When you need to reserve a rental car, where do you check? Do you just pull up your favorite booking app on your phone and go? Or return to the company you usually rent from because you’ll get loyalty points?
Well you may be flushing a lot of extra money down the drain by renting a car by habit or by by being in a hurry.
I’ve got to rent one for a wedding in October, when I’ll be flying into a relatively small regional aiport, in Roanoke, Virginia. First I checked flight prices on Allegiant, which goes direct for a good price (despite all the annoying fees). They helpfully offered me a rental car on their one and only partner Alamo for $138.
Sometimes the airlines offer good partner rates—I once got a car in Puerto Vallarta for $16 a day—but this one didn’t sound so good.
So I pulled up AirportRentalCars.com, which is a division of Priceline. Here’s what they showed for the exact same car from Alamo, with some even better deals from other rental brands.
Could I do better? The next stop was CarRentals.com, which also searches multiple agencies and is frequently the lowest apart from opaque Hotwire. Sure enough, that shaved a few more dollars off. (Kayak came in somewhere between these two by $1-$3 per day difference on every result, so if you’re in a hurry on a mobile phone, that’s probably a safe bet.)
But what about Hotwire? That’s my usual stop when my plans are solid as I almost never see them coming in higher than the sites where you know the company. Yes indeed, a compact car there was only $81— a 20% savings.
Some of the best deals I was seeing on the other sites though were from Avis. I’ve got Preferred status there because of a credit card I have, which could save me some time and hassle, so I figured I might as well go check their rates to see what it would cost to go direct.
And I got…a better rate than anywhere besides Hotwire. A compact came in at $85. Since I can reserve there and not pay until I arrive, and can upgrade to a larger car for the three of us and our luggage for not much more, I’m happy to pay a bit more than I would have through Hotwire. If my flight gets delayed I know I’ll be fine and plus I’ll get a few loyalty points from an airline on top. So I’m paying $99 with taxes and fees for the three days for a midsized/standard car. I can live with that, especially since I can get processed faster upon arrival.
Worst rate: the airline
Best rate: Hotwire
Best value overall: direct at Avis.
Your mileage may—and will—vary. Which is my point, really. You always need to shop around.