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Ways To Save On Rental Cars

by on October 9, 2013 · 26 comments

in Budget, Car Rental Bonuses, Hertz, Top 10, TPG Contributors

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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!

Rental

Follow these rental car tips to save money on your next set of wheels.

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.

Compact rental car

Often a compact rental car is sufficient, even for steep hills.

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.

Hertz car rental grace period

Hertz offers a four hour grace period for Amex Platinum card holders

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.

Be aware of any prior damage, even if it is not as obvious as this!

Be aware of any prior damage, even if it is not as obvious as this!

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.

Rentals can often be returned to a different location to where you picked it up from.

Rentals can often be returned to a different location to where you picked it up from.

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.

Off airport rentals can save you money.

Off-airport rentals can save you money.

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.

Bring your own GPS to save rental fees.

Bring your own GPS to save rental fees.

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.

Autoslash

Autoslash finds coupons and price reductions.

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.

Florida

Florida is the hub of discounted one-way rentals.

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:

Earn Bonus Miles and Points with These Car Rental Promotions

Maximize Monday: Earning the Most Miles and Points on Car Rentals

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

    Thank you! These are excellent tips. Personally, I have had a horrible experience with Budget in Orlando and a lame experience with Hertz in Tampa Bay. Dollar and Alamo seem to be good. I recently acquired the American Express Mercedes Platinum card. They provide “upgraded” car rental programs. Price aside, (I almost NEVER say that!) how do you rank all of the car rental companies? Or is it too difficult since they differ significantly from location to location? Thanks again.

  • iahphx

    This article screams “newbie,” but most of the tips are reasonable. A couple of the points aren’t really correct, though. First, you should NOT “always reserve the smallest car.” These days, the odds are much higher than in the past that you’ll actually get that car. So, instead, you should reserve the smallest car YOU’RE WILLING TO DRIVE. Like don’t reserve a subcompact for your family. And, 2 out of 3 times, the price difference between reserving a compact and a midsize is tiny; unless you’d really prefer that compact, you should go for the bigger (and nicer) car.
    Additionally, the idea of trying to negotiate a one-way rental at the counter is nuts. Indeed, negotiating anything at the counter is a waste of time unless you’re in a very unusual situation.
    Most importantly, you forgot the single most important tip to saving money on car rentals: codes and coupons. Lots of websites keep track of them: there are excellent flyertalk threads, a fatwallet list, Dansdeals, etc. Always worth the 10 minutes to shop and compare.
    Oh, and another important tip: look again for deals right before you travel. More times than not, rates drop the week before travel.

  • savvyshopper

    TPG – to get the 4 free hours as Amex Platinum you must use the Platinum CDP for that Hertz rental not just pay with the Amex Platinum; an important gotcha in their Ts & Cs.

  • Jason Steele

    It’s tough to find a balance of tips for both newbies and experienced travelers, but I thought mentioning using coupons was a little too newbie as they are everywhere and we have all seen them.

    As for subcompacts, they all seat four people, and I have been willing to drive them, but have never received one in this country.
    Finally, I only mentioned the one way thing because it actually worked for me. I was going to take south Florida’s tri-rail between FLL and MIA if it didn’t, so I had a good backup plan. It is far more likely to work between nearby airports, sometimes called “co-terminals”. The larger point is that rental agents have some power to negotiate.

  • Jason Steele

    Good point!

  • Jason Steele

    Glad you liked the article.

    I think your point about Budget and Orlando reveals that these are independently owned franchises and quality will vary greatly from branch to branch.

    For example, I had terrible experience at Thrifty in Maui (30 minutes of lines, 20 minutes of upsell to receive an old, dirty car that I had to exchange). Later, I Googled Thrifty in Maui and found that I was not alone. Yet I recently rented from Thrifty in Portland OR and they were as quick and nice as anywhere I have been. So I would recommend researching the specific location to see if others are complaining. If you see lots of complaints about the same issue, take it very seriously.

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    I once had an agent give me a rate not valid excuse because I was 12 hours late arriving in Hawaii (flight delay). My rate all of a sudden doubled. I ended up paying a lesser rate that was still more then my original rate. I emailed the company directly after getting home and they refunded the over charge. You have to watch those desk agents.

  • Richardkneepads

    One tip that never gets mentioned is joining the VIP/rewards programs for car rental companies. Often times, this means never waiting in line, never having to check in at the counter (avoiding upsells) and most importantly, picking up upgrade vehicles no questions asked. As a bluechip member (free membership), I always pick up a larger than reserved vehicle at the same rate and bypass the counter everytime! Also, I would NEVER do anything at the counter unless I absolutely had to. Online, email, twitter much better IMO.

  • jrey

    I am not a newbie but some of these tips are useful.

  • http://www.laviajeramorena.com/ Chanel @ La Viajera Morena

    Thanks for the tips :D

  • http://www.CheersandGears.com Oldsmoboi

    I’m Executive Elite with National, but even before I had the status, I loved their program because I could rent a mid-size (work requirement) and then just pick whatever was in the Emerald lane. I’ve had Suburbans, Hybrids, convertibles, and luxury cars, as needed, by this method.

  • Sorab

    Jason,

    Some great tips here, especially the one regarding free one-way rentals. I’ve never heard that one before and I’ll give it a shot next time I need to rent one-way. Coupons are a great way to save on rental cars and as you noted, it is cumbersome and time-consuming to figure out which one to use.

    Coupons have lengthy terms and conditions that need to be met in order to use the coupon. The most common ones include
    - Validity dates (valid on pickups between 10/1 and 10/31)
    - Location requirements and restrictions (only valid in Florida, not valid in New York Metro)
    - Duration (valid on weekend, weekly, monthly rentals, valid on 3-5 day rentals, valid on a minimum 10-day rental)

    Based on your specific location and dates and the terms and conditions of the coupons, a big percentage of all available coupons *don’t apply*. Moreover, despite meeting all terms & conditions, the coupon may still not work due to a variety of reasons.

    The other problem is that most coupons advertise big discounts (save upto 25%), but in reality get you a much smaller discount. Moreover, with coupons offering different types of discounts its hard to figure out which one to try first. Ideally, you would want to start with the one offering the biggest discount and if that doesn’t work try the next best one.

    My startup, http://zalyn.com tries to address these problems to make it easier for travelers to find relevant deals without the hard work. We analyze all available coupons to find the relevant coupons matching your requirements (see attached image for the breakdown).

    Based on user feedback, we determine the discount you’re likely to get (e.g. the “upto 25% off” coupon is likely to get you a 5% discount) and sort the coupons. As a result, you’re likely to find the best deal in fewer attempts.

    Finally, users can sign-up and add their memberships (AAA, AARP, USAA, Frequent Flyer discounts, etc) to see other applicable discounts.

  • tivoboy

    I hate to say it but #8, no way no how. Autoslash hasn’t actually done this for over a year now, at least not for the majors. The service WAS great, but now only works as a tracker or if you want to find a deal with Payless car rental. If you do want this type of service then the only one I know if is Zalyn.com they continue to serve up any and all applicable couples and then take the user to a booking. It works pretty much just like the autoslash worked before at the discovery phase. It does not track an existing reservation. at that point, with reservation in hand then just put your reservation INTO the Autoslash system and they will track and you only rebook if AutoSlash finds a lower rate – which you can then direct book again.

  • Eric

    I’ve had a bad experience with this benefit from Amex Plat. Went to Orlando for wife’s graduation and rented a car for the weekend. It was a special occasion so I foolishly upgraded (I never upgrade otherwise) Pick up was at noon, and my return flight was at 5. I returned the car at 3PM (confirming with Hertz using the Amex Plat CDP multiple times) To my surprise I received 1 extra rental day for returning the car “late”. I contested this charge, but Amex ruled not in my favor. Even with all my paperwork they sided with the vendor. A quick call to Amex rep they straight away returned the over charge. Moral of my lesson was to not trust some of these “coupons/codes” out there. It was a waste of my time to deal with such a nuisance like hertz not knowing the benefits they offer to credit card companies.

  • iahphx

    I honestly think only a tiny percentage of the travelling public is familiar with the remarkable number of codes and coupons available on the “sophisticated” frequent flyer websites. This is the single most important advice you can give anybody looking to save money on a rental car. With the exception of Dollar/Thrifty rates, and sometimes Alamo, anyone not using a code is overpaying.
    The second most important advice is to re-check your rate the week before your rental, and look for the “last minute deals” available on many of the major car rental companies own websites. I would also tell folks at that time to look at hotwire.com — and perhaps underbid that rate on priceline — if it’s better than what they’re otherwise holding.

    Finally, folks who frequently rent cars need to join the car rental loyalty program. As someone else has mentioned, National’s Emerald Club is terrific. If you book the midsize, you can usually get a very nice car. And their awards program usually means that — even if you have to pay a slightly hire price for the rental — the real cost is lower because you’ll quickly earn free days. That is particularly true when, like now, they have their one-two-free promo going on.
    This is the type of “real world” content that your “sophisticated” blog should contain.

  • Lively

    I brought my own GPS with me to Baltimore over Labor Day weekend and was glad I did because rental car company did not have any GPS’s.

  • SeaBee3

    A tip that I have found that works well concerns the hours that you rent – this works at airports that let you select a vehicle to go (like ATL or LAS). Many times, the rate at 12:00AM Monday is way higher than 11:30PM Sunday. If you are going to be cutting it close when you arriving (to going into the work week – 12AM Monday), set the pick up time as 11:30 or 11PM (whichever it allows). You will not have to interact with any agent and you grab your car at whatever time (they typically hold it for 4 hours) and only need to show you ID and the contract at the exit. This has worked many times for me and saved me hundreds.

  • Sal Coraccio III

    I was under the impression that with Hertz, for example, using a code doesn’t earn you reward points. Accurate?

  • Mark Silver

    Here’s a good tip for AIRPORT RENTALS. Instead of doing a return trip or even a one-way, break the rental into several segments. On a recent flight to EWR, I needed a rental car for approx 10 days. The daily rate was around $80 or close to $800 for the duration. What I was able to do was to do a one way rental for 24 hours from EWR to the LOCAL location (which in my case happened to be in NJ). Then, when I returned the car after just one day to the rental lot in NJ, I turned around and picked up a different car / one way rental back to EWR for the remaining days.

    The first rental, from the airport, had all those fees on it. The returning rental didn’t have any of those airport taxes/fees and so the rate was less than half of what it would have been otherwise.

    I have done this 2-3 times in the past year. Obviously if you have a cheap rental to start, it’s not worth the hassle, but if you find yourself concerned the rate is much too high, it can be a good trick for airport rentals.

  • mhenner

    I sometimes have to rent one-way, Portland to Eugene.
    Every time, Travelocity has rates from Budget that are much, much less than I can get anywhere else.
    I wonder if this is just Travelocity in Oregon, or are they cheaper in other states also.

  • hnrequipment

    I rent quite a bit. Locally Enterprise is the best deal going, and at airports, National has the best rates I have found. If you need a car for 5 days you can get it for a week at the same price, two free days.

  • jason from Kent Ohio

    Auto Slash was almost a hundred higher than the price I was able to find on my own with Dollar.

  • iahphx

    Really? That sounds odd, but I can’t say for sure. I’m a very loyal Emerald Club member (every traveler should be, their service is great) and while I also use the Hertz program on occasion, I don’t carefully keep track of my points there.

  • http://www.sslimousine.com/reserve-your-limo-now-for-your-rochester-event/ limo service in rochester ny

    Thanks for share…..nice post ………….

  • http://www.sslimousine.com/blog/ss-limousine-can-make-a-great-trip-even-better.htm curter740

    This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. The article is nice and its pleasant to read.

  • Gianna

    Great tips about saving money on car rentals, I agree with them all and would like to add that you could reserve you car well in advance to get some low quotes.

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