For most people, the vacation planning hierarchy goes flight, hotel, then vehicle. But don’t treat your car rental as an afterthought — knowing your needs and conducting a little online research could save you a lot of money.
“You don’t want to pay for services you don’t want or need because you don’t understand them,” said Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group, which focuses on the car rental industry. By following our tips below, you won’t get taken for a ride on your next rental car purchase.
First, decide whether you really need a rental car
If you’re traveling to a major city like New York, Boston, or Chicago, you could be fine riding the rails, hailing taxis, or taking a Lyft or Uber. A seven-day MetroCard is good for unlimited subway and bus trips in New York, and only costs $31. As an added bonus, you don’t have to navigate gridlock traffic in an unfamiliar town or pay to park downtown.
Aggregate, don’t procrastinate
If you’ve determined that a rental car is the way to go, start by searching the aggregator sites for perspective. Hipmunk and Kayak compare prices from many different sites and are often the cheapest way to rent a car. If anything, it’ll give you a good baseline to start with.
Darkness, your old friend
Similarly, opaque sites like Hotwire or Priceline — where you may know the price before booking, but not the company — negotiate for “stressed inventory,” according to Abrams. “If a rental company knows that a particular vehicle is not going to be rented on a particular date, time, and location, they’ll off-sell it at a net-rate deal to one of these opaque channels.”
Pay up front
Budget offers as much as 35% off your rental if you pay when you book your car instead of when you pick it up. A quick search on Budget.com and Avis.com for cars at Los Angeles International Airport returned a 10% to 15% discount if you use the “Pay Now” option. That said, their “Pay Now” prices were about the same as Alamo’s normal price.
Check your credit cards
Many of the best travel credit cards let you use your rewards to book car rentals. If you’d prefer to save your points, however, many of these credit cards also let you book car rentals at a discounted rate, directly from your credit card dashboard online. The Chase Sapphire Preferred®, and Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® (currently unavailable), and cards all offer excellent sign-up bonuses and waived annual fees for the first year.
Also, many people overlook their credit card’s rental car insurance options – look into your cards’ policies and use the best one to pay for the rental. “Understand what services come with [your credit card], because each offers different types of auto rental insurance,” Abrams said.
Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia… all the big sites offer discounts when you package your vacation, so be prepared to book your car at the same time as your flight if you see a good deal. For instance, booking a flight, hotel, and car through Expedia for a weeklong trip to Orlando netted a $191 savings on the car rental when compared to the agency’s website. Don’t forget to look at airline and hotel and credit card sites, too, which also promote bundled discounts.
Get your off brand on
Sites like CarRentals.com (owned by Expedia) and CarRentalExpress.com include local and smaller national chains in their search. Don’t be afraid of Ace, Fox, Payless, or other agencies with which you may not be familiar. “There are three companies that own the eight major brands that control 95% of the industry,” Abrams said. That said, don’t expect off brands to always be on target: We searched for a compact rental from O’Hare Airport and found CarRentals.com was about $20 more expensive than Priceline.
When in Rome…
If you’re traveling to Europe, check out MyTripCar.com, an online rental upstart that promises “honest car rentals” by analyzing fees, waiting times, and credit card holds. Don’t be afraid to search for locally owned companies, too, such as Dan Dooley Car Rentals in Ireland.
Join the club
Big-box stores such as BJ’s and Costco both have their own car-rental affiliate programs, AAA has an exclusive partnership with Hertz, even college alma mater programs and the AARP can save you money. If you’ve paid your dues for the year, check to see if you can get some of that money back with a cheap car rental through your affiliation.
- Related: Is AAA Worth It?
Look for a ZipCar or Enterprise CarShare program close by. Car share options are great if you only need a vehicle here and there during your trip. However, make sure there’s a drop spot nearby, because you don’t want to eat into your savings by taking a taxi to your rental.
Operating in over 4,500 cities and over 300 airports, Turo is the Airbnb of car rental — basically, you rent a car from a person instead of a company. Formerly known as RelayRides, Turo boasts a 35% savings over traditional agency prices and offers $1 million worth of insurance per trip. We live in exciting times.
How to get a cheap rental car: Where the rubber hits the road
In addition to using the “Pay Now” option, there are a number of other ways to save money once you commit to your car rental:
- If you can, avoid renting at the airport: With the exception of Manhattan, rates — and fees — are almost always lower when you rent a car in town rather than at the airport. If the price difference between an airport and city rental is more than a roundtrip taxi or subway ride from the airport, the savings might be worth the hassle.
- If you can, book on a weekend: Enterprise, for example, offers $9.99 daily rates Friday through Monday at participating locations.
- Weekly rates may be better than daily ones: Sometimes it makes sense to rent a car for five days even if you only need it for three.
- Check your insurance: Your primary car insurance may have you covered. Also Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover all offer at least secondary car rental insurance if you pay for the car with your card. Remember, too, that selecting the agency insurance could actually invalidate insurance you already have through your credit card.
- Never mind the bells and whistles: Rental car companies make a lot of their money on the add-ons they try to sell you at the counter. “Too often you have people buying the protection packages, what we call LDW—Loss Damage Waiver. They’ll buy navigation systems, which they don’t really need. The margins for rental companies are greater on those product lines than on the car itself,” Abrams said.
- Fill up your own tank: While we’re on the subject, fuel plans at agencies are outrageously expensive. You’ll save big-time if you gas up yourself at a nearby station before returning the car.
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