How to Save on Rental Cars

Sep 8, 2018

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The easiest ways to save money on your travel is to use points and miles for your airfare and hotels. But once you’ve tackled those expenses, renting a car is often the largest remaining purchase. And while there’s no simple solution to eliminating that expense, in today’s post I want to share all the different ways that you can save money on rental cars, and even rent for free.

Using Points and Miles to Rent a Car

You can open up a credit card account co-branded with an airline or hotel, but there aren’t any rental car credit cards. Instead, there are two ways that you can use your credit card points and other loyalty program rewards to rent a car.

The first way is to use a credit card that offers you reward points or miles that you can redeem for statement credits toward any type of travel reservations, including car rentals. Cards in this category include:

The other way is to redeem airline, hotel or credit card rewards directly for rental car reservations. Programs that offer this option include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Furthermore, there are many other cards, like the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card that allow you to redeem points for rental car reservations. Finally, most airline and hotel programs also offer rental car award option.

Photo by @paigeinrealife/Twenty20

There’s a distinct advantage to using travel statement credits toward rental cars instead of redeeming your points directly for a reservation. Since the statement credit option allows you to pay for your rental with your credit card, you can be eligible for your card’s rental car coverage, called collision damage waiver. This allows you to decline the expensive, optional coverage offered by the rental car company, and still be covered. The fact that you later redeem your rewards for a statement credit doesn’t invalidate your card’s rental car insurance benefit. Just note that the Discover card no longer offers any rental car coverage benefits.

When you redeem airline, hotel or credit card points directly for a rental car, you’re not paying for your rental with your credit card, and you usually won’t be covered by your credit card’s auto rental insurance policy. A notable exception is American Express, as its policy specifically covers rentals made in whole or in part with Membership Rewards points. Still, redeeming Membership Rewards points or Citi ThankYou points for a rental car offers you a poor value of just 1 cent per point redeemed. In contrast, TPG’s latest point valuations place Membership Rewards points and Citi ThankYou points at 2.0 and 1.7 cents each, respectively.

The best way to use credit card points for a free rental car is to redeem Chase Ultimate Reward points from your Chase Sapphire Reserve account. This allows you to get 1.5 cents per point toward car rentals, not too far below TPG’s 2-cent valuation of these points.

A Note About Insurance

When you’re renting a car in the United States, and you have a personal automobile insurance policy, it can extend to your rental car. But outside the United States, you’re unlikely to have any coverage from your personal policy, and it’s not worth using your points and miles to rent a car when you have to pay for additional insurance on top of that.

Using Rewards From Rental Car Loyalty Programs

Rental car loyalty programs exist, but like airline and hotel programs, they vary dramatically in quality. My favorite programs are from National and Hertz.

The National Emerald Club is very simple, with one credit for each car rental and a free day at seven credits. Executive members earn a free day after six rentals and Executive Elites after five. And thankfully, there are many credit cards that offer Executive status as a benefit, including The Platinum Card® from American Express along with all World Elite Mastercards.

Finally, National’s One, Two Free is one of the best promotions offered. For more information, see Your Points, Miles & Loyalty Guide To National Car Rental. Using the National Emerald Aisle feature is also a way to select a minivan for the price of a mid-size car.

The Hertz Gold Plus Rewards is another great program, as it lets you redeem varying amounts of points for different types of awards. A basic free rental day start at 675 points, but lets you reserve any car up to a Premium class. Specialty vehicles, which include luxury cars, mid-size SUVs, minivans and convertibles, start at 1,000 points a day. Other options include vehicles from the Prestige, Adrenaline and Green Traveler collections. For more information, see Your Points, Miles & Loyalty Guide To Hertz Gold Plus Rewards.

Less attractive is the Avis Preferred program, which doesn’t actually offer an award chart, so you never know how many points you’ll need for an award. For more information, see Your Points, Miles & Loyalty Guide To Avis.

Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images
Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

Saving Money When Paying with Cash

Despite these ways to rent a car with points and miles, there are many times you’ll still need to use cash. For example, when renting outside of the United States, and when you have to buy extra insurance (because you aren’t charging it to your credit card). Also, many award travelers find that their points and miles go much further when they redeem them (or transfer then redeem them) for flights and hotels, rather for than rental cars.

Here’s how to save money on rental cars when paying with cash:

1. Reserve a subcompact. Nearly every rental car company will let you reserve a subcompact, but you will almost never be given one. Instead, you’ll invariably be asked if you want to pay for an upgrade before you are told which car you’ll receive. Only after declining the upgrade will you find out that they have no subcompacts available and that you’ll be assigned a compact or larger car at no extra charge. Just don’t try this trick outside of the United States, where they actually rent subcompacts.

2. Stand your ground against up-sells. It sometimes seem like the primary job of a rental car employee is to insist that you pay more than your initial reservation. Insurance is a common place to start, as it’s very easy to evoke enough fear, uncertainty and doubt to convince many customers to buy the expensive optional insurance. But if you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with your credit card’s insurance and its limitations, then you can confidently decline the optional insurance. In fact, I’ve found that I can always avoid entering into a discussion or argument on the subject by just repeating a single word: “decline.”

Other common up-sell tactics include claims that your luggage won’t fit in the trunk or that a compact car won’t be able to drive in the mountains, which I often hear from those who have rented at the Denver airport. However, any car, regardless of its size, will drive uphill and you can always accept an upgrade after you’ve tried to fit your luggage in the trunk.

3. Get rental car status. Rental car status is incredibly easy to get, and it offers you extra reward points, discounts, upgrades and priority service. The Amex Platinum offers elite status with Avid, Hertz and National, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers status with National and Avis, along with a 30% discount on Silvercar. Finally, all World Elite Mastercards offer elite status and/or discounts with National, Sixt, Alamo, Budget and Enterprise.

4. Rent off-airport. Renting at the airport can mean paying all sorts of ridiculous taxes, fees and surcharges often imposed by governments that want to tax visitors, rather than residents. But if you can leave the airport by public transit, shared ride services or even a hotel shuttle, you can often avoid most of these fees. Furthermore, by spending the first part of your trip without a car, you can sometimes save a day’s worth of rental car fees.

5. Use the Amex Platinum benefits with Hertz. I always hate having to pay for a full day when I’m just dropping the car off a few hours later in the day than the time I rented it. But one of my favorite ways to save money is to use the Hertz benefits offered to American Express Platinum cardholders, which gives you a four-hour grace period. This has the effect of cutting the price in half when your rental is between 25 and 28 hours.

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images
Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images

6. Bring your own car seats and GPS. These days, everyone has GPS on their mobile phones, so it’s hard to imagine why anyone would pay $10 a day to rent one. Just be sure to bring along a mounting device and charging cable so that you can safely see your phone while driving. Better yet, connect your phone to your rental car and activate Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which display your phone’s maps on the car’s dashboard. Thankfully Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available in many of the new cars that you are likely to rent.

And if you travel with children, bring your own child safety seat, rather than pay for one. Bringing your own seat also means that you don’t have to rely on the unknown quality, safety and cleanliness of a rental. Fortunately, all airlines allow you to check child safety seats for free. I always pack ours in a large duffel to keep it clean and safe.

7. Use Autoslash. I’ve found this to be the best rental car search engine, and you can also create alerts to notify you if the price drops.

8. Watch out for toll charges from your rental car company. Rental car companies are masters at overcharging customers fees in addition to electronic toll charges, which can be unavoidable. In fact, the State of Florida is now suing Dollar/Thrifty for its outrageous $15 per day “administrative fee” that it finds to be unfair and deceptive. For more information on avoiding this, read my post on How to Avoid Excess Toll Road Charges for Rental Cars.

9. Document everything. The rental car industry can be filled with shady characters, and it’s up to you stop scams before they begin. For starters, print a copy of your reservation, with the price, and compare it to what you’re being charged. Most car rental companies will correct their “errors” once you show them a copy of your original reservation. Also, be sure to photograph any pre-existing damage and document it in your contract before leaving. When you return, it helps to take pictures of the car as well, to document that you returned it undamaged. I’ve always suspected that when employees see me taking pictures of the car, they’re likely to think twice about inventing damage claims for my rental.

10. Consider Silvercar. Silvercar, which only rents Audis, is unlike any other car rental company, and in a good way. While it will usually be more expensive than renting a compact car elsewhere, it is often priced competitively with mid-sized rentals from competing companies. In fact, I find its pricing to be flatter and less dynamic than others, which means that they can offer lower rates during peak travel times. And when you use the 30% discount offered to Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders, you can find some very good deals. For more information, read Your Points & Miles Guide to Silvercar.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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