Advanced Car Rental Strategies (2021)
Getting a better car rental rate with Priceline or Hotwire
When you book a car with either of these sites, you'll see the prices for different classes of cars, but you won't know the name of the car rental company until you’ve finished making the reservation. The rental will be with one of the brand-name car rental companies, you just won’t know which one until you book.
- Reservations can't be changed or cancelled. For most people, the main downside of these reservations isn't that you don't know the exact rental company you will be using. It is that, unlike most regular car rental reservations, they aren't refundable. So always compare against non-refundable rates and don't book unless you know you won't have to make any changes.
- Rates don't include taxes and fees. Make sure to compare against the base rates on other sites, not the full amount due for the rental.
- Hotwire's and Priceline's "opaque rates" aren't always the best rates you can find. For hotel reservations, Hotwire and Priceline kicks a**. Their room rates are almost always lower than what you would pay elsewhere and sometimes much lower. The same isn’t true for car rentals. Rates are good, but they aren’t necessarily the lowest rates you can find. You can frequently get a better rate using a smaller car rental company, instead of one of the big-name companies; and if you choose to rent from the big guys, you can often uncover better rates using a discount code at another site.
- But unlike using Hotwire or Priceline for hotels, not knowing the name of the company is often no big deal.
- You can book a refundable reservation and then re-book through Hotwire or Priceline when you get closer to your trip. If the rates are still lower, you can improve your rate while avoiding locking yourself into a non-refundable reservation too far ahead of time.
Collecting extra rewards from your car rental
- Everyone should already be collecting credit card rewards for their car rental, ideally with a credit card, like the Sapphire Reserve, that offers a great bonus reward rate on travel spending and primary rental car insurance. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
- It is easy to collect extra rewards from the car rental company's own reward program. It is always worthwhile to join car rental loyalty programs just to get faster access to your car (and sometimes the ability to choose your preferred car from the rental car aisle). By doing so, you'll also earn reward points for all your rentals (from Avis, Hertz, National, Enterprise, Dollar, and Thrifty).
- You can often earn hundreds or thousands of extra reward points with rental car promotions. In some cases, the promotions are so good that they should drive your rental car decision, rather than simply going for the best rate. Note that in some cases, you won't get rental car loyalty points when you take advantage of one of these promotions. In other cases, you will.
- You can earn extra car rental rewards by booking through Expedia. You'll receive 2 Expedia points for every dollar. Expedia points are usually worth around .7 cents each, effectively giving you an extra 1.4% back on top of the other rewards you would earn.
- Finally, you can often layer on more rewards with a shopping portal. If you visit the shopping portal first and then click on the name of the rental car company you want to use, you'll earn cash back or extra reward points. For example, you might get 4% cash back for booking a rental on National's website.
- Shopping portals don't always work with discounted car rental rates—but you might as well try. If you are using a promotional, membership, or corporate discount code for your car rental, there is a good chance that you won't receive any cashback or points from a shopping portal. Depending on the discount code you use, the rental company won't provide a commission and therefore you won't get paid by the portal.
- You are more likely to get shopping portal rewards when you book through a 3rd party booking site. If you book the car through a site like Expedia or Priceline, you can collect shopping portal commissions for those sites. You need to be careful of the published rates on the cashback comparison sites. The actual shopping portal reward rates for travel booking sites depends on the specific type of travel you purchase. Rates are highest for prepaid hotels (and sometimes packages) and lowest for airfare.
With each of these programs, you will lose your points after 12 to 36 months of inactivity. National's rental credits don't expire due to inactivity, but their award rental days are only good for 12 months. If you don't rent very often, you may be better off choosing to earn hotel points or frequent flyer miles instead. The rental points are likely more valuable, but are also more likely to expire unused.
Of course, it doesn't make sense to pay a higher rate just to get the Expedia rewards. Fortunately, if you find a good rate using a discount code, you can often get that same rate from Expedia. You just need to click on the "Additional Options" link below the rental information, select the rental car company, and enter your code information.
Behind the scenes, National pays the shopping portal a commission for sending it a customer and the shopping portal rebates some of this commission back to you. Use Cashback Monitor or Cashbackholic to check current rates. Earn extra rewards using Shopping Portals.
In addition, some rental car companies will only pay shopping portal commissions for car rentals where you pay upfront, rather than paying when you return the car.
It is nearly impossible to know whether you will or won't receive shopping portal rewards. As a result, our advice is to book through a portal anyway and see if you get the extra rewards. It just doesn't take much extra time.
Car rental rates are usually somewhere in the middle, with typical cashback rates of 2-8%. The Expedia sites (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.) let you enter rental car discount and coupon codes so you can still access discounted rates, while earning these extra rewards. Remember that with Expedia, you also earn Expedia points. So, add 1.4% to the shopping portal rate when deciding which booking site to use.
Even without a special promotion, you can usually earn frequent flyer miles from your rental. But it usually isn't worth it.
To qualify for the miles, you sometimes need to use a special rate code and you'll usually need to pay a "point surcharge". The cost of the point surcharge is usually close to, or higher than, the value of the points. For example, a typical rental car company will add 75 cents to $1.00 per day to your rental if you want to get miles and typically gives you 50 frequent flyer miles per day. Even at a value of 1.5 cents per mile, that works out to 75 cents worth of miles per day. Sometimes you can receive 500 miles for the entire rental period, which can make the miles worthwhile on a shorter rental.
In addition, you'll also have to forgo any points you would have earned from the car rental company's own loyalty program. These rewards are usually more valuable (if they don't expire unused) and don't require you to pay any extra fees.
- Sometimes it make sense to split your rental into two parts. If you can save enough money, it might be worthwhile to swing by a rental location in the middle of a trip. If you rent with the same company, you can often drive to the new location, do some paperwork, and then drive away in the same car. But you should be prepared to switch cars if necessary (e.g. fill it up first).
- Some one-way rentals where you also need the car for a few extra days at the start or end of your trip. One-way rentals can be expensive. If you are going to spend extra time at the destination at the beginning or end of your trip, it is often cheaper to book two separate car rental reservations. Limit your one-way rental to the actual number of days that you will be travelling between cities. Then use lower cost reservations for any additional time you are spending at the starting or ending location. This works when the car rental company raises the daily rate or charges for miles on one-way rentals. If they simply charge a large drop-off fee, the number of days on the one-way part of your rental may not matter.
- Some expensive airport rentals. Airport taxes can be very expensive. To reduce the taxes you pay, you can rent the car when you arrive for a day or two, then continue on with a separate rental at a less expensive non-airport location.
- Some trips where you are staying put for a couple of days. Hotel parking can be very expensive. If you need a car for your trip, but are staying put for a few days, it can make sense to "return" your car near where you are staying and then rent another car when you are ready to leave.
- Travel with an E-Z Pass (or other tolling transponders). You can use these in your rental car to avoid paying extra toll fees and surcharges. The same E-Z Pass system works in most states that have electronic tolling, including the entire Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and much of the Mid-West. If you don't live in one of these states or don't have a portable transponder, order one to take on your trips. Massachusetts’s program is probably the best option. There is no charge for the transponder, you can get started with only a $20 balance, and there are no ongoing fees. It takes only a few minutes to apply online, and they’ll mail the pass to your house (at no extra fee), so you’ll be ready for your next trip. Getting your own Florida SunPass can also be a sensible option. Avoid Paying Outrageous Car Rental Toll Surcharges.
- If you need your car close to midnight, try several pickup times. Sometimes booking with a time just before midnight can give you different rates than a time just after midnight. These rates will usually hold regardless if you are an hour earlier or later than your reservation time.
Another special case is where you need to pick up in one state and will be returning in a neighboring state. In many cases, rentals that stay within a state or a metropolitan area don't have prohibitive one-way charges. So, you can combine a one-way rental that crosses the border with a less expensive "in-state" rental.
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