How to never pay full price for a rental car

Jul 4, 2021

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Rental cars seem simple enough on paper, but they’re frequently more confusing and expensive than you’d expect. The price you see isn’t always the price you pay, especially when you factor in fees, damage waivers and more.

Plus, rental cars aren’t cheap these days. The “rental car apocalypse” has ravaged the industry, with car shortages resulting in travelers either not being able to find a rental or paying insanely high prices in destinations such as Florida and Hawaii. We’ve seen daily rates as high as $500.

If you’re looking to hit the road without going broke, you’re in the right place — I’ll show you all the ways you can save money on your next car rental. These tips could save you hundreds of dollars on your next rental, so keep them in mind for your next budget trip.

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In This Post

Use a  corporate, university or alumni code

DePaul University rental car discount page
(Screenshot courtesy of depaul.com)

One of the easiest ways to save money on rental cars is to use a corporate code from your job or university. Now, you can find many of these codes online, but we never recommend using a code you’re not eligible for — oftentimes, rental car companies will ask for proof of employment or alumni status.

That said, check your corporate travel site, alumni deals page or student benefits page for rental company discounts. My university has deals with Avis, Enterprise, Hertz and National that have saved me money on previous rentals.

Some of these codes may provide other benefits, too. For example, my university’s Enterprise discount code includes free extra drivers and waives the fee for drivers under the age of 25. This helped me save hundreds of dollars when I was under 25.

Always ensure that you’re allowed to use these codes on personal rentals; some corporate codes are published solely for business travel, while others can be used on personal rentals. In some cases, your company or university may have a separate code for personal use.

Related: Renting a car under 25? Here’s how to save money

Sign up for AAA

AAA is an auto club that offers roadside assistance and discounts on various services to its members. One of the best discounts is on rental cars: Currently, you can save up to 20% on all Hertz rentals with the AAA discount code.

Using AAA’s code provides many other benefits, too, like a waived under 25 fee, discounts on fuel refills and unlimited miles on most rentals. Depending on how often you rent from Hertz, these discounts can more than offset AAA’s $50 to $100 membership fee. Once you’re a member, you can use Hertz’s dedicated AAA website to book your discounted rental car. The process is the same as booking through the standard AAA website and all discounts are reflected on the checkout screen.

Related: 10 best ways to redeem your points and miles for a car rental

Or, see if you’re eligible for USAA discounts

USAA members are eligible for discounted rental cars with Avis, Budget, Enterprise and Hertz. Book through the USAA portal and you can get up to 25% off your next rental and still earn points in the process. You’ll also be eligible for various fee waivers, like the under 25 fee charged to young renters.

Not everyone is eligible for USAA discounts, though. You must be active military or a veteran, or a spouse or child of an active military person or veteran to enroll. If eligible, it’s worth starting your search with USAA to see a baseline discount before cost comparing with credit card perks and other portals.

Related: The best USAA credit cards

Consider the Hertz Free-To-Go Pass

Yellow Hertz Branded Camero Outside Hertz Building
(Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

Hertz recently unveiled its new Free-To-Go pass. This pass costs $99 per year and includes a handful of benefits like a 10% guaranteed discount, 2x Gold Plus points, home delivery and a waived young driver fee on all rentals.

Just keep in mind that some of these benefits are also included with an AAA membership, including the waived young driver fee and unlimited miles on most rentals.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Hertz My Car subscription

Leverage credit card perks and discounts

Several travel credit cards offer rental car perks and discounts. Here’s a quick overview of what to expect from some of the most popular travel cards.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a suite of car rental discounts, including:

  • 20% off Silvercar rentals
  • Up to 30% off Avis
  • Up to 25% off National rentals

These discounts can add up on long rentals. For example, a week-long Silvercar rental in Austin costs $1,173.58 this summer, or $941.28 after the Sapphire discount. This is $232.30 in savings just for holding this credit card. Do this twice, and you’ll have almost covered the card’s annual fee.

Silvercar booking with Sapphire Reserve discount
(Screenshot courtesy of silvercar.com)

The Platinum Card from American Express

Anyone who has The Platinum Card® from American Express has access to a suite of Hertz benefits (enrollment required). These include a grace period for returns, discounted rates, bonus points and car upgrades. All of these can save you money and offer a great way to elevate your Hertz experience. 

The full list of benefits includes:

  • Complimentary vehicle upgrades
  • Four-hour grace period for rental returns
  • 10% bonus Hertz Gold Rewards points
  • Free additional driver (spouse or domestic partner)

The Amex Platinum includes Avis benefits too. These include:

  • 15% off published car rental rates
  • Up to a 25% discount when using code AWDA756900; get a one-level upgrade when using code UUNA007

Finally, — and perhaps most importantly — the card also includes National Emerald Club Executive elite status. Benefits include:

  • Choice of full-size or better cars from the Executive area at the reserved mid-size rate
  • Reward choices and one free rental day with seven rental credits
  • No fee for a second driver
  • Guaranteed upgrades

Always check if your credit card has similar benefits. Oftentimes these discounts can be applied to your rental by either booking through a specific portal or using a designated discount code.

World Elite Mastercards

If you have a Mastercard-issued credit card with “World Elite” printed on the back, you can enjoy a handful of interesting benefits. These range from discounts to elite status.

For starters, you’re eligible for Sixt Platinum benefits when you book a Sixt rental car through Mastercard Travel & Lifestyle Services. These perks include:

  • Savings of up to 15% on Sixt rent a car/rent a truck worldwide
  • A complimentary upgrade to the next highest car group subject to availability
  • Preferred reservation priority
  • Access to special Sixt Platinum counters/parking lots at select airports/stations

You’re also eligible for the following discounts with other rental car companies:

  • $100 discount on your first car rental booking with ROLZO
  • Up to a 5% discount on Enterprise rentals
  • Up to a 5% discount on Alamo rentals
  • Up to a 25% discount on National rentals

Popular World Elite Mastercards include the Citi Prestige® Card, Citi Premier® Card and Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®. While the above benefits are available with most World Elite Mastercards, call your issuer and ensure it’s included with your card of choice. Benefits can sometimes vary by bank.

The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

United Club Infinite Card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Lastly, the United Club Infinite Card includes complimentary top-tier Hertz President’s Circle elite status. This includes valuable perks, like:

  • Confirmed one-car-class upgrades at participating locations
  • Choose any vehicle in the President’s Circle section of the Hertz Ultimate Choice lot on the spot at no extra charge
  • No additional driver fee for a spouse or domestic partner in the U.S.
  • Hertz Valet terminal drive-back service at participating locations up to four times a year
  • 25% bonus on Hertz Gold Plus Rewards points
  • 675 Rewards Points after every 15 qualifying rentals

Related: Credit cards that offer elite status for car rentals

Use a credit card that includes a damage waiver

(Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock)

Damage waivers are an important part of renting a car. If you incur any damage to a rental (think: anything from a fender-bender to theft) the damage waiver will assume all liability, so you won’t have to pay anything out of pocket.

You can buy these waivers from your rental company, and the price is usually somewhere between $10 to $20 per day. That said, some credit cards include a primary collision damage waiver for free when you charge the cost of the rental to your credit card.

Two of these cards are the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Sapphire Reserve. Both of these cards offer a primary damage waiver in case of damage or theft. There are a couple of exclusions — namely for exotic, “expensive” and antique vehicles — but your average rental car shouldn’t be an issue.

Since the insurance is primary, you won’t have to file a claim with your personal car insurance if the damage is incurred. This is helpful since you won’t have to pay a hefty deductible or be subject to rate changes. Just note that coverage is only valid on rentals of 31 days or less.

Related: How I strategically booked a rental car for 110 days straight

Consider booking through an airline portal

Many major airlines have partnerships with rental car companies, offering discounts, the ability to earn miles and more. For example, United MileagePlus members can earn up to 1,000 points per rental and get exclusive savings when renting with Hertz.

Renting a car on United.com
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Better yet, many airline programs offer complimentary rental car status to their elite members. Both Delta and United offer status matches for elites, with United also offering status to select cobranded United credit cardholders.

Car rental status can include perks like guaranteed free upgrades, bonus points and a wider selection of redemption options. The value of these perks can really add up depending on how often you rent cars, so we highly recommend taking advantage of a status match if you’re offered one.

That said, earning airline miles with your car rental may make you ineligible for earning rental car points. Consider which you find more valuable before you choose which currency you want to earn. Contrary to popular belief, rental car points can actually be very valuable depending on how you use them.

Related: TPG’s guide to car rental promotions that will save you money

Check alternate rental locations

Large rental companies like Hertz and Enterprise have locations at major airports and cities — for example, here in New York City, Hertz has over 15 locations. Make sure to compare prices at all nearby locations to find the best possible deal.

Sometimes you may be able to save money on airport pickup taxes and fees by renting in town. More often than not, these savings carry over to rentals where you pick up in town and drop off at the airport, too.

There are a couple of downsides to renting in town, though. The main one is that in-town locations generally have a smaller selection of cars. This can be disappointing if the vehicle you want is unavailable due to limited inventory and may limit your upgrade options.

Related: Can’t find a car rental? Here are 7 secrets that may help

Rent a car from Lyft

Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Lyft rental car
(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Lyft recently started offering rental cars through its app. Most rentals are fulfilled by Sixt and prices are similar to what you’d pay directly. In some cities, however, Lyft operates its own rental service with extremely competitive pricing.

I’ve found that Lyft’s prices are consistently cheaper than traditional rental car services. Plus, it doesn’t charge extra for gas or tolls — you’ll pay the market rate with zero markups. It also offers discounts on longer rentals.

Another nice perk is the two included $20 Lyft credits. You can use one to get to the Lyft rental facility and one to get home (or anywhere else) from the rental facility. This is a huge cost-savings and more convenient than an airport shuttle.

I rented from Lyft on a recent trip to Los Angeles and paid just over $300 for a five-day rental. This includes the charge for a half-tank of gas at drop-off.

Lyft rental car cost breakdown
(Screenshot courtesy of Lyft)

See if Lyft operates a rental facility in your destination, because it could save you a ton of money in the process.

Related: Lyft Pink membership program now available nationwide

Borrow someone else’s car with Turo

If you’re having a problem finding a rental car with a traditional rental car company, consider using a service like Turo. This service lets you rent cars from other individuals in major cities across the U.S. Not only are prices usually competitive, but you can rent interesting cars not offered by traditional rental car companies. Think: electric vehicles, sports cars and specialized luxury sedans.

Turo booking page for an EV rental in Chicago
(Screenshot courtesy of turo.com)

Cost-compare traditional rentals with Turo and see who has the best deal on your specific dates. Some Turo rentals can even be dropped off and picked up at an airport lot, so it can be just as convenient as any other rental.

Related: Are Turo car rentals covered by credit card insurance?

Find a deal with AutoSlash

AutoSlash tracking email
(Image courtesy of AutoSlash and Gmail)

Many TPG staff members use AutoSlash to find discounts on their car rentals. Simply put, this website lets you enter your car rental specifications and apply any special discounts you’re eligible for (like an AAA membership). Then, the service goes to work, searching for coupons and searching different car rental companies for the best possible price.

This takes a lot of the work out of finding the best deal on a rental car. Since the service is free, there’s no downside to using it. That said, the service can’t search for corporate and university codes, so make sure to cross-check AutoSlash’s price with your corporate code’s price.

Be sure to check out TPG senior writer Katie Genter’s full guide to AutoSlash before you use the site — she has some great tips to share.

Related: Which car rental company is right for you?

Avoid common fees when renting a car

BMW i8 at a Shell gas station
(Photo by Everyonephoto Studio / Shutterstock.com)

There are endless fees associated with renting a car, but most are avoidable. Here are ways to avoid common rental car fees that quickly add up.

Fill up the gas tank before you return a car

Always have a plan for filling up your rental before you return it. Generally, your best bet is to fill up your rental car’s gas tank shortly before you return — otherwise, you could be stuck with inflated fuel prices charged by the rental company.

Another option is to prepay for a full tank of fuel when you pick up the car. Unfortunately, in the case of Hertz, you won’t get a refund for unused fuel, making this only worthwhile if you actually plan on using the majority of a tank before you return the car.

This is why we always recommend refueling before you drop off your rental car. It will save you money and let you use Fuel Rewards points to save even more money on a tank of gas.

Bring your own toll transponder

Another common fee you’ll run into when renting cars is a convenience fee for using your rental car’s toll transponder to pay a toll. In the case of Hertz, these transponders are called PlatePass, which can be used at E-ZPass, IPass, FastTrak and other cashless toll locations throughout the U.S.

There’s no doubt these are helpful, but they can come with hefty fees. For example, I recently rented a car from Hertz and forgot my personal E-ZPass. A mere $8 worth of tolls in the New York City metro area cost me $19.90 due to the “convenience fee” incurred by using the PlatePass.

The lesson here? Always bring your own toll transponder (or pay cash) and keep the rental’s transponder in the included case. Otherwise, you could be subject to paying high convenience fees.

If you’re renting a car in New York City, you can also sign up for Pay Per Trip to pay for your bridge and tunnel tolls. Just register your rental license plate on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) website. All tolls will be charged to your credit card on file.

Skip the under 25 fee

As discussed throughout this article, there are several ways for young renters to avoid the dreaded “under 25” fee. You can avoid this when using certain corporate codes, AAA discount codes and university codes. These fees can top $30 per day, so avoiding the fee can lead to real savings for young renters.

Related: Proving the rental company wrong — reader success story

Bottom line

Keep these cost-saving tips in mind the next time you rent a car — especially during the coronavirus pandemic. They will help you save on your rental and associated costs like tolls, damage waivers and gas. Use these in tandem, and you’ll save a pretty penny on your next road trip.

Feature image by alexfan32 / Shutterstock.com

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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