list.
If you’re a Costco member, using the online Costco pricing tool for USA/Canada rentals. This gets me an excellent price at least half the time. USAA has a new pricing tool, too, but I haven’t used it extensively yet.
Plug your rental into both kayak and kayak uk and compare prices. For foreign rentals, kayak uk can be quite useful, especially in countries where insurance is mandatory. Moneymaxim.co.uk is also worth checking. For foreign rentals, I always take my best price to AutoEurope: when you call, ask them to beat that rate.
In the USA, I almost never use the obscure companies. Too much hassle. The best thing to do is be a National Emerald member and try to use coupons/codes to get National’s price competitive. They you get the great service of the Emerald Aisle, and you earn valuable rental credits (which you can use for expensive one-way rentals).
Finally, be careful about reserving economy and compact size cars. In the old days, you used to be able to reserve the cheapest cars and drive away with something different. Now, you’re more likely than not to get stuck with the crummy car. So always rent the smallest car you can actually live with (btw, that’s what’s great about National — the Emerald Aisle usually has big cars for the price of the Intermediate). In the USA, an “intermediate car” is actually what most people consider to be a compact, and is pretty much the smallest vehicle that doesn’t completely suck.
@iahphx Good tips! The Costco discounts can be some of the best out there. It’s worth giving them a shot for each rental, but keep in mind that no code is *always* best so it pays to shop around. Of course rates change all the time, so what’s a good deal today may be such a great deal tomorrow. That’s one of the places AutoSlash helps.
AutoEurope can be very good when renting in Europe. They have prepaid rates that can be lower than what you’ll find elsewhere. Another tip is to try Kemwell. Kemwell is the sister company of Auto Europe. Kemwell is more for the price conscious traveler. The big difference is that Auto Europe has a customer service call center open 24/7 and based in the US, while Kemwell does not. Other than that, the products are exactly the same, so if you’re willing to forgo the convenience of a 24×7 US-based call center, then you can save a few bucks.
Off-Brand – you get what you pay for. Personally I’ve had good luck with Fox but terrible with Thrifty and Advantage. With Hertz I am out the door quickly which can be a huge plus.
The most critical advice above is to reprice your rentals. You want to lock in a rate as soon as you book your air, but never ever buy a prepaid rate as the rates usually drop. I’ve often shaved a week in Maui from $300 to $150 if I reprice 4-6 weeks out.
Finally the advice about right-sizing is good. Often I now find that full size and SUVs are cheaper than economy, because many people want gas sippers so the bigger models are often less popular. This works out well for those of us that like big cars. So don’t assume the smallest vehicle is the cheapest.
My personal advice is to use RelayRides which is basically the Airbnb for rental cars. Used it many times and it is awesome. Rented a Prius for $30 a day in SF.
I have had good luck with Auto Slash finding me a better rate. It does the work for you finding a rate drop on an existing reservation. Sometimes renting off airport can be a pain. However, if you have a longer rental, you can rent one day at the airport then drop it off at an off airport location and pick up another car saving you a bunch of gov’t fees from an airport rental.
in my experience rental cars don’t track well on topcashback.com
Here are some additional suggestions, applying mainly to domestic US care rentals.
1. Rent over a Saturday night. Car rental rates are surprisingly much cheaper if you your rental includes a Saturday night stay. Very true is your rental is 3 or 4 days.
2. You suggested returning your car early. In many instances that works against you. Some companies such as Alamo and Dollar charge a penalty for returning early. Many car rental companies computers are now sophisticated enough to adjust rates. The reverse is true, extend it at the rental counter, especially for a weekend rental. I’ve rented for the weekend rate (supposed to return by Monday night) and extended it a day or two and the rental counter was still able to apply the weekend rate.
3. Recognize that car rental operate on a 24 hour clock. (Rent at noon, bring it back at noon is one day). Some car rental agencies offer grace periods of 29 minutes others don’t. However, at the counter, the agent is allowed (supervisors) to adjust the charged time and provide you an extra hour or two if you need it without paying for an extra day. This must be done at the start of the rental.
3. Try beginning a rental Thursday morning to get the weekend rate. Which means if your arriving on Wednesday night, perhaps take the hotel shuttle to your hotel, return to the airport the following morning and pick up your car. You can save both rates (depending on the day) and an extra days rental.
4. In addition to Costco, the Entertainment book also has a wide variety of discount coupons. You don’t need to buy the book, just get the codes. Be wary of the restrictions which vary by rental car company.
5. Every year (usually in May) the US travel Association offers Daily Deals. I bought a several $50 Alamo Car Rental certificate for $22.50 using my AMEX card. They never expire. Good to buy and hold for a future rental. This certificate cannot be combined with other offers. Similar daily deals apply to other rental car companies.
6. Rates do change frequently. It is very easy (takes a minute) to cancel and re book at a lower rate with no penalty (Unless you prepay which is not smart). Rates offer can differ sharply by the time of rental pick up and sometimes time of rental return. Try playing with various times. You can always be early when picking up the car, secure the booked rate. You can be late, but some companies are less flexible.
7. Combine different ID codes with different coupon codes. For example Southwest has great mileage incentives rental cars using their ID code. You don’t need to fly Southwest. Book the rental on the car rental agencies web site, with the Southwest code and a coupon code of your choice, getting additional miles and a discount.
8. Rates usually only differ by a dollar or two per day if you up the size of the rental. Sometimes their is a big jump. That’s the time to downsize and get an upgrade at the counter. However, surprisingly so, there are times when full size (or standard size cars) are less that compact or sub compacts. Always check size. Premium cars and SUV’s are usually a rip off. Often car rental companies have an abundance of SUV’s on the lot, and sometimes you get stuck with one, whether you want it or not.
9. On the same issue, if you rent a full size car (and don’t need it), the agency may be required to downsize you (to a midsize or similar). If this happens, you can get a significant discount.
10. One last point as a word of wisdom. Always when renting a car, check around the car for damage (no matter how slight) and have it noted on the contract before leaving the lot. This can come back to haunt you big time.
On a recent off-airport rental I recently had to sign a document that I had not arrived on a flight in the last 24 hours. Seems like they were hoping to get me to pay the airport rate even though I wasn’t at the airport. What’s that all about?
Great article. Thanks.
@DaveS At AutoSlash we’ve heard all sorts of strange things from our customers, but that’s a first for us. It’s fairly common that some airport locations don’t want to service local renters, and some even demand to see an airline ticket to prove that you did fly in or are flying back out of the airport, but we’ve never heard of the reverse where a customer was questioned about whether they arrived on a flight. I’m not sure why they would care?
Do you mind sharing which company and location this was? We’d be happy to investigate and get back to you with our findings.
Costco also gives you a free second authorized driver.
One trick for Hertz, specifically.
Often Hertz stations will have a car category called “Manager’s Choice”. If you don’t need a specific class of vehicle, this can be a great option. The price is usually the same as or less than a midsize, but you’ll get whatever’s in least demand. That could mean a compact, but usually it’s something better. My last three rentals like this have been a Mustang, an Infiniti Q50, and a Cadilac SRX.
@Mallthus Yes that’s a good trick. The Managers Choice is an EXAR (Economy Special) vehicle type. Dollar, Thrifty and Advantage also have the same type of thing. Advantage also uses the EXAR vehicle type, while Dollar/Thrifty use SXAR (Standard Special) which despite the Standard moniker actually maps to a Compact or Higher. Dollar calls it Lock Low & Go, while at Thrifty it’s called a Wild Card.
The reason these guys typically do this is to throw their competitors off-balance. They constantly rate shop each other both via OTA channels as well as the GDS. They either use in-house tools or contract out to a 3rd party to monitor each other’s prices for rentals of varying lengths, pickup dates and vehicle types. Typically they’re shopping the standard types like Economy, Compact, Intermediate, etc. By using these non-standard types, it allows them to appear like they are the same price as the market, when in effect they can undercut them with their “special” vehicle types. It also helps with inventory management since they can unload whatever they have on hand that is in oversupply.
Other interesting tidbits:
In between a Standard SUV (which typically seats 5) and a Fullsize SUV (usually seats 8) you have another in-between type which many people don’t realize. It’s basically a 7-passenger SUV like a Ford Explorer. Hertz calls this an FRAR, or a Fullsize Recreational Vehicle, while Avis and Budget call it an RFAR (Standard Elite SUV). These can sometimes be much better deals than a Standard SUV for the same reason as above related to competitor rate shopping.
Two more non-standard vehicle types that Hertz plays games with:
MCAR, which is typically a Mini Car (like a Smart ForTwo) is actually a Fuel Saver Intermediate like a Chevy Cruze. This can sometimes be a great deal.
If you are looking for a Fullsize car you can also check rates with Hertz on a FSAR or Fullsize Sport. Hertz uses a Toyota Camry as the representative model for this class, even though there is nothing sporty about the Camry. It’s simply another way they can offer a deal on a car type that their competitor is not as likely to notice.
As the comments here indicate, there are easily 101 solid rental car tricks that will save money. We’re fortunate that rental cars in the USA tend to be very easy and affordable — rent a car overseas and you’ll see what I mean. The good news is that for more than 80% of USA rentals, all you need to do to get a good car and a good price is: 1) use a good search engine; 2) be mindful of codes and coupons (and airport fees/taxes on longer term rentals); and 3) reprice as you get closer to rental time. It’s the 20% of the time when those strategies still yield high prices that you have to get creative. 🙂
Thanks for the tips. As to the frequent renter miles or points, can you identify which airlines/hotels do NOT charge substantial surcharges that effectively make you the renter pay for the miles/points. From past experience, I think two examples are Marriott and American, but I’d love a complete list.
@Pat The rental car companies charge a fee when crediting to a domestic U.S. airline, however there is typically not a fee when crediting your rental days to a non-U.S. airline or any hotel.