Michelle Higgins has a great piece in the New York Times on how to save money renting cars.
Her list, my comments.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?