Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
The summer driving season is upon us, and with gas prices so high, I thought it would be helpful to put together this list of the top 10 ways to save on car rentals so you can get where you need to go without emptying your bank account to get there.
1. Continuously check for lower rates: Most car rental reservations are cancellable up until the last minute, so even after you make your reservation, be sure to check back over time and use different coupon codes and discount codes to see how low you can go. Another great way to make sure you get the lowest rate possible is to book through Autoslash, a website where you can make car rental reservations through several of the major agencies. However, unlike other aggregate sites, this one will automatically check for better rates based on your reservation every day and will automatically rebook you at lower price levels if better rates become available. Just note, Thrifty and Hertz are no longer supported on Autoslash, so if either of those is your program of choice, you’ll have to do your own homework. Key tip: Priceline and Hotwire are very good at finding deeply discounted car rental rates. However, these reservations are generally non-refundable and you don’t earn miles on rentals made through them. The savings can be so steep that this is totally worth it, though. As always, do your math before you commit.
2. Discount code, discount code, discount code! Car rental prices can be deeply discounted for members of frequent flyer programs, corporate travelers, AAA subscribers and even members of AARP, so do some internet research and play around with different discount codes, which are easily Google-able. I don’t want to get into the ethics of using a corporate discount rate, but in my hundreds of legitimate car rentals, I’ve never been asked to verify my discount code or employer.
3. Rent from a non-airport location: It might be a little less convenient if you’re flying somewhere and renting a car, but airport car rental agencies tack on a concession fee for rentals originating and/or ending at airport locations. This can be up to 10% of your rental cost, so picking up your car elsewhere can save you a huge chunk of change, even if it does require a short taxi ride.
4. Check out weekend and weekly rates: Depending on where you are renting a car, weekend rates can be much lower than renting a car during the week, so if you have flexibility in your travel plans, check out the dates before and after you plan to travel and see when the lowest rates are available. Not only that, but sometimes you can score super-low weekly rates on rentals that can actually be lower than just renting a vehicle for 3-4 days, and then you can just return the car early with no penalty, so be sure to research all your options.
5. Be savvy about your gas: Never take the pre-fill option, which assumes you will bring the car back on empty and pre-charges you for a tank of gas. Even though the rate might be slightly lower than what you can buy gas for at a station—the only way you get ahead is if you drop it off with almost no gas, and who really wants to do that? On the topic of gas, make sure you maximize the points you earn by using a credit that offers a points bonus on spending at gas stations. The Citi ThankYou Premier card scores you 5x points on gas station spending (among other category bonuses) and there’s no annual fee for the first year, so you could consider getting this card if you’re going to have a lot of driving expenses this summer. Also just in time for summer, the Chase Freedom quarterly spending bonuses will include a 5x bonus on gas stations from July-September, so be sure to register your card here by June 15. The PenFed Visa Platinum Gas/Cash card rewards cardholders with 5% cash back on all gas spend up to $50,000 a year and posts to your statement, so you can see immediate savings. Meanwhile, the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express gives you 3% cash back on gas purchases and the Amex Blue Cash Everyday gives you 2% cash back on gas up to $6,000 per year, while the Amex Premier Rewards Gold you 2x points on money spent at gas stations, and the Hilton HHonors Surpass card even offers 6 points per dollar spent at gas stations (the other Hilton credit cards offer between 3x and 6x points on gas), so you’ve got a lot of options.
6. Earn credit card spending bonuses on car rentals: Just like with spending on gas, some credit cards also offer spending category bonuses on travel. For instance, car rentals fall under the travel category on the Chase Sapphire Preferred, earning you 2x points on your rental spending, while the new Fairmont Visa also offers 2x points car rental agency expenses.
7. Use Points for Rental Car Certificates and Gas Cards:
Car rentals certificates: Let me be very clear: this is not your best redemption option, but if you’re looking to burn some points while saving cash, both Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards offer the opportunity to convert points into rental car certificates—usually at low ratios. You can use you Amex Membership Rewards points to redeem for Avis, Enterprise and National rental certificates at a rate of 1 cent per point, while Ultimate Rewards can be redeemed for Avis, Budget and Hertz rental certificates at the same rate.
Gas: Both Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points can be converted into gas cards (kind of like gift cards). Note, this is not the savviest redemption for your points, but it is a possibility for those who are rich in points and want to save in their budget. You can get Exxon and Mobile gift cards worth $10 each for 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points, or a $25 BP card for 2,500 Ultimate Rewards points with free shipping, so you’re redemption rate is 1 cent per point. Gas cards are also 6,500 Amex Membership Rewards points for $50, a value of about 0.77 cents each.
8. Negotiate your upgrade: Premium cars can cost an arm and a leg, but counter reps will negotiate much lower prices if they are available when you pick up your car. Ask at check-in if you can upgrade to a higher category, and if they quote you a price, be sure to negotiate since they won’t start at their best price. Here’s another tip: being super nice also helps. Just like with airline reps, rental agency reps are harried,
overpaid and underworked underpaid and overworked, so if you can be sweet and nice, you’re likelier to get an upgrade. Another way to get upgraded is to have elite status with your chain of choice. However, if you’re not a frequent renter, you can also capitalize on certain cards that automatically confer car rental agency elite status as part of their benefits packages, such as the Amex Platinum (Hertz Gold, National Executive) and the United Club Card (Avis President’s Club elite status). Having elite status can confer valuable perks such as automatic one- and two-category car rental upgrades, meaning you get a lot more car for your dollar and offsetting the high annual fees of these benefits-rich cards.
9. Don’t over-insure yourself: Don’t buy insurance you don’t need. Check your regular insurance policy to see if it covers car rentals as well, and research whether your credit cards provide rental car insurance. In most cases, the insurance you buy at a rental agency is duplicative. Do you really want to pay $50 to waive a $250 co-pay on your rental in case you get into an accident? I’m a betting man and would wager that you won’t get in an accident more than one out of every five times you rent a car, so you’re better off without it. Also be sure to check your credit card benefits. For instance, most World Mastercards like the Ink Bold and United Club card offer primary insurance, which alleviates the need for any extra insurance from the car rental agency.
10. Get the most miles for your rental: One of the best ways to earn extra points and miles on your car rental is to credit your agency’s airline or hotel partners. Check here to see a list of current bonuses and promotional codes, but for example, you can earn 3,000 bonus US Airways Dividend miles on a qualifying rental of three or more consecutive days at Avis airport locations in the US and Canada with coupon codes MUAZ027 or U106508 along with your Dividend Miles when you make your reservation; or earn triple Hawaiian Airlines miles when you rent a compact or larger car for two days or more with Dollar and use the promo code HA5; or earn quadruple American Airlines AAdvantage mile when you rent any Hertz vehicle in the US, Peurto Rico, Canada and several European nations using the coupon code CDP#217692 with Hertz. Those are just a few of several examples, and you can often find lucrative bonus combinations of your airline and rental agency of choice.
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