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Travel Tuesday Top 10: Tips for Saving on Car Rentals

by on June 5, 2012 · 64 comments

in Car Rental Bonuses, Credit Cards, Top 10

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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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Dave Op

    I find the Citi Thank You cards confusing, as there are so many versions. I believe only the “Preferred” version (not the Premier as stated in this article) gives 5% on gas for the first year. Can someone confirm this please? Which one is the best amongst the different versions?

  • Rosenberg Ari

    TPG,

    You made a mistake
    “reps are harried, overpaid and underworked, ”

    I think you meant to write underpaid and overworked

  • Mike

    I want that gig. Looks like you inverted a phrase, “Overpaid and underworked”. If not I want that gig.

    Good tips

  • Michael Adberg

    Autoslash is basically dead at this point. See this thread on MP:

    http://milepoint.com/forums/threads/an-introduction-to-autoslash-com.3493/page-11

  • Notmanybooks

    Do you have any suggestions for how to get the best deal on a long term car rental (e.g. 4-5 weeks)?

  • Jim

    Back when I rented cars pretty much weekly, both with Alamo and Hertz, upon pickup I would always ask for the “upgrade of the day.” Kind of a joke phrase, but still worthwhile. I was able to get a Mustang Convertible for $7.00 per day. That way I didn’t have to research online to find the best deal. FWIW.

  • BobChi

    Do the math when taking airline miles on a car rental. Sometimes there is a “fee” for it, which amounts to them basically selling the miles to you rather than giving them as a bonus. Be sure you value the miles highly enough to make it worth the fee.

  • Raj B

    My best deals have been through Priceline (typically Hertz, at about 30-40% off best discounted direct rates) and at Enterprise non-airport locations. Sometimes a dollar-saving plan is better than a point-accruing plan.

  • Chris

    Very timely post for me. So is Ink Bold the best credit card to use for insurance purposes on international travel?

  • http://twitter.com/Dailybits Herman Maes

    Last weeks on our US roadtrip we had a nice upgrade (Fusion to Jeep liberty limited). I think it could be because I also handed over my PC gold ambassador card to get my PC points.

    Could it be that the front desk lady did the upgrade because of this card?

  • Christopher

    I recently booked through National using the Emerald Executive status that comes with the AMEX platinum. My question is do I have to pay for it using that card or can I use my Sapphire Preferred?

  • mark

    Many of the travel bloggers love to mention the US Airways coupon on three-day rentals. But, most of the rental car agencies offer “get one free day on a three day weekend rental” coupon. Unless the cost per day is super cheap, I would rather have a free day than 3,000 US Air miles. I guess each person has to do their own math but I find this type of coupon to be pretty helpful.

  • JayC

    Be very careful when using a corporate rate for a car rental – although you may not be asked for proof of employment, if there is any kind of incident while you have the car they will not do any repairs until you verify employment. If they cannot verify you work for that company, I’ve been told by rental desk workers that you could be on the hook for a large repair sum! Which would obviously negate any discount you’d receive :)

  • Jane

    TPG, can you provide some insight into the car rental insurance coverage of your two of favorite cards – Amex PRG and Chase Sapphire Preferred?

  • Erik

    The morons at Dollar charge you for putting a frequent flyer account on your rental. That coupled with their crap service, their inability to thoroughly clean a car, and that they open later at certain airports (almost late for my flight last time) make any other car rental agency better than Dollar.

  • Erik

    Always check with your auto insurance policy to make sure it covers you for car rentals. Double insuring, or as the agents put it, “get the insurance so that you don’t have to use your regular insurance” has to be the dumbest use of insurance. That’s almost like insurance on your insurance .. And a big waste of money.

  • Matt

    priceline.com or hotwire.com. You dont get points, but easily the best rates.

  • john

    I agree with what JayC said !
    And I’ll add one more thing which I think should be obvious. If you work a mega-corporation, and would like to continue working there; please do not use that corporation’s rental car code unless you are absolutely sure you and your position are eligible to use that code. Thanks.

  • REL

    I agree easily Hotwire & Priceline offer the best rates for most US destinations especially closer to the time of travel.

  • Avuu

    It’s stated somewhere that the car insurance is primary from Chase Ink Bold? I could not find the primary car rental insurance info in the Ink Bold’s brochure that I received. But I do see it on the Chase United’s brochure..Thanks!

  • thepointsguy

    Good point! Definitely not worth the risk

  • thepointsguy

    Agreed- added this to my #1 tip

  • thepointsguy

    Added to #1

  • thepointsguy

    Yea- always do the math to make sure you aren’t paying a ridiculous price for those miles

  • evodad

    On point number 5 about gas, because I don’t often see Discover discussed here, they are offering 5% cash back on gas spend from July-September on up to $1500 in spend.

  • tivoboy

    Yeah, they have essentially NO companies allowing them to book at this point. Okay, Easy-Payless is in some cities. What they CAN do is TRACK A booking you have made elsewhere though. So, once you reserve on hertz, avis, orbitz, whatever you then put the booking information in the system and they will then continuously check for lower rates. This IS helpful, but not as streamlined as it was before

  • tivoboy

    duplicate: sorry, oh how I love disqus

  • Dave Op

    What if one use a credit card that provides primary insurance such as the Chase UA Explorer card? Would car rental companies still check for insurance or would the credit card then be primary?

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  • James

    I also do not see anything about the primary insurance coverage in the World Matercard PDF you’ve linked to…

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  • R-info

    For those in NYC, I have found that Prestige Car Rental is often significantly cheaper than the national brands.

  • PJ

    some interesting findings:
    1. I was told by Thrifty to have your household car insuance copy ready when you are checked by Police.>> so does not hurt to carry a copy of your auto insurance..
    2. Most credit cards cover you as secondary insurance AFTER your Primary Insurer which in most cases is your own auto insurance company AND they dont cover you on LIABILITIES. nada.
    3. My AMEX cards PLAT GOLD SPG all cover me on secondary basis up to 30 days CONTINUOUSLY on each rental ; not all cards do the same
    4. CHase United Mileage Plus covers you as a PRIMARY agasint property damage but up to 15 days only on domestic rentals and 31 out of your countryof residence.
    5. AMEX does sell PREMIUM PRIMARY COVERAGE up to 42 days continuous coverage. You pay by per rental not by days .
    6. NOT sure if Personal LIABILITY UMBRELLA policy can come in to cover Liability when the rental policy lasts longer than the maximum days allowed by the household auto policy. anybody cares to share the knowledge/ecperience?

    I have been thinking if car rental companies let you split into a 4 weeks rental into 2 rentals without going back to the office to get the second 2 weeks? WOuld be nice to use United Mileage Plus to break a 4 weeks rental into 2 X 2 weeks rentals and GET PRIMARY COVERAGE.

  • PJ

    right, if you can not use up the $1500 use discover card to buy gift cards at the gas stations >>you might end up with getting 5% off all year around and supposedly they sell you the gas at CASH price

  • PJ

    right ; nice to have free options : hold a cheap and cancellable reservation until you hotwire or priceline it a few days before travel.

  • PJ

    you get 2% rebate on Sapphire Preferred but NOT 30 days continuous coverage.
    I just double checked with Chase: all of their CC cards cover up to 15 days on domestic rentals so if you need to go beyond 15 days ask the car rental to wirte into 2 differenct contracts.
    I am going to try to use United Mileage Explorer to cover 2X2 weeks primary coverage with the SPG as back up for a straight 30 days rental

  • PJ

    I know for sure in Print United Mileage Plus covers 31 days out of coutry of residence reantal with PRIMARY COVERAGE

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  • PJ

    Citi thankupi PREMIER card coveres 31 days max for secondary coverage and you need to have a 24 hrs break before you use it for another rental

  • SteveA

    And don’t forget to check evreward.com and use Ebates, Big Crumbs, Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards or other cash back /shopping portal for that extra rebate or points bonus.

  • PJ

    me looking for the same suggestions pls :) so far i have to chop a 5 weeks rental into 2 rentals sinceva most important factor other than price: my household auto insurance covers only 21 continuous rental on 1st coverage and LIABILITY

    it is indeed a pain to break away from vacation for returning a rental and checking out a rental.. However I have been able to keep the rental below $100 a week tax included in LA Irvine ( LAX and SNA) areas until this next coming up rental in Mid june ; 27 days for $487. will certainly priceline it before the departure for possible savings

  • Ron

    According to my Citi TY Premier booklet, I earn 1.2 TY points per $1 spent on gas.

  • http://www.zalyn.com/ Zalyn

    We recently launched a new website – http://zalyn.com to simplify the search for car rental coupons. Simply enter your trip details and Zalyn evaluates over a dozen criteria to show you relevant coupons only.

    There are hundreds of coupons out there with no easy way to find the best one. Coupons are restricted by location, dates, duration, vehicle type, etc. We typically see that only 20-30% of the coupons are applicable to most trips. By weeding out the ones that don’t apply, Zalyn reduces the clutter.

    Zalyn also aggregates coupons applicable to members of AAA, AARP, BJs Club, Costco, etc and will include them for users who signup.

    Zalyn helps you compare different types of coupons and quickly figure out the best one. When you’re ready to use the coupon, you’re sent to the rental car companies’ website to complete the booking. You retain the benefits of booking directly with them.

  • @SavortheSaver

    You can also get 2.5% Cash back (sometimes more!) by clicking through Ebates to places like National, Enterprise, and others. It’s a great extra perk for something you are going to buy anyway. Sign up here and we both get a $5 bonus!:
    http://www.ebates.com/rf.do?referrerid=i%2BMzfvG%2FCe3u6bWusAJZDg%3D%3D

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Schmenge-Schmoe/100001516643294 Schmenge Schmoe

    I have found in the case of getting the most air miles for your rental you can at time actually be paying MORE for the rental not making getting the miles economical.

  • Rickey Jones

    Very good points, really very interesting to read

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  • http://r4icard-r4card.com/r4-dsi.html r4 dsi

    As we all are aware of the fact that with the increase in the expenses the car rentals also increases. This increase in the car rentals id difficult to handle by a common people and save is become necessary. Thanks for sharing these tips for saving on car rentals, these tips really going to benefits people in a number of ways.

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    For those who want to save money in car rentals, your blog post is surely of great help. People who are just in the area for a day or so can save time and money with care rentals but there are also things to take into consideration. Thanks for the info!

  • Berry Vale

    Organized content is the best way to display or post an article, thank you for making it easy to digest your post.

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  • http://www.cheyenneautoglass.com/ Michelle Schultz

    Saving gas? Try this. By anticipating the traffic and applying slow steady acceleration and braking, fuel economy may increase by as much as 20%.

  • Nathan

    I agree with your points. these are very useful tips.

    Nathan
    Worlwide car rental service provider

    http://www.varnaairportcarrentals.com

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    It seems to be really very interesting points to read!! I like the way you used to organized the content and mentioned it properly. thanks from depth of my heart!!

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  • sushma gupta

    All the points which is mentioned in this blog is great and very important. Mainly, I like the 7th and the 10th points. It helps me to clear my doubt. Thanks a lot for sharing this post.

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  • Vaibha

    Useful details on saving money on airport car rentals..

    Regards,

    Henry
    Heathrow airport taxi

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