Savvy travelers scrutinize airfares and hotel room rates before they book but often accept car rental rates at face value. Hidden charges frequently inflate the advertised price, though, so it's worth taking a closer look at the bottom line before you sign.
To secure the best deal, recognize that rates vary—sometimes by quite a bit—between companies and destinations. Do your comparison shopping, keeping some common scenarios in mind. And consider joining a loyalty program when you find a company you particularly like; you might save even more down the road.
Beware of Hidden Fees and Extras
Taxes and various fees can also quickly increase an advertised rental rate, so make sure you consider all charges when you comparison shop. While sales tax should be standard in a given location, some companies tack on energy surcharges, tire and battery recovery fees, and vehicle licensing fees.
And unless you specifically decline the offers, you may be charged extra for a GPS navigation system, satellite radio, additional drivers, and unnecessary insurance to cover theft of your personal items should someone break into your rental car.
Rental companies often charge an exorbitant price to top off the gas tank after you return the car. Request one with a full tank, then make sure you return it that way.
Unexpected cleaning fees can also increase the final bill. Most companies accept normal wear and tear without additional charges, but if you take a rental car to the beach, for example, you should vacuum out any sand before you return it.
Avoid Airport Rentals
Renting a car at the airport is certainly convenient, but you must be prepared to pay for that convenience. In addition to just generally higher daily rates, airport car rentals often carry a so-called "concession recovery fee," which reimburses the car rental company for the fee charged by the airport to do business there.
Some money-saving alternatives can be nearly as convenient as an airport rental. For example, if your travel plans require an overnight stay in your arrival city, look for a car rental company with a lot near your hotel or one willing to provide transportation to the rental lot or drop a car off at the hotel for you. You may also save money simply by paying for transportation from the airport to a nearby car rental agency.
Decline the Insurance
You may plan to decline the rental company's insurance offers, but be prepared for pressure at the rental counter. Companies make big profits from insurance fees, and some train their clerks to create anxiety for people who try to say no thanks, in an effort to change their minds.
They may tell you that their insurance closes expensive loopholes. You might also hear stories about a customer whose auto insurance or credit card failed to cover damages during a recent accident. They could bring up a loss of use expense, which essentially reimburses the rental car company for lost revenues on a car while it gets repaired or replaced.
And while there may be truth in the stories, the odds that you will need the coverage are slim. Many personal auto insurance policies cover car rentals as well; call your agent to verify the details on yours.
You should also check with your credit card company; some provide automatic collision coverage and other benefits when you pay for a car rental using their card.
Also, be sure to check with your credit card company or auto insurance agent if you plan to rent a car outside of your country of residence. Don't assume you're covered; agreements involving international rentals contain a lot of fine print.
Reserve the Smallest Car Possible
Many North Americans prefer larger cars. Rental companies know this, so they typically keep more mid-size and full-size cars in stock.
At smaller facilities and non-hub airports, they may have only a few compacts. On some days, they run out entirely. If you reserve a compact, but the rental car company has none on hand when you show up to take possession, they are obligated to give you a free upgrade. Sometimes you can move up two entire categories for no additional charge.
In larger facilities with a huge supply of vehicles, this strategy rarely works. But it could be worth a try if you can handle the prospect of driving a smaller car. You're also unlikely to make this strategy pay outside of North America. The rest of the world often prefers small, fuel-efficient cars.
Shop for Quirky Deals
Strange as it might seem, reserving a car for a week (even if it sits in a driveway or parking lot) may cost less 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. You could get a better rate if you pick up the car on Thursday, even if you don't really need it until Friday. The Friday rental might come with a weekend surcharge, increasing the total cost to more than it would be with a weekday pickup.
Check for discounts through any consumer memberships organizations you belong to, such as AAA or AARP. Your Costco card may also entitle you to a rental discount. And watch for coupons in local promotional mailers and online. You may also be able to apply travel points accrued through a credit card to lower the cost of a car rental.
Research Special Offers
Some of the best rental rates originate on "Special Offers" pages from individual companies.
- Alamo: Look for featured specials and deals on the homepage, which can range from last-minute specials to low-season rates to one-way rental offers.
- Auto Europe: Before you leave home, research deals and other incentives that could cut your travel costs in Europe.
- Avis: Check the "Offers" tab on the Avis header for deals within the U.S. and at locations around the world.
- Budget: Links to rental deals for five to seven consecutive days in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan.
- Dollar: Those seeking a deal in the U.S. can enter a destination zip code and get discounts by location.
- Hertz: This page includes tabs for "Featured Offers," "Partner Offers," "Destination Deals," "AAA/CAA Offers," and "Global Destinations."
- Orbitz: Under the "Cars" tab, Orbitz usually features one company's latest special offer. You can subscribe to this on an RSS feed.
- Sixt: Look for some attractive weekly rates in Europe, quoted in euros.