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The Critical Points: Five Steps to a Perfect Car Rental

Oct. 12, 2018
9 min read
Portugal, Lisbon, Humberto Delgado Airport, competing car rental counters, Avis, Budget, Europcar
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It often feels like you're preparing for battle when it's time to rent a car. Opaque pricing, the up-sell, confusing insurance requirements, liability, a low quality car; these are all concerns that are difficult to navigate. Over the last year I've rented more cars than ever because of a lot of domestic travel and family vacations. Based on my experience and learning from other seasoned car renters, I've simplified the process into five steps that will save you money and stress while ensuring your rental car is protected.

1. Get Status (For Free)

Status in a rental car rewards program does three things for me. First, skipping the car rental line and walking straight to a car in a place like Vegas or Orlando is a godsend, especially when you have two toddlers in tow. Second, it often gets me a better car than the class I originally booked, and a few top-tier statuses allow me to get an SUV or van for the price of a mid-size car, huge for a traveling family. Third, you get better service if you have to call.

If you don't rent regularly, don't worry; there are ways to get status without a single rental. There's a tremendous deal from National right now where one rental after enrolling in the promo and paying with any American Express will get you Executive status. I have used National for almost every rental after earning Executive status thanks to The Platinum Card® from American Express in my wallet. I also have a few great discount and coupon codes that make rentals cheap and earn me bonus airline miles and hotel points.

Here are other credit cards and avenues to free rental car status, discounts and upgrades:

World Elite Mastercard holders receive:

Amex Platinum cardholders receive:

  • Avis Preferred Membership – Skip the line and paperwork and go straight to your car, 25% discount when using coupon AWD #A756900 and a one level upgrade with #UUNA007
  • Hertz Gold Plus Rewards – Upgrades when available
  • National Car Rental Emerald Club Executive Membership – Choose your car, guaranteed upgrades, 20% discount on rentals, fast-tracked rewards earning

If you hold a Visa Infinite (like the discontinued Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve):

Once you hold a single car rental status, look to match to either Hertz or National via their formal matching programs.

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On the other hand, if you have Delta or United airline status, you can also qualify for Hertz Five Star or President's Circle status. If you hold United Club Card or the United Presidential Plus Card (no longer open to new applicants), you'll receive Hertz President's Circle status. Finally, if you have Marriott Platinum or Platinum Premier with Ambassador status, you'll receive Hertz elite status for free:

As you can see, there's ample opportunity for even the infrequent traveler to earn car rental status and make your life significantly easier during your next rental.

2. Find Coupon Codes and Join Clubs

On any rental, you can enter two codes that will make your price cheaper and earn you additional savings or hotel points/airline miles. A corporate discount program (CDP) or discount code will give you the negotiated price of whatever company owns that CDP code. A coupon code (or promotional coupon) will then stack with a CDP and give you additional savings (typically restricted to the length of a rental) or give you bonus points and miles. Finding the perfect combination of CDP plus coupon code is what makes rentals cheap and valuable.

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of CDPs and coupon codes, and it can be tiresome going through and trying dozens of them to find the cheapest price. Over the course of a few rentals, you'll begin to see the ones that typically come out the best or near best and will narrow your list of CDP codes you try. Credit card companies, airlines, banks, big box clubs (like Sams and Costco), AARP, AAA, hotels — everyone has a CDP code you can find and try to see if it lowers the price your rental. Add in a coupon code for limited time deals and you can see how some people earn mega miles from car rentals.

My tip: keep a spreadsheet of the CDPs you find that work best to lower the price, organized by rental car company.

3. Book Directly

You've probably heard the TPG team say time and time again to book your flights and hotel stays directly with a hotel or airline. This ensures you receive elite benefits, earn points or miles and get the customer service you need when things go wrong. In my opinion, the same applies for car rentals.

There are a ton of third party options online advertising the cheapest rentals. In reality, you can probably get close to or even beat the price they are offering by booking directly and using the right CDP and/or coupon code. This ensures that you'll receive your elite status treatment and service. Even if another site is cheaper, I am happy to pay a bit more to ensure I can skip the rental counter and earn rental car points or credits. Now, there are exceptions where rental car companies will still honor your elite benefits on third-party bookings, but it is very much a YMMV situation.

Another wrinkle with booking through an OTA comes up if you need to change a rental pick-up or drop-off time. Let me tell you unequivocally that it is infinitely easier to call the car rental company directly than it is to call a third-party provider like Priceline or Hotwire and try and have those agents do it.

The good news is that once you've booked directly, your savings don't have stop, all thanks to the next step in the perfect car rental process.

4. Autoslash For The Win

TPG has covered in detail, so I'll just give you a quick recap. The site works both as a place to find discounted prices and as an engine that continues to look for better prices on an existing reservation, whether booked through the site or not. If it finds a lower price, it will alert you via email and send you the new pricing information so you can rebook yourself. It is an amazing tool that continues to save me hundreds of dollars on car rentals with little effort on my part. No matter how you make a car rental reservation, ensure it is loaded with Autoslash to open yourself up to additional savings.

5. Decline All Insurance and Pay with a Primary CDW Card

A Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is a supplemental insurance option that many car rental providers will offer at pick-up. However, it's also given as built-in protection that comes with several credit cards. When you decline all of the car rental company's insurance options and the coverage on your credit card is primary, any damage to the car will be covered by the credit card's protection. This will not cost you a penny, nor will it impact your personal insurance premiums.

That being said, there are some country exclusions with certain credit cards; it also typically excludes luxury and off-road vehicles. It's also critical to note that CDW protection does not provide any liability coverage nor will it provide any medical coverage; both of these would fall to any personal policies you have, if applicable. Be sure to read your card's benefits guide for all of the details.

There are many cards which offer primary car rental coverage as an included benefit, so make sure you have one listed as the default payment type in your profiles with the different car rental companies. Of note, if you book a car rental through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal and use points to cover the cost, your rental is covered by the primary CDW of your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Sapphire Reserve, as long as you used points from one of those accounts to cover the rental.

Bottom Line

Here's a quick recap of the five steps to a perfect car rental along with the benefit each step provides:

  1. Get free rental car status — skip the line, get car upgrades and receive better service
  2. Find CDPs and Coupon codes — save cash and/or earn bonus miles and points
  3. Book directly — ensure you receive your elite benefits and get the service you need if something goes wrong
  4. Use — the service is routinely looking to save you additional money until you rent the car
  5. Use your Primary CDW — avoid additional insurance costs and have the peace of mind you do not have to pay for any damage to your car

Getting free status and finding good CDPs and coupon codes will take a bit of effort; but it is one-time effort that will pay for itself every time you rent a car. Put in a little elbow grease in now and set yourself up for perfect car rentals going forward.

Featured image by UIG via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.