How to Save Money on Car Rentals

New and used cars
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Unless you’ve won an all-expenses-paid trip on "The Price Is Right," vacations are costly. Little things like snacks and food can eat away at your budget, but the real potential for savings comes in big-ticket items like hotels and car rentals.

If you need to drive to, from, or around your vacation destination, you’ll need a rental car to get you where you need to go. Mystifying to even the savviest travelers, the rental car industry is loaded with hidden fees, tricks, and rate discrepancies. Here's what you need to know to get the best deal on your next car rental.

Always Fill the Tank Yourself

If you want to throw away a handful of money, let the rental outfit fill your tank back up. Car rental companies are notorious for charging exorbitant refuel fees if you bring the vehicle in with an empty tank so always look up nearby gas stations before dropping the vehicle and fill the tank full. It can be a headache when you only want to drop the car off, but losing $20 or even $40 is an even bigger one.

Book as Early as You Can

It’s smart to book big-ticket items as soon as possible, and it’s no different for car rentals. The earlier you book, the more likely you’ll save. Some car rental outfits give early-bird specials to fill their calendar or might increase their prices the closer you get to the rental date. The longer you wait, the more likely the rental company will be out of smaller vehicles which might force you to upgrade to a larger and more expensive ride. Booking as early as you can gives you more time to take care of the next step too.

Comparison Shop

There are several car rental outfits in the U.S., and while they have similar prices, you can easily save a few bucks by doing some smart comparison shopping. You comparison shop for most things, why wouldn’t you do it for a car rental? Head online or call different outfits with your dates and see what prices you can get. Weigh price versus other factors like convenience and customer service to make a balanced decision.

Go for Small

Americans love trucks and SUVs, but they’re the most expensive rentals. The smaller your rental, the smaller the bill. It’s difficult to cram a family of four into a compact car but look too small SUVs or minivans to find the smallest option that will keep you comfortable. Solo travelers should only need a compact car while couples don’t normally need more than a sedan.

Weekly vs. Daily Rates

The whole can be less than the sum of its parts with car rentals. If you know you’ll have the rental longer than a couple of days, check weekly versus daily rates. You might be surprised when the rate for one week is less than five combined daily rates. There is no guarantee that weekly rates will be cheaper but always ask to find out. Like many other industries car rentals reward bulk purchases—take advantage of that.

Get Away from the Airport

Most of us are willing to pay extra for convenience, but airport car rental outfits take that concept too far. We get it: you just arrived after a long flight and booking a rental right when you arrive feels like a smart move. It’s convenient—but you’ll be paying for it. Instead of paying larger costs by booking at the airport, try to get off-site for much better prices. The further you get from the airport or travel hubs, the cheaper your rental will be.

Say "No" to Rental Insurance

Rental insurance seems like a good idea. If someone accidentally rear-ends your rental or if you accidentally leave a large scratch, you don’t want to be charged excessive rates to get it fixed—but you likely already have car rental insurance from your auto insurance policy and possibly from your credit cards. Figure out if you’re covered to avoid daily insurance fees.

Ask for a Discount

What discounts should you be asking about? It doesn’t matter—just ask. At any given time, car rental companies could be running promotions, sales, or might have standard discounts for senior citizens, first responders, military personnel, and others. Ask the person at the counter or over the phone if they have any temporary or running discounts. You don’t always win the discount game, but a few seconds of effort could save you a lot. If you’re booking online, always click through the special promotions page. 

Reposition Vehicles for a Rental Agency

Rental companies don’t have masses of agents to transport rental vehicles to and from slow to busy lots. They rely on travelers like you. Instead of paying hundreds for your rental, how about a few bucks? Before booking, check with a few different agencies; if a rental company matches your travel itinerary, you could save a ton for extra adventure.

Transport Vehicles for Third-Party Companies

At any given time, there are dozens of vehicles across the country that need to be moved. Instead of renting, you could get a free vehicle and free gas by transporting a vehicle through companies like Auto DriveAway. It can be tough to find a match, but you can slash your costs if you do.