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Award travelers quickly pick up ways to save money on airlines and hotels, but rental cars are the next greatest expense. Therefore, TPG contributor Jason Steele has made it his mission to find every possible way to cut these costs. One way is through points and miles, see Earning the Most Miles and Points on Car Rentals. But the other way is by knowing a few tricks, check out some of his favorites below!
1. Always reserve the smallest car (in the United States). Rental car websites love to show pictures of horrible subcompacts in order to entice you to choose a more expensive class of car. But in the United States, most agencies never stock them. Instead, you are almost always upgraded to a larger vehicle at no additional cost. Unfortunately, you are much more likely to only get what you pay for when renting abroad.
2. Never fall for the counter agent’s up-sell. Agents seem to love to make up stories to sell upgrades. I have had more than one family member try to rent a car at the Denver airport only to be told they had to upgrade to a larger vehicle. Typically, they call me from the counter to ask me if they have to rent a mid size because the agent claims a compact won’t be able to drive up the mountains! Needless to say, compact cars can maintain the speed limit driving uphill, and the agents are just trying trick them into paying extra for an upgrade.
Just the other week in Washington D.C., I was repeatedly told that my subcompact would be “something the size of a Smart Car,” but that because of a “glitch in their computers,” I could upgrade for only another $20 a day. I was completely unsurprised when I was handed the keys to a nice new midsize Hyundai Elantra. Other times I am adamantly told that my luggage won’t fit in the trunk. But the important thing is that you can always wait to find out the specific car you are offered, and only then ask for a different one. I call their bluff every time, yet I have never had to do that.
The other big up-sell issue is insurance. Counter agents will often bend the facts to earn a commission when they sell you their overpriced insurance. Not only does the right credit card offer its own insurance, but it will be invalid when you pay for the rental agency’s optional coverage. See my post on Choosing the Best Credit Card for Car Rental Insurance.
3. Get four more hours free. Car rental agencies used to offer a one hour grace period, to allow you 25 hours of rental on your last day. Now, many have cut that down to a half an hour and are strictly enforcing it. It’s no fun to pay for an entire extra day when you just need a couple hours, but there is a way around it. Holders of the American Express Platinum cards receive a four hour grace period when they rent from Hertz. So this is essentially 50% off rentals between 25 and 28 hours long.
4. Be hyper-vigilant about pre-existing damage. I can’t count how many times I have read consumer advocates stories about mediating unfounded damage claims. ALWAYS walk around your car and snap photos of it before driving, including the seats, windshield, odometer, and fuel gauge. I like to step back and take some the pictures that show the car in the pick-up area, so that there is no question that the pictures were taken before I left the lot. Then, generously note any and all damage on the rental agreement, no matter how small. Again, ignore rental agency staff if they attempt to dissuade you from documenting something. They often say that they won’t count some minor damage against you, but their word will be meaningless when you get a damage claim in the mail. Finally, take pictures when you return the car, and save them along with a copy of the rental agreement. I have read about people receiving unsubstantiated damage claims months after the fact, but it has never happened to me. My theory is that they see me thoroughly documenting the car and wisely decide to pull this scam on someone else.
5. Get a free one way. Rental car agencies often price one way rentals with huge surcharges. And when booking cars through the identical Chase Ultimate Rewards or the Citi Thank You rewards portals, it isn’t even an option. But while airlines have largely done away with “gate agent discretion,” rental car counter agents still have broad authority. For example, I was able to book a car at the Ft. Lauderdale airport though with my Ultimate Rewards points, and the agents at the airport were happy to let me return it to the Miami airport at no extra charge. And while this may work, you always need to have a backup plan in case it doesn’t.
6. Save money with off-airport rentals. If you can find another way to get transportation away from the airport, you can save money in two ways. First, you can rent a car at an off-airport rental without paying exorbitant taxes and fees. It is popular for cities to add large fees to cars rented at the airport in order to pay for stadiums and convention centers because they know that their residents will never pay these taxes. And if you arrive late and can spend your first night without a rental car, you will save a day’s charges.
7. Bring your own GPS, child seat, etc. Portable GPS units now sell for as little as $60, but still rent for $10 a day or more. The same is true with child safety seats, which the airlines will always accept as check baggage without a fee.
8. Try Autoslash. The biggest problem I have with finding a great deal on a rental cars is the labor involved. By the time I check just a few sites, and find the “all in” prices, I’ve often wasted more time than my savings were worth. AutoSlash searches available coupons and tracks rental rates so that you can rebook if there is a price drop.
9. Print out a copy of your reservation with the price quote. It seems that about a third of the time, I am charged a different price than what I was quoted in on the reservation. And, surprise, I am always charged more. In response, I am often told that “the taxes must have changed since you booked it.” I don’t give this idea much credence as this happens even when I rent a car a few days after I reserved it, but I have always been able to get them to refund the difference when I present a printout of my reservation.
10. Drive out of Florida for almost nothing. It seems like half of the United States and nearly all of Canada visits Florida each winter, so the rental car agencies move their inventory there seasonally. But come spring and summer, they need those cars elsewhere, and that is a great time to get a deal. For example, Avis and Budget offer discounted rates for one-way rentals between April 1-June 30. Rates start at $9.49 a day for Budget and $9.95 per day for Avis (plus taxes and fees), and there is a maximum rental period of seven days. So the idea is that you can visit multiple destinations, save money on car rentals, and perhaps eliminate a family’s worth of return airfare. The closest drop off points are as far south as Atlanta, within a day’s drive of nearly anywhere in Florida.
For more ways to save when renting a car, check out these previous posts below: