Car Rentals 101: Save Money on Your Rentals
The Best Websites for searching for car rentals
Unlike hotel and airfare rates, car rental prices vary wildly across different websites. Often the best rates are less than half of what you you can find on a site like Expedia or Travelocity. Unfortunately, there isn’t a car rental booking site that is right for every person, and every rental—although Autoslash comes close. The best options depend on how much time you are willing to spend, and what discounts you are entitled to use.
- You’ll never find a great rate for larger companies on websites like Expedia or Kayak. Most online travel sites only search the regular rates, not the special discounted rates that are widely available for car rentals. A quick search on these sites is a great way to see if there are any good options from smaller companies, and get a feel for which of the larger companies is likely to have the best rates for your upcoming trip, but it is rarely a good way to make your reservation.
- Autoslash is a bit of a pain to use, but often finds the best rates. We recommend always checking Autoslash when you are shopping for a car rental. It searches a wide variety of discount and coupon codes, across a number of sites, to try to find the lowest rate. That often means that your rate already includes a coupon code, and you won’t be able to add an additional coupon after you book.
- On average, Costco offers the best generally available discounts, and its site is easy to use. If you are a Costco member, their website is often the best place to go for a US or Canadian reservation (other than Autoslash). Their rates are generally better than what you can get with AAA, AARP, or other widely-available discounts codes. And they let you easily search Alamo, Avis, Budget, and Enterprise using a single search.
- The other widely available options for discounted rates are about the same. We found the discount rates available from Groupon tend to be a bit better than those from the Entertainment Book, AARP, BJs, AAA, or the car rental company’s loyalty program. However, on any given reservation, any given code can bring up the lowest rate, and if you are willing to spend the time, it can be worthwhile checking multiple codes.
- If you have access to a good corporate or organizational discount code, it can often provide the best rates with certain car rental companies. For example, one of us used to work at Microsoft, and their rates with Avis and National were often fantastic, especially for domestic rentals. However, their rate with Hertz was often higher than the non-discounted prices. Many discount codes available to employees of smaller companies are not as good. If your organization allows you to use their car rental rates with your personal rentals, it is worthwhile to check them—either through your organization’s travel portal, or by entering an applicable rate code into each rental company’s website. Use Corporate Car Rental Discounts (If You Can).
In most cases, Autoslash winds up finding the cheapest rates for most of our rentals, but don't count on it always being lower than what you can find elsewhere, even for sites that it purports to search. Nevertheless, if you are going to search only one site, make it Autoslash.
Unlike most other websites, Autoslash doesn't show you your rates right away. Instead, you fill out your rental information, and they will send you an email a few minutes later. When you click on a link in the email, you'll visit a webpage that shows your rates (for the specific car size you asked for) from a number of different rental car companies.
If you want to make a reservation, you can access the discounted rates via Priceline. This may be confusing, because while you book through Priceline, the rates are the ones that Autoslash found, not the normal rates you would find if you went to Priceline directly. Rest assured that Autoslash isn't just a front-end to the Priceline website. They just have a deal that lets them leverage Priceline to handle the backend of the reservation. Also, while it says "Pay at Counter" that usually translates to paying when you drop off your car.
In many cases, you'll also have the option of booking an even cheaper rate directly through Autoslash. For these "Pay Now" rates, you'll need to pay in full when you make the reservation, but you can cancel or change the reservation up to 48 hours before pick-up. This is much better than a typical non-refundable rate. On these reservations, you won't be able to add your frequent renter number to the reservation. You can add it at the counter when you arrive, or with National at the exit gate after you choose your car from the Emerald Aisle. But, this can be inconvenient.
Regardless of how you book, Autoslash will keep trying to get you a lower rate. If so, you'll get a notification to rebook your reservation at the lower rate.
Sometimes their rates can be ridiculously low. For example, for a recent weekend rental in San Diego, the normal rate was around $145. Discounted rates were around $100. But, Costco’s rate for an Avis rental was only $35.
Unfortunately, checking these rates can be time consuming. You can check BJs and AAA rates on their websites. But for Groupon, AARP, the Entertainment Card, and each rentals company’s member rates, you need to individually check each car rental company and code combination.
Our approach is to use a quick search on an online travel site (like Expedia) to narrow down the list of companies we check to only those with the lowest “regular” prices. For example, if a search on Expedia shows the lowest rates on Alamo and Hertz, focus your time there, rather than with Avis, National, etc. Then try your search using a couple of different codes to see which one has the lowest rates.
Don't ignore smaller rental car companies
Many people avoid smaller car rental companies, but we recommend taking advantage of renting from them, when their prices are significantly lower than what you can get at the larger companies.
In most cases, their airport locations are essentially just as conveniently located. While their cars are often (but not always) a bit older and more worn-down, they usually still provide reliable transportation.
- The cheapest rates are almost always at smaller car rental companies. You usually won’t find the best rates from Avis, Hertz, and National, or even from their somewhat smaller brethren, like Alamo or Budget. Instead, the very best rates are likely to be from much smaller companies like E-Z Car Rentals or Ace Rent a Car. For example:
- A Christmas week rental in Orlando from Avis or Hertz is around $400. You can get the price down to around $300, by taking advantage of various discounted rates. But a mid-size rental with Economy Rent-a-car, for the same week, is only $132.
- A weekend rental on a less busy weekend in San Diego might cost around $145 with the big-name companies, or about $100 with a good discounted rate. However, you can rent a car with several smaller companies for only about $55.
- A one-day rental on a busy weekday in Dallas might cost $80, or $70 with a discounted rate. However, you can rent a car from smaller companies for about $50.
- If you want to find rates for smaller car rental companies, you are going to have to search on an online travel site like Expedia or Kayak.com. Many of the more specialized car rental sites (described above) don’t search the little guys.
- On average, you can expect more hassles at pickup. Some locations try to make up for their low rates with aggressive sales pushes. In addition, you may need to spend more time inspecting the car for damage, and there are no "choose your car" programs to take advantage of. One more warning. AutoSlash, one of our favorite car rental resources, specifically recommends avoiding Payless.
- The biggest downside of smaller companies is that they don’t have many off-airport locations. This makes it harder to take advantage of tactics that avoid airport taxes, or deal with a car that is having unexpected problems.
It doesn’t make much difference which one you use. We compared a handful of sites like Expedia, Travelocity, carrentals.com, and rentalcars.com, and in almost all cases, they returned essentially the same prices. Perhaps that comes as no surprise, as Expedia owns many of them.
Other tips to save money on your car rentals
- Always use a coupon for your rental (on top of whatever discounted rate you are getting). Even when you are renting a car with a discount code, such as from AAA or Costco, you can still apply a car rental coupon to save even more. Valid coupon codes are almost always available, trivial to find, and sometimes deliver substantial additional savings, like a free day on a weekend rental or $25 off a weekly rental. At a minimum, you should be able to get a free upgrade to the next sized car. Without much effort, you should be able use a coupon on every rental. For more details on finding and using coupons, view:
- Consider prepaying to get a 5-30% discount. Being able to cancel or change your reservation, at any time, without any fees, is one of the best things about typical car rentals. While this freedom is great for renters, it makes it hard for the car rental companies to do business. As a result, most rental companies have started offering additional discounts to people who are willing to prepay for their rental, and agree to a non-refundable rate. Just remember, if you take advantage of these rates and need to make any changes, you'll pay a penalty or forfeit the entire amount of money you've spent; and you won't be able to take advantage of a better deal or promotion you find afterwards.
- For domestic rentals, consider booking an economy car. Because demand for economy and compact cars is so low, US-based rental locations typically don’t keep many of these cars in stock, and you’ll frequently get a free upgrade to a larger car—while still paying the lowest possible price. If you prefer a larger car, and aren’t automatically upgraded, you can typically pay a small additional charge at pick-up, to get the card you want. However, if you really must have a larger car, reserve it ahead-of-time, and don't take any chances.
- Use a credit card that offers bonus rewards for travel purchases. The best credit cards for travel rewards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (which also provides primary rental car coverage), earn rewards with a value of around 5.1 cents per dollar on car rentals. That’s like getting another 5.1% off your rental price. Best Credit Cards for Travel Spending.
- (advanced) Consider renting an off-airport location instead. Primarily due to the high taxes and fees imposed at airport rental locations, you can often save a considerable amount of money by renting at an off-airport location instead. The cost of a quick taxi or car service ride to the rental location can often be a small fraction of the amount you can save. Alternatively, you can rent a car at the airport for the first day, and then swap it out at an off-airport location, for the rest of your rental period. Eliminate Expensive Taxes and Fees by Renting or Swapping Your Car at Non-Airport Locations.
If you are almost certain that you are going on your trip, it is often worth the risk. One strategy we often follow is to lock in a good regular (refundable) car rental rate, and then a few days before the trip, switch over to a lower non-refundable rate (if it is still available).
Another caveat is that the best coupons are often not valid on rental classes below an intermediate car. You may pay less overall to book an intermediate car with a coupon, than a economy car without one.
Automatic upgrades from economy to larger-sized cars don't work in much of the rest of the world. Outside of the United States, many people prefer smaller cars. You should follow their lead, if you can, as rates for larger cars are often much higher.
- Rates from corporate codes often stay low, even when regular rates go sky high. Businesses put a high priority on the predictability of rates from their car rental partners. As a result, many corporate contracts have relatively “flat” pricing, (the negotiated rates don’t fluctuate as much as regular rates). When demand is high, and the “regular” prices rise significantly, the price for the corporate rental can remain low.
- Rates from Citibank’s travel portal can stay relatively low as well. If you have a ThankYou Rewards credit card, you can use the Citibank Travel Portal to book cash-based reservations, not just reservations that use your points. The rates on this portal are simply weird. Most of the time that we’ve checked, rates are higher than the rates available from other discounts, and sometimes higher than even the non-discounted rates. However, when prices are particularly high, the rates (particularly with National Rental Car) can be significantly lower than other websites. For the Maui reservation above, the best non-corporate rate we could find was $820 at Costco. However, Citibank had rates available for only $400. Chase's travel portal used to work similarly. But it is now powered by Expedia, and no longer offers unusual rates.
For example, we recently looked at a Christmas rental in Orlando where National’s public prices were over $600, but the rate with Microsoft’s corporate code was only $266; and a weekly rental in Maui where all the big car rental companies were almost $1,000, and the rate with the Microsoft code was only $237.
When rates are very high, always try any corporate codes you have access to. You might not save as much as the examples above, but you are likely to save more money than you can from the more generally available discount programs.
Avoid paying for any optional fees
Once you’ve booked a good rate, you need to avoid paying any unnecessary fees.
- (In most cases) turn down the insurance options. If you have auto insurance, are using a credit card, and are renting in the United States, Canada, or Europe, you are almost certainly covered by your existing insurance. Ignore the sales pitch and turn down all the extra insurance options. However, if you don’t have regular auto insurance, or you are travelling outside of these areas, you might need to get liability coverage from the car rental company. Guide to Car Rental Insurance.
- Turn down the prepaid tank of gas. Car rental companies typically offer to let you prepay for gas at competitive prices, so that you don’t have to swing by a gas station before you return your car. This is almost always a bad deal. They charge you for the entire tank, regardless of how much gas is in the tank when you return the car. If you come back with a half tank, you're effectively paying double the per-gallon-rate. The only way a prepaid tank is affordable, is if you bring the car back nearly empty—but that's stressful and not always possible. On a short rental, consider having the car rental company fill the car up for you and just pay the high per-gallon cost. On a longer rental, fill it up yourself.
- Use your phone instead of a GPS. The days of needing to rent a GPS navigation system while travelling in strange city are gone. Take advantage of the mapping software that runs on your phone. Just make sure to travel with a way to plug your phone in, to keep the batteries going. We also recommend travelling with a cell phone mount.
- Try to avoid using the rental car tolling transponder to pay electronic tolls. If you are renting in an area with electronic tolling, your car will come with a tolling device, and your rental company will pass on any electronic tolls. However, they will also add an additional fee of typically $3-4 for every day of your rental (not just the days you pay tolls), while at the same time charging you the non-discounted toll rate. This is a plain-and-simple rip off. If you can, avoid toll roads and tolled lanes and you’ll avoid these ridiculous “convenience” fees. However, sometimes it is impossible or inconvenient to avoid electronic tolling. In that case, you still have some options to avoid the extra fees. Avoid Paying Outrageous Car Rental Toll Surcharges.
- You can often avoid paying an additional driver fee. Most car rental companies will allow you to add your spouse or domestic partner as an additional driver, at no additional charge, at least for members of their loyalty programs. Some will even let you add any other person as a free additional driver. For details see:
Avoiding hassles when you rent
Your car rentals should be easy, as well as inexpensive.
- Join the car rental company’s loyalty program for much faster checkout. At major airport locations, you can often just take your pick of the available cars in the lot and drive away, without any additional paperwork. At most other locations, you only need to show your ID at a special rental counter and then pickup your keys. There is no interminable checkout process, and no need to listen to any annoying sales pitches. Unlike the bad old days, it doesn’t cost anything to join the programs, and you’ll save a bunch of time every time you rent. Join Major Car Rental Loyalty Programs for Faster Car Pickup—They’re Free.
- Use a credit card that gives you “primary” car insurance, if you have one. Almost every credit card offers insurance for theft or damage to your rental car. However, in most cases, the coverage is “secondary”. If something happens to the car, you’ll need to file a claim with your personal auto insurance policy first. Your credit card will just cover anything that your regular insurance doesn’t. However, a few credit cards offer “primary” coverage, allowing you to avoid involving your auto insurance at all. This only applies to US and Canadian rentals. In other parts of the world, your regular auto insurance never applies, and almost all credit cards essentially provide primary coverage. Credit Cards That Provide “Primary” Rental Car Coverage.
- Take photos of any damage. If you are diligent, you should walk around the car and take a photo of any damage that you see, so you can’t be charged later. While we don’t always do that (even though we should), we also take a picture of the license plate so that it is easy to look up the number at hotel check-in, or in other circumstance where we need it.
The good news is that if you are following our basic strategy, the Sapphire Reserve offers primary rental car insurance, as well as the best reward rate on car rentals.
Get elite car rental status from your credit cards
One of the benefits of Mastercard World Elite, Amex Platinum, and Visa Infinite credit cards is elite status with one or more car rental companies.
Being an elite member of a car rental loyalty program is nice, but not exceedingly valuable. You get a decent chance of a one-class rental car upgrade, and somewhat faster reward earning rate on your rentals.
As a result, we would never recommend getting a credit card, just to get elite rental car status. However, there is a reasonable chance that you already have, or will wind up getting, at least one of the cards; and you might as well take advantage of this benefit. Just having the credit card is not enough. You’ll need to go online, or call the rental car company, after you get your credit card, to set up your status.
- Visa Infinite Cards. With a Visa Infinite card you get elite status with National. The Sapphire Reserve Card is a Visa Infinite card, as is the CNB Crystal Infinite Card, UBS Infinite Card, and the no longer available for new signups Ritz Carlton Credit Card.
- World Elite Mastercard. Elite status with Avis and Sixt. Avis elite status isn't mentioned on the World Elite Master Card Rental Car Benefits Webpage, but is still available through this Avis webpage.
- American Express Platinum. Platinum cards also come with National elite status.
Some common World Elite Mastercards include the Citi Prestige Card, Citi Premier Card, American Airlines Platinum Card, and Arrival Card. The Citi Double Cash Card and Citi Preferred Card don't come standard as World Elite cards, but can be converted to the better World Elite version, for no extra charge.
- If you have the American Express Platinum card, you can get a 4-hour grace period on Hertz rentals. In some cases, this can save you from the cost of an entire day’s reservation. For example, if you are planning to pick up your car at noon and then drop it off by 4pm the following day, instead of needing to rent the car for two days, you'll only need to pay for a single day rental.
- You can use National Car Rental Emerald Club Free Rental Days for one-way rentals. One-way rentals can sometimes be extraordinarily expensive. One option is to use any free rental days you’ve earned from National to pay for those rentals. They work for one-way rentals for no extra fee, and have no black-out dates.
If you want to take advantage of this, you need to reserve with a special Amex Platinum rate code, and book the reservation so that your return time is the same as the rental time. But, when you return the car late, you won’t be charged for the extra hours.
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