How to Save on Rental Cars

Michelle Higgins has a great piece in the New York Times on how to save money renting cars.

Her list, my comments.

  1. Let go of name brands. Certainly Fox, Payless, and others will often have lower rates than Avis and Hertz. The question is whether the lower rate is worth the extra hassle, and that’s a personal tradeoffs question. The lesser known brands may be off-airport in several cities, so more of a hassle to get to the car. And they don’t all have the streamlined checkout and checkin processes that you can at least sign up for with Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, and National — I hate a long trek to the car, or taking more than one bus, and I don’t ever want to stand in line at a rental counter if I can avoid it. Do take the advice though of checking out Sixt which is just getting going in the U.S. but is a common brand in Europe, and offers some high end vehicles at a lower price due to less consumer knowledge of their brand.

  2. Dig for virtual discounts. Coupon codes can be found online and drop price, or throw in a tank of gas for free. This is definitely part of the repertoire. As well, most corporate discount codes can be used by anyone without ID, but be careful of certain codes like those for rental company employees which will more often be checked. One nice thing with rental agencies is that most reservations aren’t pre-paid, so worst case scenario if you are denied a discount you’ve reserved you aren’t usually ‘stuck’ at a higher priced rental since you can always walk away and over to another agency to get a car.

  3. Track rates through Autoslash.com. This excellent site will take your car rental reservation and check it daily for lower rates. Rental prices change all the time, most people just book and call it done but often as travel dates approach prices will drop (when there are more cars left on the lot than expected). This site automates the process of checking on prices, set it and forget it and let them do the work for you. It used to be a great site for making the initial booking as well, but the major car companies didn’t like the money they were saving for consumers and banned Autoslash from making initial bookings. But they can still track bookings you make elsewhere. After you reserve your car, go to the Autoslash website and enter your confirmation number and email address and they’ll do the rest.

  4. Avoid the airport. You can often get lower rates off-airport, especially during the week, because rental companies price discriminate — business travelers need cars and will pay more for them, especially since they’re on a corporate dime and the upside of the travels will often justify spending more to accomplish meetings. So if you can get off airport you can save. Plus airport rentals are often loaded up with taxes, sometimes adding as much as 50% to the cost of the rental — taxes on out of towners are often palatable to locals, taxes to recoup the costs of shared rental faciltieis, shared buses, etc. Another tip for a longer rental is to rent at the airport on day 1 and then return the car to an off-airport location, swapping cars for the rest of the trip — combining the convenience of the initial airport rental with lower rates and taxes for subsequent days.

  5. Reserve the car for longer than you need to. A few extra hours on the back end of the rental may drop the daily rate, then just return it early to avoid extra hours charges. This can work, but it strikes me as a less commonly useful ‘trick’ than the rest on the list. Although it’s worth noting that you should often vary the check in and check out times by a half an hour or an hour before and after your intended rental times, changing the time can vary the price.

  6. Negotiate. Higgins says you can go to the counter and ask for a better car. This is certainly true, as she observes, if the lot is full of a type of car you want that’s in a higher category than you’ve rented. I’ve also found it possible to walk up to the counter of a competitor company and ask them to beat the deal or vehicle that you already have reserved, another reason it can be helpful not to have a pre-paid reservation. And of course status matters here as well, if you have that extra juice it’s a reason why the rental counter agent might be more willing to give you the better car rather than someone else that would ask. The key in these interactions is to be nice, to be friendly. Don’t act entitled, I usually start with a smile and a hello, ask them how their day is, maybe sympathize with their frustrations over a previous customer in line (in a positive way, always).

  7. Prepay. There are several reasons not to prepay, some listed above, but you can sometimes get a better price by making non-refundable reservations. The rental car world would love to the prepaid models the airlines have gone to or at least the hotel model where reservations are charged if not cancelled in advance. And some offer a discount to entice more customers into that world. But that precludes the option of dropping your price later, of course.

My additional tips:

  • Hotwire. This is a more extreme version of the prepaid model. You don’t know which rental company you’re booking with in advance, but you know it’s one of the majors. They show you the price up front so you can compare to what’s otherwise available, I’ve seen savings greater than 50% at times but other times it’s not meaningfully better than booking direct. Since rentals are prepaid you can’t drop price later, I only like this option when the savings is big. And prepaid Hotwire rentals may not offer the same additional insurance coverage through a credit card that renting direct does, so there are tradeoffs, but the savings can often be worthwhile. (Priceline has a similar prepaid model, and can be a couple bucks cheaper, they don’t display the price up front — you might try searching Hotwire and then bidding about 10% lower at Priceline.)

  • Sign up for frequent renter programs. The obvious benefit is expedited check-out, having your information on file gets your name and car space number up on a board with major brands like Avis and Hertz where you go straight to the vehicle and drive away. At National there’s the ’emerald aisle’ where you pick your own car at many locations from the standard car class, you don’t have to negotiate at the counter if you don’t like the specific vehicle you’ve been assigned to. But the additional benefit can be free rentals — rental points with Hertz, credit towards free rentals with National.

  • Earning miles from rentals. Again not a discount, but can serve as a rebate, I claim 1000 Virgin Atlantic miles per 1-day rental at Avis and 3000 US Airways miles per 3-day Avis rental.

  • Make your booking through a cash back or mileage portal. Ebates offers 3% cash back at Avis and the Chase Ultimate Rewards mall offers 3 points per dollar. Similar rewards are available for booking direct at the other rental car company sites, as well as booking through an online agency like Expedia or Travelocity. Search EV Reward to find mileage or cash back offers for the sites you plan to book through.

What have been your experience with these ideas? What additional tips would you add to the list?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I almost always try to lowball a priceline bid once I have a reservation in place. This past spring I did this on a 10 day minivan rental. Reservation was for around $700 and my Priceline bid was accepted at $30/ day with Avis. Saved almost $400!

  2. I typically go with AAA rates + coupon codes with Hertz. They post their AAA coupons right on their website. There are a couple good ones right now, like $40 off a weekly rental + two lawn tickets to a concert at a Live Nation venue this year, and $10 off per day on weekend rentals. My other strategy is to use National’s weekend special in combination with a $xx off or 1-day free on a weekend rental. Either of those usually comes in at such a cheap price that it’s not worthwhile for me to continue deal hunting elsewhere. Example: I currently have a full size car through Hertz for $12/day after all taxes.

  3. Don’t forget car rentals through Costco Travel. I have a two week car rental coming up in NYC this summer and they beat the direct pre-paid rate, Autoslash, and Hotwire by a good amount. No prepay necessary. Costco membership required and US only.

  4. I’m not sure if they are still doing this, but Alamo has a habit of charging an “early dropoff fee” if you return your car earlier than the day your reservation ends. When I was working there we never figured out exactly what triggered the fee, but make sure to read the entire agreement before you sign it. It was $25 if I recall correctly. It caught a lot of people unaware.

  5. Hotwire always seems to offer the same rates as Kayak in my initial searches. There’s no point in booking a confirmed reservation when you can cancel using Kayak or Autoslash.
    The nice thing about Autoslash is that most of my reservations have gone down in price after initial booking. I rented a van in LAS last December that started out at $250, and went down in price to $175.

  6. entertainment.com usually has some VERY good coupons and, depending on the market, you might more than pay for the book with one rental. We saved $90 off one rental in NYC, even after buying the book we saved over $60. And we got the book and online coupons for the rest of the year.

    Just used the %35 off SoCal daily rentals.

    And I agree with the priceline lowball…a NO is the worst thing that can happen and you might just get them to bite on a price. Start early before your rental and try back daily until you hit your price limit.

  7. A very timely post! I just got a rate way below the bid I’ve been trying to win for the past few days (w/o success) via priceline NYOP by using Budget / AAA coupons. Even less than Costco. Thanks Jon (and Gary) for posting!

  8. I just noticed that the 3000 US Airways miles are not posting to my US Airways account for Avis rentals using coupon MUAA044. My receipt says the 3000 miles were awarded so it looks like US Airways may have a glitch somewhere. This has happened for 2 rentals I had in May.

  9. Rentals in May? You probably just need to wait for them to post, have the base miles from the rentals posted?

  10. Can you combine the codes for dollar off discounts and earn good amount of airlines miles on rentals? I think it can be done with Alamo but not sure.

  11. I usually find good rates from Avis via codes. I also have used priceline with good success rate wise. Be careful with the off names. Look up some of these locations. I have seen some comments online about various rental places and cars that were not maintained etc. I have also gotten good rates form Dollar. Especially on their website last minute city deals. They are the king of upsells so be careful with them they are sharks.

  12. Hi Gary… Yes, the base miles have posted and that’s why I’m puzzled. They’ve always posted together in the past. I’ll give it another week or two before I call them. Thanks.

  13. I agree about Costco Travel, especially if it’s for leisure travel to remote destinations like Hawaii. There’s no Autoslash option of course. You have to do your own Autoslashing and keep rebooking to try and get an even lower rate. It usually pays off. I just came back from a trip where the original booking was $300 for a week and I got I ended up rebooking and cancelling the old reservation several times and I eventually got the price down below $200 for the week. Oddly enough, the price hit bottom a few weeks before the trip and then went higher and stayed higher.

  14. @Doug Swalen: I noticed a bit of the same thing with Costco. I thought I would change a couple of things about the rental period, and went back on about 5 days before the rental and could no longer get anywhere near the rate I had previously, so I just kept the original. In the LAX market, Costco and Alamo seemed the best rate — for an upcoming IAD trip, it’s Costco and Budget.

  15. Can I use the Avis MUAA044 code and still shop through the Ultimate Rewards Mall? It seemed to be working for me but when I went to put my info in it never asked for my USair account info. Maybe you can’t do both? It would be sweet if you could…

  16. Priceline is NOT your best option for renting cars! Priceline offers a so-called “Big Deal Guarantee” which states, “Name Your Own Price® rental cars are backed by our Big Deal Guarantee. If you find a lower published-price for the same rental car reservation, Priceline will match that price and give you $25.”

    I attempted to bid, using Priceline’s list of winning bids as a price guide for LAX. I finally booked a standard car (Ford Fusion or similar) with Priceline for $30/day for three days, which was much higher than the $18 someone else allegedly pulled off. An hour later, a cohort who is meeting me in Los Angeles, said he got a much better deal by going to Thrifty’s website, which offered the same standard car for $6 less a day–with no memberships or other hoops required. Over three days, with taxes and fees, the price difference is more than $40.

    That’s not huge, but if Priceline promises the best deals, it should have bettered the Thrifty price, or at least matched that price. So, I called Priceline to let them know they dropped the ball. The Priceline rep told me, “Oh, we have a ‘Big Deal’ guarantee.” After researching, he said, “Sorry, you don’t qualify, because it is not the same itinerary.” Merriam-Webster’s definition of itinerary is: The route of a journey or tour or the proposed outline of one. In my case, the itinerary is, I pick up the car at LAX at 11am, and drop off at LAX at 11am three days later. The only difference is, Hertz took my offer for $30/day–however you have no idea what company is looking at the bids until it is accepted.

    Priceline should have at the very least, matched the Thrifty price, but the best case would be to go ahead and live up to the so-called guarantee.

    The advice is— start checking EACH of the major rental companies sites as far out as you can from your departure date. Deals are offered and changed constantly. I did this, but wasn’t thorough enough to find Thrifty’s deal. DO NOT BELIEVE Priceline’s promises that it will always get you the best price. If it were not for Citibank’s willingness to do a chargeback, I would be stuck with Priceline. Yeah, it is just $40, but it is more about the principle. If I feel I’ve been had, I can be a really lousy customer.

    I have used Priceline in the past with some success, so I had confidence in the company, until this week. Now I have to say, with Priceline, BUYER BEWARE!

  17. Very informative and insightful article. I agree on most of the points but India we have kind of fixed rates for the miles traveled . Big fishes of the industry like OLA cars and UBER cars are here but discount and rebates are hopeless. Hope you will cover a post for Indians.

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