How to redeem points and miles for car rentals

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many travelers have opted for road trips instead of flights to far-off destinations. As a result of growing demand and a national labor shortage, finding a rental car has never been more logistically challenging than it is currently.

The good news is that there are many ways to save money on rental cars. And, if you’re looking to keep more cash in your pocket, you may want to redeem points or miles for your next rental car. So, today I’ll outline some of the best options for doing so.

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Redeem rental car loyalty points for car rentals

Women in a rental car
(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Most major rental car companies have reward programs that let you earn and redeem points for car rentals. Here’s a quick overview of what you should know about earning and redeeming points with the most popular rental car loyalty programs.

Avis Preferred – Avis Preferred members need at least 700 points for a free car rental, which is doable considering members earn 1 point per dollar spent and at least 100 points per booking. Plus, you can rent accessories like Sirius XM Radio, GPS, child safety seats and roadside assistance for 250 points per day.

Budget Fastbreak – Budget doesn’t have a point system but instead allows members to earn $25 in Budget Bucks (up to 52 coupons/$1,000 per year) for every two rentals.

Dollar Express Rewards – Redemptions start at 500 points per day on the weekends and 625 points per day on weekdays. Since members earn 1 point per dollar spent, it takes at least $500 worth of paid rentals to earn a free day.

Enterprise Plus Rewards – Enterprise doesn’t have an award chart, but you can redeem points at a rate of roughly 5 cents each toward a free rental day and members earn 1 point per dollar spent on paid rentals. Elite status holders earn 10% to 20% bonus points on each rental.

Hertz Gold Plus Rewards – Free Hertz rentals start at 750 points per day at the standard level, although blackout dates apply. A free rental day that is truly “free” and without restrictions will cost 1,500 points. Members earn points at a rate of 1 to 1.5 points per dollar spent, depending on their elite status level. For example,  Five Star members earn 25% bonus points (for a total of 1.25 points per dollar spent) and President’s Circle members earn 50% bonus points (for a total of 1.5 points per dollar spent).

National Emerald Club – Like Budget, National doesn’t have a point program but instead allows members to earn credits for free rental days. Non-elites earn one credit for every qualified car rental of one to seven days. On rentals of eight days or longer, credits are calculated by dividing the rental period by two.

Thrifty Car Rental – Free Thrifty car rentals start at 500 points for weekends and members earn points at a rate of 1 point per dollar spent.

Related: Rental car loyalty needs a makeover: Here are the changes I’d like to see

Redeem credit card rewards for car rentals

Family packing gear into a rental car
(Photo by Maskot/Getty Images)

If you have a card that earns cash back or transferable rewards, you may be able to redeem your rewards for car rentals.

Although the process varies slightly from one card to the next, cash-back rewards are typically the easiest. For example, if you have a cash-back rewards card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited, you can request cash back in the form of a statement credit or bank deposit. Then you can use the cash-back rewards from your card to effectively pay for your rental car — or any other expense.

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another excellent way to redeem miles for rental cars or virtually any travel-related purchase. After all, Venture cardholders can redeem Venture miles at a rate of 1 cent each toward eligible charges on their card that occurred within the last 90 days. So to redeem Capital One miles at a fixed rate for a $100 rental car charge, you’d need to redeem 10,000 miles.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal is a great place to redeem points for rental cars. After all, if you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, your points are worth 1.5 cents each when booking rental cars through the portal. And if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, you can redeem for rental cards at a rate of 1.25 cents per point through the portal. Best of all, you’ll be eligible for primary car rental coverage if you use points tied to your Sapphire Preferred or Reserve account.

Lastly, those with American Express Membership Rewards points can redeem for rental cars through Amex’s Pay with Points feature. However, doing so won’t give you a high value for your points and should typically be avoided.

Related: A guide to earning transferable points and why they’re so valuable

Redeem airline miles for car rentals

If you want to redeem airline miles for rental cars, you can do so with several airlines. However, understand that doing so typically won’t provide a high redemption rate. As such, it’s typically better to redeem your airline miles for flights.

But, to give you an idea of what to expect, I conducted a test search for a compact car rental from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for Oct. 11-15. Here’s what I found with four major airlines that typically allow members to redeem miles for rental cars.

Related: Rental car promotions that will save you money this fall

American Airlines

American Airlines partners with most of the major rental car companies. You’ll need a minimum of 1,000 AAdvantage miles in your account to redeem for a rental car. You can start your search here.

The cheapest option for my sample San Francisco trip would cost 33,600 AAdvantage miles.

Redeeming American Airlines miles for a rental car
(Screenshot courtesy of useaamiles.com)

If you don’t have enough miles for the car you want, you can pay using a combination of American Airlines miles and cash. For example, in the below screenshot, I could redeem 12,200 miles and a $160.50 copay instead of redeeming 33,600 miles.

Renting a car with American miles and a cash copay
(Screenshot courtesy of useaamiles.com)

By dragging the slider to control the number of miles used, I found that each additional 100 AAdvantage miles I redeemed deducted 64 cents from my cash copay. This puts a valuation of 0.64 cents on each mile redeemed, which is well below TPG’s valuation of 1.4 cents per mile for AAdvantage miles.

You can also earn AAdvantage miles on car rentals when you start here. All AAdvantage members earn at least 500 miles per rental, but top-tier Executive Platinum members earn at least 1,250 miles per rental. I could book the same rental that would cost 33,600 miles for a $239.15 prepaid rate.

(Screenshot courtesy of useaamiles.com)

In this case, I’d get less than 0.7 cents per AAdvantage mile. TPG’s valuations peg the value of AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents per mile, so I typically wouldn’t recommend redeeming AAdvantage miles for rental cars.

Related: Maximizing redemptions with American Airlines AAdvantage

Delta Air Lines

Delta lets you redeem SkyMiles for car rentals if you book a bundled package. So, you could redeem Delta miles for a flight-and-hotel vacation package that includes a rental car. To do so, search for a vacation package here. You’ll need to choose your hotel and flights before adding a rental car as an extra.

Booking a Delta Vacations package with a rental car
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Note that Delta doesn’t show the price of your package in miles. But, you can manually add the amount of SkyMiles you want to use on the right-hand side of the page. If you do so, you’ll see that Delta will give you 1 cent per mile, which is slightly lower than TPG’s valuation of Delta SkyMiles at 1.1 cents per mile.

Related: 15 easy ways to earn more Delta SkyMiles

Southwest Airlines

You can typically redeem Southwest points for car rentals through the More Rewards portal if you have a Southwest credit card. So, since I have the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, I logged in to search for a rental car. But to my surprise, Southwest has “temporarily paused the ability to redeem points in More Rewards” due to COVID-19.

Error message when searching for a rental car through Southwest More Rewards
(Screenshot courtesy of southwest.com)

Related: 10 easy ways to earn more Southwest Rapid Rewards points

United Airlines

Under normal circumstances, United’s booking portal would allow you to redeem United miles for rental cars. However, United MileagePlus members are currently unable to use miles for car rentals.

Car rental redemptions are temporary unavailable by United
(Screenshot courtesy of cars.mileageplus.com)

Related: 30 ways to earn miles with the United MileagePlus program

Bottom line

Let’s be honest: Redeeming points and miles for rental cars often won’t provide the best redemption value. As such, I’d typically recommend using cash-back rewards to offset the cost of your rental.

But, you can get a decent redemption value when you redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a rental car through the Chase travel portal. And redeeming Delta SkyMiles for a vacation package also provides acceptable value, although you’d also need to book a flight and a hotel.

Of course, peace of mind and logistical reassurance goes a long way. If redeeming points or miles isn’t a good option for your next road trip, you could consider non-traditional rental car services such as Turo or Kyte. For my recent trip to Maine, both offered a lower price and more convenience overall than their competitors.

Additional reporting by Ariana Arghandewal.

Featured photo by General_bojanstory/Getty Images.

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