If you want to consistently find bargain car rentals when you travel, you may need to invest a little time to shop around. And probably take a chance now and then.
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 signed up at some point to 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 spent way more than I’d like for a car rental on some occasions, when demand was really high like Christmas week. In those cases–and I had one of them just last month–I usually rent from Alamo because if you sign up for their loyalty program, you actually get something tangible: a 5% discount automatically on the published rates. They were also offering a one-class upgrade too, so I upgraded to a small SUV in case it snowed.
Most of the time, however, my rental has come in somewhere between $2 a day and $35 a day, over the course of 50+ rentals in 8 countries.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned for all that, it’s to leave my options open and to keep on checking back up until the day before I’m getting the car. I’ve sometimes saved $100 or more this way, which I then had to spend on site after arrival on food, drinks, or fun.
Look for Bargain Car Rentals in Multiple Places
How does this work in practice?
A few years back I had to rent a car for a wedding and I was flying into a relatively small regional airport with my family, in Roanoke, Virginia. First I checked flight prices on Allegiant, which goes direct from my former U.S. home of Tampa Bay 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 through the airline site—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? I did a search on Kayak and ended up on CarRentals.com, owned by Priceline’s rival Expedia. Sure enough, that shaved a few more dollars off.
But what about Hotwire? That Expedia-owned company is my usual stop when my plans are solid. Some of their best deals are hidden, which means you don’t know the rental car company until you book. But as a result 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. At the time I had Preferred status there because of a premium credit card I used to carry, 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 could reserve there and not pay until I arrive, and could upgrade to a larger car for the three of us and our luggage for not much more, I was happy to pay a bit more than I would have through Hotwire. If my flight got delayed I would still be fine.
In the end I paid $99 with taxes and fees for the three days for a mid-sized car. I could 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.
How to Shop Around for Bargain Car Rentals
Here’s what I usually do to find bargain car rentals, though I’d add one more thing to this list if you have a Costco membership: check the Costco site. It seems weird, I know, but a few frequent traveler friends of mine say they often find the best deal there when they shop around. Make that membership pay off!
You also may get a better rate through some other membership program like AAA, AARP, or any kind of union, or if you’re an active member of the military.
Otherwise, start with whatever is on your phone or bookmarked on your laptop to get a general idea. I have Kayak on mine and usually start there just to see if moving things around by day or time of day makes any difference (sometimes this can make a huge difference). Also check non-airport locations just in case: sometimes the difference will more than pay for an Uber ride.
Once you’ve figured out the pick-up time, drop-off time, and location, start comparing apples to apples at other sites, making sure you’ve used at least one metasearch one like Kayak.
Are your plans locked down solid? If so, then check Hotwire for their hidden rates where you don’t know the rental car company and you have to pay in advance. If there’s a huge price difference, snag it. I did this the day before departure a couple of months ago and saved $135 over the one I had booked with Alamo. I canceled that first one and took the Hotwire deal.
Still not finding a cheap rental car deal you like? Check the airline site for the carrier you’re flying with if you’re coming in by air. Usually they don’t have great deals, but sometimes they do. I’ve taken one on Southwest’s site a couple times.
If you’ve found the best price you can through the major rental car companies, is there a way to at least get a little bit back? If you book through your preferred loyalty program’s mileage mall, you might earn something. Or with Ebates (now rebranded to Rakuten Travel–ugh), you get a rebate back in cash. Naturally, you want to use a credit card that earns you points or miles on top too.
A last resort can be lesser-known or independent rental car companies that don’t show up on the main online booking sites. This is a bit more risky, yes, but it can pay to check one like Rent-a-Wreck or the peer-to-peer rental sites like Turo, Getaround, or Maven. With the latter you are renting from an actual person, so read the FAQs about what kind of insurance you need to have.
Then there’s one last option of course if the price is too high: don’t rent at all. With Lyft and Uber being almost everywhere now, you are often better off financially not renting one at all if you’ll be in an urban environment. For touring the countryside though, like taking a Yellowstone road trip through Wyoming, you’re going to need your own wheels.
What About Insurance?
If you have normal car insurance, whether it’s for one car or multi-car insurance, you’re probably set for both liability and collision damage. Then your credit card probably provides collision damage insurance on top of that. The problem comes in, as I have found, when you don’t own a car at all. This is becoming increasingly common in the age of location independent jobs and ride-sharing services since your own auto is a huge expense. Plus if you live abroad, you wouldn’t have any reason to keep expensive insurance in your own country.
I’ve been relying on my credit card or travel insurance to cover collision, but the liability part is not covered. So I’ve been paying a bundle each time to add it on, sometimes as much as the car rental itself. I think I’ve found a solution though: I got a six-month “non-owner auto policy” from GEICO that covers liability for me and my wife. Chances are low that we’ll cause a wreck, but I don’t want to be out tens of thousands of dollars if there’s an accident. This way I’m set and after about 10 days in a rental car, I’ll be better off than buying from the agency. I did five days of that in the first week after I got the policy. You can’t do it online though—you have to phone them.
Mid-2021 update: As we have come out of the pandemic in the USA, it has gotten much tougher to find cheap car rentals in popular tourist areas. Remember, Hertz filed for bankruptcy as soon as the downturn started and all of the rental car companies sold off vehicles to raise cash. Unfortunately, now they need to buy them back again, just at the time when sales are highest and there’s a chip shortage creating production delays.
This backlog is going to take a while to sort itself out in places like Florida, California, and Hawaii–in the last one there’s the added problem that vehicles have to be shipped across an ocean.
What tips do you have about renting a car when traveling?
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