If you think it takes time and effort to save money on the lowest airfare, you haven’t been looking for the best deal on a rental car. Here’s how to save money, and aggravation, on your next getaway wheels:
There’s no way to avoid comparison shopping for the rental deal. Start by visiting a travel consolidator site such as Expedia to search for the city, dates and vehicle size you need. Jot down the three best prices, and then visit that rental company’s website or toll-free number to match the price, or beat it.
- Tip: Call the local office of the rental agency with the best deal, even at an airport location, and ask the manager if he or she can beat the best available on the website or toll-free-phone. You just might get lucky, and save even more money.
Avoid renting at the airport – It’s almost always cheaper to rent from a non-airport location, since airports charge fees that can add 30% – more or less – to your daily rental cost. The exceptions are renting downtown in big cities like New York City or Los Angeles, where prices are usually the same as at the airport. However, you may get a better rate downtown on weekends, since vehicles are not being used by the weekday business travel crowd.
- Tip: I’ve gotten a break on price by renting downtown and dropping the vehicle off at the airport, where vehicles are in higher demand.
- Tip: Enterprise gets top marks for picking you up, if your location is within a specified radius of one of their locations.
Ask for discounts. Most rental agencies give discounts for membership in AAA, AARP, or a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. So ask.
- Tip: Watch for coupons or offers in travel magazines or at warehouse club check-out areas for such perks as a free upgrade or a free day’s rental.
Think small, think local. Put such high-quality, low-cost brands as Advantage, Fox Rent A Car and Midway on your radar screen. Their rates are usually less than mega-companies Hertz and Check out web sites like CarRentalExpress.com or CarRentals.com to find these smaller companies, including those which operate only locally or regionally.
- Tip: Rental companies Ace and Payless are top-rated by Top Ten Reviews
Think big. Book the smallest size vehicle you can tolerate. These get booked first, and you are likely to be upgraded to a larger vehicle for the price of the smaller one you reserved. Just make sure the rental agent doesn’t – oops – charge you more for the larger vehicle. Recently, I was upgraded on a family ski trip because the particular model of the vehicle I reserved did not have a pass-through for skis.
Beware of extra charges. Rental companies used to give you a 59 minute “grace period” before late fees clicked in. No longer. The clock starts running the minute your contract spits out of the computer, so allow for traffic on your way to the rental return lot to avoid being charged another full day. Beware of one-way charges, too, including between the airport and downtown.
- Tip: If you have a mapping system on your smartphone or tablet, use it instead of paying $4.95 a day or more to use the GPS system from the rental company.
- Tip: Ditto the express pass payment system for toll roads, bridges and tunnels. The cash lane may take more time, but you’ll be saving money since you aren’t paying a day-rate to rent the device.
Insurance or not. Tough question, and there’s no one size fits all answer. It depends. It depends on what your own personal vehicle liability and collision insurance covers – most cover rentals as long as it is the policy holder driving. It depends what your homeowners policy covers – some cover third party injury. And it depends on what your credit card covers – some cars cover damage as a perk to premium card holders. So check all of them first, even if it means calling your agent or the credit card company to confirm.
- Tip: American Express offers by-the-trip rental insurance that is often less than the daily rate offered by car rental companies.
Take a hike. Walk around the vehicle to make sure any dings, dents or scratches are noted on your rental agreement, or you could be held liable for the damage upon return.
- Tip: Do the walk-around with the rental representative, who should make the notations on the contract, not you.
Gas pains. Never, ever let the rental company fill the tank on your return, unless you enjoy paying 2-3 times the going rate for gas. Figure out your expected mileage for the trip so you’ll know whether the pay-ahead full tank option is cost effective. It usually is, even if you return the vehicle with a few gallons left in the tank.
- Tip: Try not to fill the tank at a gas station nearest to the rental return, especially at the airport. Those stations know exactly what you are doing, and have raised their prices accordingly.
Join the club. Members of loyalty programs like Hertz Gold often get better rates, free upgrades and priority service.
photos courtesy BMW, carcrashes.com,