12 Tips to Save Money on Car Rentals

by | Dec 6, 2019

Sometimes renting a car is the perfect way to get around. Rentals are available on short notice, timing is flexible, and you can get whatever kind of ride you need. Even if you already own a car, renting wheels while you travel can be cheaper than driving to your destination (and that can help you pay off your car loan even faster).

The only catch? Renting a car always seems to cost more than you plan for – especially when you get drawn in by advertisements with eye-catching low prices. Fortunately, it is possible to get a deal on your next set of rental wheels – you just need to be prepared with the right knowledge. Here are 12 cost hacks to use next time you rent a car:


How to Save on Car Rentals


1. Check rental locations beyond the airport

The airport is often the most convenient location to pick up a rental car if you’ve just flown into town, but it is usually not the cheapest. Car rentals at the airport are like snacks at the movie theater — they’re offered at premium prices to a captive market. 

When it comes to rental cars, however, it is often possible to liberate yourself from airport pricing. As you shop, be sure to compare prices not just among different rental car companies but between the same company’s airport and non-airport locations. 

Even if you have to fork over a few bucks for an Uber ride or a trip on public transit to get away from the airport, the savings are often worth it. 


2. Book early

There are a few reasons booking early is a top tip for saving on car rentals. 

Sometimes rates are lower further out from your travel date. This may be especially likely around peak demand times, like the holidays. If you know your travel dates far in advance, book as early as you can to avoid competing for good deals (or in the worst case, just any available rental vehicle) with everyone else looking to travel at the same time. 

Prices aren’t always lowest further out from your travel date. But booking early can still help you save money. How? Rental car companies generally allow cancellations up until the date of travel with no penalty, so use this to your advantage. Lock in the best rate you can early on, then check back periodically to see if prices have fallen. If so, rebook at the lower rate. (The car rental site AutoSlash can help with this — they offer a free price tracking service once you’ve made a reservation that will notify you if a better deal pops up.)

This strategy allows you the peace of mind of knowing you have a reservation, with the flexibility to opt for savings if the opportunity presents itself. Win-win. 


3. Decline excess insurance coverage

Selling insurance coverage is a major way rental companies add to their profits. If you’re not a frequent customer, the speech you’ll get at the rental counter about the need for insurance coverage can be a frightening surprise – and an expensive one, if you cave to the pressure to purchase. 

The catch is, you probably don’t need it. If you already have an insurance policy for a car you own, there’s a good chance it covers your rental vehicle, too. A quick phone call to your insurance company can confirm this for you. 

Even if you don’t own a car or carry regular car insurance, there’s a chance you may be covered in another way. Many credit card companies offer insurance coverage for rental cars when their card is used to pay for the rental. Call your card issuer to ask about coverage. 

Making a couple of phone calls before you get to the rental counter can inoculate you against high-pressure sales tactics at a vulnerable moment: when you just want to pick up your car and go. And saving money on car insurance can go a long way toward keeping your total rental costs down.


4. Fill the gas tank yourself

It’s typical for rental companies to offer you a prepayment option for gas service when you go to pick up your rental vehicle. Often, they will refer to harsh penalties for returning a car with less gas then it left the lot with in order to sell you on a prepaid refill service. 

The problem is that the prepaid gas service isn’t a great deal, either. It typically costs far more than filling up anywhere else would, even if it’s less than the penalty fee for failing to do that. 

So do yourself a favor. Note the level of gas in the vehicle at pick-up. (This should be on your contract as well, but double check that this info is there and that the amount is accurate). Snapping a photo isn’t a bad idea, either. 

Then leave yourself enough time when you return the car to refill to that same level first. 

Nearly all car rental companies have similar policies when it comes to the gas tank, making this tip one of the top ways to save for those in the know. 


5. Reserve a subcompact car in advance

Subcompact cars like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta are often enough car to get you and your luggage where you’re going while saving you money on both the rental rate and gas. 

But because Americans tend to prefer larger cars, the major rental companies don’t always have many of the smallest and most affordable models available for walk-ups. Even if they do, a sales clerk is unlikely to offer you one if you don’t ask for a subcompact explicitly, or make it clear you’d like the smallest or most affordable model available.

This is another reason to book early. If you know a small car will meet your needs, reserve a subcompact model ahead of time to ensure you’ll get one. 

Be sure to comparison-shop among car models, though, as subcompacts are often but not always the cheapest option. 


6. Research more obscure rental options

Some smaller rental companies have older and more modest fleets at lower prices. If you’re okay with that tradeoff, check out options like ACE Rent A Car, Fox Rent A Car, Payless Rental Car, Midway Car Rental, and other smaller and regional chains. They tend to cater more to people looking for affordability and economy car options rather than the latest or fanciest models. 

The best-named of these companies by far is Rent-A-Wreck, which claims to be the “oldest and largest used car rental company in the world!” according to its website. “We may affectionately refer to our cars as wrecks,” the agency boasts, “but our fleet of clean, well maintained and safety inspected vehicles has kept our customers happy and safe for over 40 years.”

These more obscure rental companies often offer very significant savings over the top national chains. 

Turo is another option to look into if you’re open to older model vehicles and comfortable with the sharing economy. Turo enables peer-to-peer car rentals, much like Airbnb has done for real estate.


7. Look into prepaid rates around holidays

Some companies, like Hertz, routinely offer lower rates for prepaid rentals. If your travel dates are firm, this may sound like a good option, but it’s not always the best deal if prices fluctuate in your favor later. You could be locked into a higher rate if you go the prepaid route. 

However, for peak travel times and high-demand rental locations (major airports), booking a prepaid rental far in advance is often your best bet for the lowest prices. Just be sure to ask about cancellation and refund policies in case your plans change. 

Many rental companies offer prorated discounts for early car returns, but a prepaid rental may disqualify you from receiving a refund for unused time. 


8. Consider a longer rental period

Sometimes weekly rates are cheaper than paying for a shorter period at the daily rate. Similarly, a rental period starting on a Thursday rather than a Friday may save you money overall, even if you don’t need the car for the first day. 

Just be sure to ask about any penalties for returning a vehicle early. In the best cases, you may be able to return a car early for a prorated refund, allowing you to take advantage of a better weekly rate and avoid paying for days you don’t need the vehicle. 


9. Read the fine print

Many car rental companies automatically add in extras you don’t need unless you specifically opt out. These charges can include insurance coverage already mentioned, GPS, satellite radio and more. Car seat charges for infants and children are often sky-high, so know what to expect in advance and bring your own if possible.

Other hidden charges to ask about (and try to avoid): additional driver fees, “administrative fees” related to handling electronic tolls, speed camera citations, parking tickets and other violations; charges for extra drivers; cleaning fees (what triggers them?); any mileage not covered in the basic rental rate (not all rentals offer unlimited mileage); late return fees (hourly and daily); and early return fees.

It’s a good idea to ask a representative to go over total charges with you, including all taxes and service fees. Ask what each charge is for and see what you can weed out. The cost of a rental car is usually significantly higher than advertised when all of these are taken into account, even if you decline any unnecessary extras. 


10. Ask for discounts and specials

Many car rental companies offer regular discounts for seniors, current and former military members, and certain corporate employees. Other groups that often negotiate member benefits with car rental companies are AAA, AARP, and Costco. 

Even if you’re not a member of any of these groups, it never hurts to ask if any specials are available. 


11. Use a rewards program

If you’re a regular traveler, it’s likely worth the effort to look into various rewards programs that can help you earn credits for discounts or even a free rental.

Airline frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards are two options. Rental company loyalty rewards programs are another. The latter may work well in situations where you regularly travel to the same one or two destinations and know the rates and rental location generally fit with your budget and travel plans. 


12. Join the email list to receive a one-time discount code

This is a simple savings option, but worth the 30 seconds it takes to save 10-15% off your first rental. You can always unsubscribe from the list later. You can also try a deal-finding app like Honey or Wikibuy to see if a coupon code is available that can save you cash.

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