10 Great Ways to Save Money on Car Rentals

Airlines and hotels get most of the ink in travel and in terms of getting the best deal. And when I write about rental cars that seems to generate the last interest. But I rent cars, on many trips I’m in the car longer than the plane and if the trip is long enough I can spend as much on airport taxes and gas as on my ticket. Cars shouldn’t just be an afterthought.

You don’t always want the cheapest option.

  • You may care about the car you drive
  • Total cost, not just rental rate, matter

When possible (I’m renting from one of the cities they’ve started in), and the prices (total rental cost) is close I prefer Silvercar for the nicer cars, market rate when they refuel the car with gas after I’ve dropped it off, and no extra charge added onto tolls.

But when I’m after the lowest possible price, here’s how I approach it.

  1. Rent off-brand. 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 tradeoff. The lesser known brands may be off-airport in several cities, so more of a hassle to get to the car. (Although off-airport may be a savings in itself, see below.) They don’t all have the streamlined checkout and check-in processes that you can at least sign up for with Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, and National.

  2. Discount codes. Coupon codes can be found online and drop price, or throw in a tank of gas for free. 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. Reprice your rentals. Rates change all the time. You can outsource and automate the work by entering your reservation details into Autoslash.com. This will take your car rental reservation and check it daily for lower rates. 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). 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. 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. Rent Off-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. 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 may default you to a higher rate, but I’ve done this several times and always gotten the rental company to adjust the rate downward. Your mileage may vary on this. The broader point is to vary the check in and check out times by a half an hour or an hour before and after your intended rental times, since unexpectedly I do find that changing the time can vary the price.

  6. Negotiate. You may not be able to haggle price (though I’ve walked up to a counter and asked if they could match the price I told them I had with a competitor and they did), but you can often at least negotiate your upgrade for less than you’d have paid for the car type initially online. Of course what you want has to be available when you arrive. Be nice, 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. Hotwire. 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.)

  8. 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. But the additional benefit can be free rentals — rental points with Hertz, credit towards free rentals with National. And there may be a built-in discount, e.g. 10% for Avis Corporate Awards members.

  9. Earning miles from rentals. Again not a discount, but can serve as a rebate. Avis usually has the best mileage offers.

  10. Make your booking through a cash back or mileage portal. Ebates and the Chase Ultimate Rewards mall offer rebates on your bookings for instance, just start at their sites and click onto the travel provider to make your reservation.

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 InsideFlyer.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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Comments

  1. +1 for Autoslash. They dropped the rate on my last Miami rental a total of 6 times. I saved over $150 in the end which was like 45%. Was surprised that I even got Hertz gold service too. Pretty cool.

  2. If you have a membership, book thru costco travel website. I’ve found their rates to be dirt cheap and they give you a free 2nd driver, not just a spouse . Their website is easy to compare around agencies and don’t require prepayment or a credit card to reserve.

    Also a lot of times I’ve found intermediate suv option to be competitive with the compact or economy car

  3. I’ve been doing a lot of non-reimbursed business travel, and whether booking myself or via Autoslash, I usually end up with Alamo or Dollar. This seems like a good middle ground without dropping all the way down to the Advantage’s of the world.

    If you aren’t using a negotiated corporate rate, it’s shocking how much more expensive the big three are. I often see 4 day rates from National of $250-300, when I can rent from Alamo for about $100. I’m riding the same shuttle, and driving the same (slightly higher mileage cars) for less than half the price. And Alamo’s skip-the-counter online check in is nearly as convenient as National aisle service. Yet every time, when the shuttle pulls into the lot, it seems almost everyone else gets off at the first stop for National…

  4. I am so over car rentals, their hassles and long waits even with their so called preferred tiers
    Last week I go to a Hertz Location and no one is in the office when I came to pick up the car with a confirmed reservation. One hour later I get a car after bring driven to a nearby lot
    Then I fight to get them to post the miles
    Many of the cars at Avis and Hertz are not clean and high mileage and have issues of some kind
    Both pick up and return typically suck and then high prices to boot
    Added insult to injury 25 to 75 dollars a day to park the car at the hotel or local garage
    sometimes more than the rental itself
    In many cases Uber or Lyft is a vastly superior highly desirable alternative and more productive for every reason
    No gas bills .parking challenge’s and a host of stressful situations that the rental car majors have created for themselves with frequently terrible service
    Did I say often cheaper?

  5. @swag I agree on Alamo but Dollar is in a whole other league of horrible.

    @Gary — careful on 9 and 10. I’ve had COUNTLESS experiences where Avis collects the FF surcharge and fails to deliver. And COUNTLESS experiences where the portal fails to pay.

  6. I’ve been experimenting with turo.com, basically it is like airbnb for cars. Very useful in SFO and LAX where they keep lots. People flying out drop of their cars at the lot before they fly, dont pay for parking and get paid for letting turo rent their car. What I really like is that there’s a much bigger variety than you see at a rental agency. Rental agencies are still more convenient (of they are not off-airport, that is…)

  7. I agree with the person who recommends Costco for car rentals. Anyone can run a search on their travel website and, even if you’re not a member, you can probably find their relevant code to book direct with the cheapest company. While Costco’s rates aren’t always the best (no one always have the best rates), they’re almost always competitive, so you’ll know what negotiated rates are possible.

    Obviously, you should always run your search through Kayak. And, especially if you’re travelling internationally, also run your search through Kayak UK. The rates are different. I just saved 50% on an Italian car rental by looking at Kayak UK. Auto Europe will usually beat any rate you find on an int’l rental, and Sixt often does the same.

  8. Completely agree with @Anon and @iahphx on Costco. Also find USAA discounts to be pretty good (and you don’t have to qualify for full USAA membership to get car rental discounts – you can set up a free account w/out the military ties typically required).

    As for those mentioned, I particularly find #5 to be important. Crazy how sometimes a 4 day rental is half the price of a 3 day and 22 hour rental, etc. Makes no sense.

    Another good tip is to book as early as possible. Seems like for most people, the car rental is an afterthought that they’ll ignore until closer to departure. I always book a car as soon as I book the first travel component of my potential trip (either air or hotel) Then combine that with tip #3.

  9. I have to strongly endorse the combination of Costco + daily re-checking of the rates. The Costco rates also go up and down over time, and I’ve had several rental car bookings where my TAXES + FEES were MORE than the actual rental costs! That’s when you know you’ve gotten a GOOD DEAL!

    In general, it seems that about 2 weeks before your rental start is when the prices are likely to drop. You don’t _always_ get massive deals, but you can usually significantly improve on your rate.

  10. I use zalyn.com. Set up an easy profile and it runs your request through the hoops (to include Costco, cited above). Then lists what’s available. Saved many times over the years…..

  11. You missed the big meta search engines where most of the saving can be achieved.
    They search consolidator websites like cardelmar, autoeurope, etc. where you can get the same Hertz car but for a much cheaper price.
    I’ve never booked with a rental car company directly cause even when using coupon codes they are not as cheap as going through meta search engines that search consolidators, my favorite is still http://www.billiger-mietwagen.de but hey, its in German 😀
    But there are many other similar websites available.

  12. Also keep in mind when going through a consolidator 90% of the time you get a better insurance policy than booking directly with the rental company! Cardelmar / Autoeurope / … covers the full payment you need to pay in case of an accident, so no extended insurance directly from the rental company is needed.

  13. Autoslash is so easy and always saves me money. It definitely my favorite site to use for car rentals.

  14. I booked 4 reservations with Enterprise in Ireland for an Automatic, all at different rates. We can not drive a standard (also you drive on the other side there so it is not easy even if you can in the USA).

    When we arrived at the rental desk they said my reservations were for standards and they only had standards available, not automatics. The person behind me booking was for a standard and they told him they had no standards. both of us ended up at Avis which was 2x the price of our Enterprise rental.

    When we returned to the USA we wrote Enterprise about what our situation that we know the clerks lied to us about not having automatics and we posted on ours and Enterprise’s Facebook page what they did to us in Dublin!

    We had copies of our reservations with us in Dublin and they did not care. Enterprise’s office also had them and knew we were lied to since they had them also

    Enterprise mailed us a check for US$450 which was more then the Avis rental.

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