Renting a car can be a truly frustrating experience. You have a choice of spending hours on the telephone, talking about rental car options with representatives of several different companies, or typing your travel dates into multiple rental car company websites. Either way, you’ll end up with a bewildering array of rates, options and questions.
For me, getting a good deal is a matter of research. That old cliché, “Time is money,” really rings true when you’re looking for a rental car. I’ve found that I get better rates by spending time comparing prices and discounts. I always do this research because I have found that even my reliable budget rental car locations don’t always offer the best deal. I spend a lot of time reading the “terms and conditions” section before I reserve a car. I also look closely at the list of fees and taxes associated with my prospective rental. Fees, taxes, dropoff charges, and travel restrictions can make or break your rental car deal.
Let me give you an example. I drive from the Washington, D.C. area to Indiana at least once a year. I always rent a car to make this trip. My cars are old, although in good repair, and I’m usually the only driver. The car repair expert – my husband – can’t fix a vehicle by cell phone, so we spend a little extra on a rental car rather than risk a backcountry breakdown.
I usually rent from Enterprise because they offer the best rates from Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI for short), my closest airport. I don’t use a local rental car office, even though daily rates are higher at BWI because of the airport’s facility fees. When I drive to Indiana, I leave early in the morning and return late at night. Neighborhood rental car offices normally open at 8:00 A.M. and close around 5:00 P.M. That means I would pay for two extra days, which ends up costing more than I pay in BWI airport facility fees. Have I confused you yet?
But wait, there’s more. I’ve also discovered that most – but not all – of my local rental car offices, regardless of company, charge for mileage over a certain daily limit, typically 200 miles, if you take the car out of state, unless you rent from an airport office. Last time I checked, Indiana was 600 miles away. That’s three days’ mileage, just to get there. To break even on this deal, I would have to keep the rental car for at least eight days, and my trips are usually a week long. The lower daily rate I can get from a local rental car office isn’t such a great deal when I have to pay 25 cents per mile once I use up my allowance.
So, how can you find a good rate without postponing your trip for months while you research every rental car option?
Here are some tips for finding a good rental car deal. Travel itineraries and rental car companies are all different, so some of these suggestions may not work for you on every trip.
- Start Early
- Don’t wait until the last minute to think about your ground transportation. It will take time to contact customer service representatives or do online research. Begin as soon as you know your travel dates. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to lock in a good rate and still look for last-minute deals.
- Take notes or create a spreadsheet to track your findings. If you can’t find information easily, call the rental car company and ask. Rental car companies are notoriously slow to answer email inquiries. Note the name of the customer service representative, the date and the time of your call. You may need this information if you have questions about your final bill. (Tip: If you need to dispute any charges, do so in writing or by email, never by phone.)
- If you plan to travel to several different countries, be sure to give itinerary information to the customer service representative. Some companies will not allow you to take rental cars out of the country, or will only allow certain makes and models of cars to cross international borders. Planning ahead will prevent you from being disappointed by border guards.
- Make Multiple Reservations
- If you find a good rate, make a reservation and keep researching. Many rental car companies allow you to make a reservation without paying a deposit or even providing credit card information. If you find a better deal later on, you can always go back and cancel your first reservation. (Tip: Read the "Terms and Conditions" carefully for every reservation you make. Some rental car companies now charge for no-shows. If you make multiple reservations, take the time to cancel the ones you don't plan to use.)
- Use Connections
- Some rental car companies allow their employees to make reservations at “family and friends” rates. If you know someone who works for a rental car firm and you feel comfortable requesting a favor, ask about employee rates.
- Look for Discounts
- If you are a member of AAA, CAA, AARP or another large organization, ask about rental car discounts. AARP, for example, offers rental car discounts ranging from 5 - 30 percent. Costco gives its members a 20 percent discount on Budget and Avis weekly rentals.
- Your auto insurance company may also give discounts on rental car rates. You’ll need to telephone them to ask about rental car insurance options; why not ask about discounts at the same time?
- Read the Fine Print
- Don’t skip this step. Facility fees, taxes and dropoff charges can really add up. Carefully read the “terms and conditions” section if you’re researching rates online, or ask the customer service representative to provide you with a list of fees and taxes. You will find that each rental location has a different fee and tax schedule. You may also discover that you’ll need to show an airline ticket at certain rental car offices, or that there’s a hefty dropoff fee at your preferred location. (Tip: If you are driving with someone else, get the rental car company's policy on fees for additional drivers in writing before you pick up the car. These charges, which typically start at $10 per day, can add up quickly.)
- Add all of this information to your list. Then, take some time to decide where to pick up and drop off your car. This is especially important if you’re renting a car in Europe, as many rental car companies add large dropoff fees to rentals originating or ending at airports. If you feel comfortable taking a taxi or public transportation to a downtown rental car office, you could save quite a bit of money.
- Be sure to ask whether you’ll need an International Driving Permit (IDP) if you’re renting a car in another country. In many European countries, US drivers must show an IDP if a law enforcement officer asks to see it, even if no traffic violation has been committed.
- Learn About Insurance Coverage
- The dreaded Collision Damage Waiver question – “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” is best answered through research. Rental car companies typically attempt to persuade customers to add collision and liability insurance coverage to their rental car contracts, often at amazingly high rates. If you don’t have any other automobile insurance coverage and you are paying cash, you’ll probably want to accept this coverage. Most renters, however, have an auto insurance policy or plan to pay by credit card.
- If you fall into either of these categories, call your insurance and credit card companies to find out if they cover you when you rent a car. You may find that you can decline all of the rental car company’s offers, or that you need only accept the liability insurance supplement. It’s always best to ask, because your coverage will vary depending on where you plan to drive the rental car.
- Investigate Special Offers
- Rental car companies routinely offer weekend packages and last-minute deals. Take a few minutes to scan the company’s website for bargains. If you’re reserving by telephone, ask about special offers for your destination. You may be able to save some money or add to your frequent flyer miles with one of these travel deals. (Tip: Ask whether you'll have to pay a fee to add your rental car transaction to your frequent flyer account. Many rental car companies now charge a daily fee for this "privilege." )
- Check With Aggregators
Once you’ve completed your research and made your final reservation, you can relax and plan the rest of your trip.