Tips for Finding Car Rental Deals

  • 01 of 07

    Tips for Saving Money on a Car Rental

    woman driving car
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    Finding car rental deals is far different than hunting for good airfares or the best room rates. The factors at work in the pricing process are difficult to understand and benefit the car rental company.

    Most travelers do not give car rental shopping the same scrutiny as airfares or room rates, but hidden charges can make your ground transportation costs mount. It's worth a closer look.

    Many travelers operate under the misconception that car rental rates are all about the same, and that shopping is a waste of time. Rates do vary--sometimes by quite a bit--between companies and destinations. Another truth: car rental companies reward people who make life easy for them and penalize those who don't know the ropes.

    What follows are five tips, in no particular order, for lowering your car rental expenses. Next: hidden fees and extras.

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    Beware of Hidden Fees and Extras

    When renting a car, beware of hidden extra charges.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    If the rental company has to top-off the gas tank after your return, you will pay a ridiculous price per gallon. Always ask that the car be filled up prior to your departure, and then bring it back full of gas. If that's not allowed without a fee, be certain you return the vehicle with as much gas in the tank as when you started.

    There are plenty of other additional charges that quickly can make a bargain rate mundane. A weekly rate of $125 showed up for a compact rental out of San Antonio International Airport. That's about $18/day. Not bad.

    But when I clicked forward to the reservation page, it was clear that taxes and fees would add more than $50. That wasn't all: a 10% sales tax, something called a vehicle license fee of nearly $19 and an "arena fee" of $7.19. Now the cost is more than $25/day. Keep that in mind when you see rates under $20/day advertised. 

    Next up: the expensive convenience of airport car rentals.

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    Avoid Airport Rentals

    Renting a car at the airport usually will cost more money.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    Lurking on the list of the taxes In that previous example: an $11.51 "airport fee."

    It's often very convenient to rent a car at the airport. Many times that convenience exceeds every other consideration, including price. But if you have a choice, keep in mind that you'll pay for the privilege of walking fewer steps to get behind the wheel of your rented vehicle.

    It's not hard to find examples of this principle at work. I once saw a dramatic difference in quotes between a car rental at Detroit's Metro Airport and agencies based beyond the airport.

    There are money-saving alternatives that can be nearly as convenient as the airport rental. For example, if you're on a business trip, many times you can rent a car at your downtown hotel. If you can conveniently arrange a hotel shuttle or public transportation from airport to front desk, chances are good you'll save money by taking delivery off the airport grounds.

    Up next: insurance concerns.

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    Decline the Insurance

    It's generally best to decline the rental company's insurance offers.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    Most budget travelers know they should decline the rental company's insurance offers, but there is a lot of pressure to change minds at the rental counter. Companies make big profits from insurance fees. Some clerks are trained to create as much anxiety as possible for people who decline it.

    They'll tell you their insurance closes expensive loopholes, which may or may not be true in your case. They'll tell you stories about how a customer's auto insurance or credit card failed to cover damages during a recent accident. They'll also bring up loss of use expense.

    There may be truth in the stories, but the odds are slim that you'll need any of this coverage. It is very likely, however, that your auto insurance policy at home covers rentals as well. Call your agent to verify it.

    Also check with your credit card company to see if using the card to pay for a rental provides collision coverage. In many cases, you'll receive a positive response.

    Depending upon the length of your trip, travel insurance can be a good idea. But the insurance most car rental companies offer is an expensive, unnecessary add-on.

    One final note: it's especially important to check with your credit card company or auto insurance agent if you'll be renting outside of your home country. Don't assume you're covered. There is much fine print in agreements involving international rentals.

    Up next: considering the size of a car rental.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Reserve the Smallest Car Possible

    It often pays to reserve the smallest car possible.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    Many North Americans who rent cars don't like driving compacts. Rental companies know this, and they usually order more mid-size and full-size cars.

    If your destination is a smaller facility or non-hub airport, chances are good that they have only a few compacts. On some days, they might not have any compacts when customers arrive.

    In that situation, if you've reserved a compact, they are obligated to give you a free upgrade. Sometimes, you'll move up two categories for no additional charge.

    I've done this many times over the years. Remember: you can usually pay an upgrade fee on the spot for a larger car if they call your bluff and tell you the compact is ready to go. There will be times when the smallest cars are leftovers on the lot. Those times are fairly rare.

    In larger facilities, where the supply of cars is huge, this strategy is far less likely to work. But it might be worth a try if you're willing to risk getting a smaller car.

    You're also unlikely to make this strategy pay outside of North America. The rest of the world often prefers very small, fuel-efficient cars.

    Up next: the quirky deals that confound car rental customers.

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    Shop for Quirky Deals

    Car rentals sometimes come with quirky deals attached.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    A search on showed a three-day rental of a mid-sized car from Denver International Airport would cost $236 USD, nearly $79/day. As you might expect, four more days will add to the total. But the total is only $361. The daily cost falls to about $52/day.

    How is that possible?

    On day five, Hertz's weekly rate took effect. Strange as it might seem, reserving a car for a week (even if it sits in a driveway or parking lot) frequently is cheaper than trying to get a daily rate on a shorter rental.

    For that reason, it pays to try a number of combinations when you consider your rental period. It might be smarter to pick up the car on Thursday, even if you don't really need it until Friday. The Friday rental might come with a weekend rate that is more expensive.

    There are times when a car rental bid on Priceline will save you money, but unlike hotels, there are frequent instances where the bid prices are very similar (or even higher) than the standard rates listed on company websites. It's worth shopping Priceline, but don't expect it to save you significant money on every rental.

    Another good strategy is to shop the special offers pages for each company. Up next, a list of links to get you started.

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    Special Offers to get you on the Road

    Car rental special offers can get you on the road for less money.
    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with

    Some of the best rental rates originate in special offers pages. Here are some "deal" pages worth checking:

    Look for the red "hot deals" tab at the top of the home page. There is a variety of discounts linked here.

    Auto Europe
    Here you'll find rental deals and other incentives that could cut your travel costs.

    Click the "deals" tab on the Avis header. Avis offers deals within the U.S. and at other locations around the world.

    Links to rental deals for five to seven consecutive days in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan.

    Those seeking a deal in the U.S. can enter a destination zip code and get discounts by location.

    Click on the "Deals & Offers" tab at the top, then click on the Cars tab under Last Minute Deals.

    This page includes deal tabs for Featured Offers, Partner Offers, Destination Deals, AAA/CAA Offers and Global Destinations.

    Click on the cars tab. Orbitz usually features one company's latest special offer. You can subscribe to this on an RSS feed.

    There are some attractive weekly rates in Europe, quoted in Euros.

    Click the Cars/Rail tab at the very top of the page. On a recent search, there were eight different companies linked from this page.

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