Car Rentals 101
Getting a good rate
It's easy to save money on your car rentals by following a few simple guidelines.
- Search on the right website and/or use the right discount code. Unlike hotel and airfare rates, car rental prices vary wildly across different websites. Often the best rates are less than half the price of what you might find if you simply searched Expedia or Travelocity. Unfortunately, there isn’t a car rental booking site that is right for every person, and every rental—although Autoslash comes close. The best options depend on how much time you are willing to invest, and what discounts you are entitled to. Find Lower Car Rental Rates by Shopping on the Right Website(s).
- Always use a coupon for your rental (on top of whatever discounted rate you are getting). Even when you are renting a car with a discount code, such as from AAA or Costco, you can still apply a car rental coupon to save even more. Valid coupon codes are almost always available, trivial to find, and typically deliver substantial additional savings like a free day on a weekend rental, or $25-30 off a weekly rental. At a minimum, you should be able to get a free upgrade to the next size car. Without much effort, you should be able use a coupon on every rental. Always Use a Car Rental Coupon to Get an Additional Discount on Your Reservation.
- Consider prepaying to get a 10-30% discount. One of the best things about “regular” car rentals, is that you can cancel or change your reservation, at any time, without any fees. Even if you simply don’t show up, you won't have to pay for your rental. While that freedom is great for renters, it makes it hard for the car rental companies to do business. As a result, most rental companies have started offering additional discounts, if you are willing to prepay for your rental, and agree to a non-refundable rate. If you are almost certain that you are going on your trip, you can take advantage of these rates, and save 10-30% over the normal price. We often lock in a good regular car rental rate, and then a few days before the trip, switch over to a lower non-cancellable rate. Take Advantage of Non-Refundable Car Rental Rates When They Make Sense.
- For domestic rentals, consider booking an economy car. Because demand for economy and compact cars is so low, US-based rental locations typically don’t keep many of these cars in stock, and you’ll most often get a free upgrade to a larger car—while still paying the lowest possible price. If you prefer a larger car, and aren’t automatically upgraded, you can typically pay a small additional charge, at pick-up, to get the card you want. However, if you really must have a larger car, you probably shouldn't take the chance.
- Don’t ignore smaller car rental companies. Many people only rent from Avis, Hertz, National, or maybe Alamo, but the best rates are often available at smaller companies like Advantage or Fox. You can frequently save 20-40% if you are willing to rent from one of the smaller companies. These lower rates generally come with older cars, more check-out hassles, and fewer locations. But, their airport locations are usually just as convenient, their cards about as reliable, and their prices are often much lower.
- Use a credit card that offers bonus rewards for travel purchases. The best credit cards for travel rewards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (which also provides primary rental car coverage), earn rewards with a value of around 6 cents per dollar, when you use them to rent a car. That’s like getting another 6% off your rental price. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
- Consider renting an off-airport location instead. Primarily due to the high taxes and fees imposed at airport rental locations, you can often save a considerable amount of money by renting at an off-airport location instead. The cost of a quick taxi or car service ride to the rental location can often be a small fraction of the amount you can save. Alternatively, you can rent a car at the airport for the first day, and then swap it out, at an off-airport location, for the rest of your rental period. Eliminate Expensive Taxes and Fees by Renting or Swapping Your Car at Non-Airport Locations.
Another caveat is that the best coupons are often not valid on rental classes below an intermediate car. You may pay less overall to book an intermediate car with a coupon, than a economy car without one.
Automatic upgrades from economy to large-size cars doesn’t work in much of the rest-of-the-world. Outside of the United States, many people prefer smaller cars, which are easy to drive and park, and use less gas. You should follow their lead, if you can, as rates for larger cars are often much higher.
Avoid paying for any extra fees
Once you’ve booked a good rate, you need to avoid paying unnecessary fees when it is time to pick-up your car:
- (In most cases) Turn down the insurance options. If you have auto insurance, are using a credit-card, and are renting in the United States, Canada, or Europe, you are almost certainly covered by your existing insurance. Ignore the sales pitch, and turn down all the extra insurance options. However, if you don’t have auto insurance, or you are travelling outside of these areas, you might need to get liability coverage from the car rental company. Guide to Car Rental Insurance.
- Turn down the pre-paid tank of gas. Car rental companies typically offer to let you prepay for gas at competitive prices, so that you don’t have to swing by a gas station, before you return your car. This is almost always a bad deal. They charge you for a whole tank, regardless of how much gas you have when you return the car. If you come back with a half tank, you're effectively paying double the per-gallon-rate. The only way a pre-paid tank is affordable, is if you bring the car back nearly empty—but this isn’t usually possible. Plus, trying to show up with almost no gas in the tank is a bigger hassle than just filling up on your own. On a short rental, consider having the car rental company fill the car up for you, and just pay the high per-gallon cost. On a longer rental, fill it up yourself.
- Use your phone instead of a GPS. The days of needing to rent a GPS navigation system while travelling in strange city are gone. Take advantage of the mapping software that runs on your phone. Just make sure to travel with a way to plug your phone in, to keep the batteries going.
- Try to avoid using the rental car tolling responder to pay electronic tolls. If you are renting in an area with electronic tolling, your car will come with a tolling responder, and your rental company will pass on any electronic tolls. However, they will also add an additional fee of typically $3-4 for every day of your rental (not just the days you pay tolls), while at the same time charging you the non-discounted toll rate. This is a plain-and-simple rip off. If you can, avoid toll roads and tolled lanes, and you’ll avoid these ridiculous “convenience” fees. However, sometimes it is impossible or inconvenient to avoid electronic polling. In that case, you still have some options to avoid the extra fees. Avoid Paying Outrageous Car Rental Toll Surcharges.
- You can often avoid paying an additional driver fee. Most car rental companies will allow you to add your spouse or domestic partner as an additional driver, at no additional charge, at least for members of their loyalty programs. Some will even let you add any other person as an additional driver. Avoid Paying for Additional Drivers.
Your car rentals should be easy, as well as inexpensive.
- Join the car rental company’s loyalty program for much faster check-out. At major airport locations, you can often just take your pick of the available cars in the lot, and drive away, without any additional paperwork. At most other locations, you only need to show your ID at a special rental counter, and then pick-up your keys. There is no interminable check-out process, and no need to listen to a sales pitch every time. Unlike the bad old days, it doesn’t cost anything to join the programs, and you’ll save a bunch of time every time you rent. Join the Major Car Rental Loyalty Programs for Faster Car Pickup—They’re Free.
- Use a credit card that gives you “primary” car insurance, if you have one. Almost every credit card offers insurance for theft or damage to your rental car. However, in most cases, the coverage is “secondary”. If something happens to the car, you’ll need to file a claim with your personal auto-insurance policy first. Your credit card will just cover anything that your regular insurance doesn’t. However, a few credit cards offer “primary” coverage, allowing you to avoid involving your auto-insurance at all. This only applies to US and Canadian rentals. In other parts of the world, your regular auto insurance never applies, and almost all credit cards essentially provide primary coverage. Credit Cards That Provide “Primary” Rental Car Coverage.
- Take photos of any damage. If you are diligent, you should walk around the car and take a photo of any damage that you see, so you can’t be charged later. While we don’t always do that (even though we should), we also take a picture of the license plate so that it is easy to look up the number at hotel check-in, or in other circumstance where we need it.
- You can often earn thousands of frequent flyer miles from your car rentals, or take advantage of other lucrative promotions. Car rental companies, especially the large ones like Hertz, frequently offer valuable promotions. Sometimes, you earn a free rental certificate with only a few rentals. Sometimes, you can earn thousands of frequent flyer miles, on even a single day rental. While you may pay a somewhat higher price to take advantage of these promotions, the extra benefits are often worth it. If you want to take the time to optimize your car rentals, you should scan through lists of the current promotions, and try to qualify for the best ones. Earn Free Rentals, or Bundles of Loyalty Points, By Taking Advantage of Car Rental Promotions.
- If you have the American Express Platinum card, you can get a 4-hour grace period for Hertz rentals. In some cases, this can save you from the cost of an entire day’s reservation. Of course, most people don’t have one of these cards, and it won’t save money on most rentals. If you can take advantage of this, you need to reserve with a special Amex Platinum rate code, and book the reservation so that your return time is the same as the rental time. But, when you return the car late, you won’t be charged for the extra hours.
- You can use National Car Rental Emerald Club Free Rental Days for one-way rentals. One-way rentals can sometimes be extraordinarily expensive. One option is to use any free rental days you’ve earned from National to pay for those rentals. They work for one-way rentals for no extra fee, and have no black-out dates.