Car Rentals Can Be Pretty Cheap! Here’s What You Need To Know

You already shop around for the best price on a flight, but do you overlook rental car deals? With a little time and effort before you book, and some determination when you get to the counter, you can save money on your next rental car. Read on to find out where to look, how to time your rental, and what you don’t need to pay for.

Where to look for online deals

Searching for a great rate on a rental car is similar to finding deals on hotel rooms and airline tickets. There are sites that let you find and book the best rates, sites that track prices and deals for you, and partner organizations that may have relevant discount codes.

Start your search by looking for independent rental car companies such as Fox Rent a Car, Sixt Rent a Car, and Payless Car Rental (for a limited time, you can save 5 percent off a Payless rental if you book at Expedia). While you may not find them at every destination, they’re often a lower-priced option than the national chains.

As you search for rental rates in your destination city, make sure you compare prices at airport and downtown locations. You’ll usually pay more for the convenience of renting a car at the airport. If you can take public transit or a shuttle to your hotel and rent a car nearby, you’ll save yourself the extra airport fees.

There are a number of websites you can utilize for “search and book” comparison shopping. The prices include taxes and fees, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised by the “real” total.

  • Expedia and similar well-known travel sites display a range of pick-up locations, vehicles, and rates, as well as customer satisfaction ratings on some locations.
  • VroomVroomVroom.com automatically sorts its results from lowest to highest price, though you can also sort by car size or company. A live chat box pops up right away in case you need extra help.
  • CarRentals.com is owned by Expedia, but its interface is different from Expedia’s rental car search function. Helpful features include a “pay now special” with a lower price if you’re willing to commit to the reservation in advance, tips for further savings such as booking on different days, and a price-drop email notification.
  • Priceline is the site many people swear by for its “name your own price” option. While popular for hotels, it also works well for rental cars. You can also compare advertised rates from multiple rental companies. However, keep in mind that the advertised rates include taxes and fees, while your bid will not. For example, I bid $15/day on an economy car for three days. But the taxes and fees totaled $53, slightly more than the rate itself. Therefore, the actual cost per day was $31, more than the lowest advertised rate for an economy car, which was $26/day.
  • Auto Europe should be on your list if you’re looking to rent a car across the pond. It’s a U.S.-based company that specializes in, well, European auto rentals, making it easy to compare rates and reserve online. Most reservations can be cancelled up to 48 hours before pick-up and, when you’re on the road you’ll have access to their 24/7 service hotline.

In addition to shopping for deals on travel sites, it never hurts to check the rates posted on the rental companies’ websites. Travel sites take a varying percentage of your total purchase as commission, so rental car companies (as well as airlines and hotels) may be motivated to offer competitive rates if you book directly from them. Keep in mind that contracts with travel sites may prohibit rental companies from advertising a lower price to the public, but asking a customer service rep or being a member of a loyalty program may just get you access to a lower rate.

Since most reservations (if you haven’t paid in advance) can be canceled without penalty, it pays to check for lower rates and special offers even after you’ve booked a car. These websites will do the tracking for you:

  • AutoSlash.com lets you book through their site or track a rental booked elsewhere. Either way, they track all available coupons and discounts to get you the best possible price. Best of all, the process is automated so Autoslash will continue to check for new specials and re-book your reservation at a lower rate until your pick-up date arrives.
  • Zalyn takes the search for deals one step further by leveraging any discounts you’re eligible for. The first screen after you enter your search terms asks you to select clubs and associations you belong to such as AAA and Costco. Then you check off the credit card companies you have accounts with. Next, you can choose an eligible occupation such as police officer or teacher. Finally, Zalyn shows you the travel reward programs that will get you a discount on a car rental. After you’ve chosen your personal affiliations, the results page breaks down your options by company and car type. You see the total price for the reservation you searched for as well as a choice of qualifying discounts. Some of the special offers are from the company itself; others are based on the affiliations you selected.

Timing is everything

As with airline prices, rental car rates peak during the summer. So if you can, plan your trip for a slower time of year. But if you need to travel in June, July or August, there are still ways to save by optimizing your timing.

  • Book as early as possible. Rates go up and inventory goes down as your reservation date approaches. For example, if you reserve an economy car the rental company is obligated to honor the economy rate even if they run out of that type of car and have to give you something bigger. But if you wait too long, you might have fewer vehicle options to choose from.
  • Compare the daily rate to weekly and weekend rate options. You may find that it’s cheaper to reserve a week even if you only need the car for five days, or to reserve the weekend even if you only want a car on Saturday. Better yet, you can make your reservation at the lower rate and then return the car early for further savings.

Resist the upsell at the counter

Once you’ve done your research and booked the best rate, the last hurdle is the pushy salesperson at the counter. You can’t blame them for trying to sell you extraneous insurance and upgrades; it’s their job and they may receive commission for doing so. But you don’t have to give in, even if it seems you’ll never get the keys until you agree to something. Prepare yourself in advance to say no to the following offers:

  • The “pre-fill” gas option. Request a full tank of gas to leave the lot with and return the car in the same condition. This last part is important because the rental companies charge an obscene amount if you come up short on gasoline.
  • Insurance. Most likely, you don’t need to purchase insurance coverage from the rental company. (Important exception: If you’re don’t already have car insurance and you’re renting with a debit card.) If you have regular auto insurance, your coverage may extend to rentals. Call the company to be sure. Similarly, your credit card company may provide insurance coverage if you pay for the rental with your card, but proceed carefully-you may still be on the hook in certain situations.
  • GPS rentals. You do have a smartphone, right?
  • Vehicle upgrade. The agent may tell you they are out of the car you reserved, but you can get a better or bigger car for “a special rate” of only $X more per day than you were already paying. They may offer a special rate on a certain car, such as a convertible, or try to tell you that weather conditions in your destination require an SUV. Whatever the angle, resist the sales pitch. In the first case, if the company is truly out of the car you reserved (this often happens with economy cars), they have to give you another car at no extra charge. You just have to wait them out.