10 Easy Ways to Lower Rental Car Costs

A car descends Conzelman Road in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, California.
Jeff Diener/Getty Images

Renting a car? Keep your costs down by following these 10 easy tips:

Book with Autoslash. Rental car prices are determined by surge pricing, which means they are based on supply and demand and rise and fall over time. Want to be certain you're getting the very best price? Book through Autoslash and the site will track your car rental price up until you pick up the vehicle. Every time the price falls, it will let you know and, if you would like, rebook you at the lower price. You just sit back and watch the refund emails come in, likely accruing several price drops before you step into your rental. In addition, Autoslash will apply any eligible discount coupon codes, which may further lower your cost. Try it once and you'll never book a rental car any other way.

Don't buy more insurance than you need. Does rental car insurance bewilder you? You can get peace of mind and avoid overpaying by investigating what coverage you may already have through your personal auto insurance policy or credit card. Just as important, however, is knowing when it makes sense to spring for over-the-counter insurance at the rental car agency.

According to a WalletHub study of rental car coverage by credit cards, Chase cards and Wells Fargo cards offered the best protection to cardholders who are renting cars, while American Express cards offered the worst protection. The bottom line is to know your card's policy before you get to the rental car desk.

Prepay when you can. You can save a bundle by prepaying for your rental car. And unlike with a prepaid hotel room, you will get your money back if you cancel, minus a small processing fee. Always confirm the cancellation policy if you go this route.

Avoid the airport. It's more convenient to rent from an airport location, but you’ll almost always pay significantly more due to pesky, mandatory airport fees and taxes. If your hotel has a free airport shuttle, it can make more sense to find a rental location nearby. 

Compare weekend and weekly rates. Always do the math. In general, per-diem rates drop when you book for a longer period of time, so it may make sense to book a weekly rate even if you only need a car for six days. If you think you might be returning your car earlier than expected, find out in advance how that will affect your price. Be aware that some, but not all, agencies charge early return fees of $15 to $20.

Keep your eye on the 24-hour clock. Most rental companies count time on a 24-hour clock, with a 30 minute grace period. Let's say you rent your car at 9:30 am on Thursday and return it on Sunday. Return the car by 10 am and you'll be charged for three days. Roll in at noon and you'll get pinged for an extra day. 

Pick up and return from the same location. Even if the two locations are just a few miles apart, you may be charged a transfer fee if the rental agency needs to drive the car back to its original location. Always ask how returning at a different location might affect your costs.

Make sure you get unlimited miles. Most major rental car companies offer unlimited mileage within the same state or country, but always double check before you plunk down your credit card. Many smaller, local companies offer a daily allotment of mileage, and you get stung with a hefty penalty if you go over. 

Decline the GPS. Nowadays car rental companies will offer vehicles equipped with a GPS, which can cost up to an additional $20 a day. Just say no and use a free smartphone GPS app such as Waze or MapQuest.

Return with a full tank. In most cases, if you return a car with an empty or partially full tank, you'll be charged a premium for the gas required to top it up. 

Avoid the worst rental car companies.

Many car rental companies now offer the option of purchasing a full tank of gas when you first take the car, which lets you to return the car with as little fuel as you wish. If you go with this option, it makes sense to return the car empty, since you won't be refunded for unused gas. While you will likely pay a little more per gallon for this option, you may find value in the added convenience.

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