Road trips are a very popular travel option now. Given that the #1 post on our site is currently A Road Trip Alone: Top 10 Tips to Prepare, I think it's safe to say that many of you are planning to hit the open road. For those who are not taking taking their own vehicle, we've got some great advice on how to save on rental cars.
The car rental industry operates on slim margins and makes up for them by increasing your daily rate in a variety of ways. Being on holidays, you may be particularly vulnerable to suggestions such as an upgrade to a convertible rather than the economy car you booked when all the costs of your trip were in front of you. Likewise, you may not have done enough research before leaving which makes you inclined to purchase unneeded insurance or other services, just to be on the safe side.
To help you stay on budget, we've got a few tips. Here's how to save on car rentals.
Find a Great Deal on a Rental Car
- Shop around. Check your favorite booking site for car rental prices. My current favorite is FlightNetwork but you could also check Kayak, Priceline, and even Costco. Then go directly to the car rental company’s site to see if they can beat the price.
- Compare pickup locations. In some cases, rental prices can be less expensive if you pick up the vehicle at the airport. In other cases, it can be cheaper to pick up your car downtown. Check both if it makes sense for your plans.
- Confirm the currency of the quote. Before you book, make sure the quote you've been given is in the correct currency for you. For Canadians, for instance, it's easy to book a great deal only to discover that the price was quoted in US dollars, increasing the cost substantially.
- Join the rental company's loyalty program. If you're not already a member, check what benefits are available to members. There's generally no cost involved, and at a minimum, it will get you on the mailing list for advance notice of special deals and discounts.
- Know your insurance needs before you book. First, check the credit card with which you will pay for your car rental as it may include insurance coverage. Check the terms and the deductible. I had a very positive experience with my Visa card where I had a small accident and the cost was covered, no hassle and no deductible. However, if I had been driving a higher class of car I would not have been covered. Another option is to be covered by your regular car insurance. It may cover your rental car while you're away, however your deductible will apply. Call your agent or check your insurance agreement.
- Take advantage of your existing memberships. Take a look at the benefits offered by your various memberships, from AAA/CAA to alumni associations or professional membership organizations. Also check your travel loyalty cards and credit cards for any discounts they might offer.
- Pay in advance and save. If you're absolutely sure that you'll be using the car why not pay in advance and save? How much you save will depend on the car rental company, the location, and the length of the rental. Remember, too that there are always a number of additional details in the fine print. Using the Hertz terms as an example, you can't combine the prepayment saving with any other promotional offer, voucher, or certificate.
- Choose the company that yields the most travel loyalty points. All else being equal, book with the rental company that offers points for your primary travel loyalty program. It may not allow you to save on car rentals immediately, but will help you build points for future travel.
- Book through an airline. Is there a flight involved in this trip? Airlines often have partnerships with vehicle rental companies which can yield discounts if you book your flight and car rental together.
- Save time and money by letting the deals come to you. Autoslash finds the best deals based on the discounts that you are eligible for. They compare prices across all major rental brands. They even track price changes and alert you anytime they find a better deal. It’s a free service, so there’s no downside to giving it a try, even if you've already made a booking.
- Pick a rental location and stick with it. If your starting point is home, it can pay to patronize the same car rental location every time. Tracey rents cars frequently, and has developed a relationship with the staff at her local car lot. Because she is a regular customer, she occasionally gets free upgrades and penalties for late returns or mileage overages can be waived.
How to Keep Your Costs Under Control
- Ask before you accept the upgrade. If you are offered an upgrade, ask what it will cost. If you ask, the additional cost may be waived if they are upgrading you based on their inventory. If you don't ask, you could be charged for it. Always check the rental agreement before you sign to make sure the per diem rate is what you're expecting.
- Question the need for location-specific insurance. Car rental companies will propose additional insurance specific to your destination. In Kauai, Hawaii I was offered insurance in case I lost my keys at the beach. In Whitehorse, Yukon I was offered insurance in case my windshield was cracked by a stone. Really? In the first case, I decided to be careful. In the second case, I knew that my credit card insurance would cover it.
- Don't pay for them to fill your tank. Many car rentals offer a fuel purchase option which means that they will refill the tank for you – at a price. It will be more expensive than doing it yourself. It may be a minor inconvenience to have to stop on your way back to the rental lot but it is a cost-saving decision.
- Pay with travel loyalty points. Do you have air miles sitting in your account? Using them for car rentals can sometimes be a better deal than using them for flights. Watch for special reductions in the number of miles required for a gift card for your favorite car rental company. They generally won't allow you to pay for insurance with points, but you can definitely lower the total cost of your rental.