Renting a car is a fairly routine aspect of travel, but in recent years, the costs associated with rental cars seem to have ballooned beyond ordinary.
“Rental car prices can skyrocket during peak travel times and at popular destinations when demand is up and inventory is down,” budgeting expert Andrea Woroch told HuffPost. “However, other contributing factors can hike up the price including insurance costs, extra services such as adding a second driver, plus taxes and fees. Not to mention, car rental companies keep prices high to offset the cost of maintenance, depreciation and other operating expenses.”
Although rental cars can get pricey, there are ways to cut down on the costs. Below, Woroch and other experts share their tricks for getting a better deal.
Rent away from the airport.
“Location matters, since airports charge rental car companies a fee to operate out of the airport, and those result in higher costs for renters,” said Jen Moyse, vice president of product at TripIt. “You can save money by opting for a rental car company located outside the airport.”
Although you might have to go a little bit out of your way, you can potentially find better deals by booking at a non-airport location.
“Demand is highest at airport car rental agencies, which reduces availability and selection while driving up prices, especially during popular travel times like winter holidays, spring break and summer,” Woroch said. “Consider renting a car on the way to your final destination or near your hotel. Ask your hotel if they have a free shuttle, which could get you close to the car rental office or just book an Uber or Lyft — which still may end up being cheaper even when you add in the rental car costs compared to what you’d pay to rent at the airport location.”
Earn cash back.
“Any time you’re booking a car rental online, always click through a cash back portal like CouponCabin.com to earn cash back on the booking,” Worth said. “You may even find a coupon code for money off your rental.”
She pointed to current deals on the portal, like 5.25% cash back at Hertz, 2% back at Enterprise and up to 11% back at the rental comparison booking site RentalCars.com.
“Considering you’re likely dropping hundreds of dollars on a car rental or maybe more than $1,000, that cash back will add up quickly, and this is on top of anything you earn through your credit card,” Woroch added.
Leverage credit card perks.
“Pay attention to which credit card can help you save the most on your rental car booking when paying for your rental,” Woroch said. “Some cards come with free collision damage waiver insurance, which will save between $10 to $30 per day to cover your rental, the amount charged by rental car companies.”
Other potential credit card perks include free upgraded status at certain rental car companies, which could allow you to skip long lines at the counter. You might also get travel credits, exclusive discounts and bonus rewards.
“For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card will give you free elite membership at Avis, Silvercar, and National car rental companies,” Woroch said. “This upgraded status helps you save more by offering discounts on bookings, complimentary upgrades and promotions, as well as savings on premium car rentals.”
She recommended reviewing the best credit cards for car rentals to choose the one that will maximize your car rental and other travel experiences.
“Opening up a new card before you rent your car and using it to book your rental could help you earn a cash bonus that could pay for some or all of your car rental,” Woroch added. “For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Card offers an extra $200 cash back when you spend $500 in the first 3 months of account opening. If you car rental will cost around that amount, consider that $200 as an instant discount on your booking.”
Book through your warehouse club.
“Most members of warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and Costco can get exclusive savings on a variety of travel needs including car rentals,” Woroch said. “However, in my experience, Costco always has the best deal between the two clubs.”
Even if you aren’t currently a member, she believes the savings you score on a single rental car booking could more than cover the cost of a new membership.
“While the savings will vary from day to day, you can find 20 to 30% off car rentals as well as other travel needs,” Woroch added. “Booking your car through Costco also comes with a couple other savings perks such as a free second driver and free cancellations.”
“From car seats to GPS systems and satellite radio, car rental companies offer such add-on items to help make your trip more enjoyable and convenient, but get ready for high costs as each add on can cost you an additional $10 or more per day,” Woroch said.
She emphasized that you can comfortably skip most of these add-ons.
“For one, families traveling with little kids can check car seats on an airplane for free so no need to pay for a rental,” she explained. “Navigation systems are also pretty pointless since you can use your phone’s GPS. And you can connect your phone through Bluetooth to enjoy free streaming music through Pandora or your music library.”
Don’t use the toll pass without paying.
“One mistake people make is not paying for tolls when using the car rental,” said Bola Sokunbi, founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance. “If you use the rental company’s toll pass or go through a toll without paying, you will be subject to fees from both the rental company and the state or city toll management. You may pay convenience fees, violation fees and/or other surcharges.”
Instead, she recommended having cash on hand to pay for any tolls. Consider mapping out your route in advance with an online travel planner that will tell you which tolls you’ll pass and how much they will cost.
“You can get cheaper rates if you bundle your car rental with a hotel or flight booking,” Sokunbi said. “A lot of travel websites offer a significant discount on car rentals if you book that way.”
Consider leveraging your warehouse club membership for bundling discounts as well.
“You can find vacation packages or book a hotel that bundles in a car rental at a significant savings through Costco,” Woroch said.
Compare rates and vehicles.
“While loyalty to a car rental brand can offer valuable rewards through loyalty programs, those looking to get the cheapest rate should compare prices among all rental car companies,” Woroch said.
Third-party sites like CarRentals.com can show you the options across different companies at your preferred pickup location.
“Remember to compare all rental vehicle and truck options,” she explained. “You won’t always get the cheapest price on the Economy size car, depending on the demand. In fact, I’ve scored a cheaper price in the past by choosing the SUV.”
Claire Summers, the travel blogger behind Claire’s Itchy Feet, said she’s taken advantage of great deals from small local rental companies.
“I’ve found them far cheaper and the service much better,” she said. “They almost always have a free airport pickup service so you will be collected from the airport and taken to their office to collect your car.”
Consider shopping around and being flexible with rental companies and vehicles. Flexibility with timing can also pay off.
“If you can be flexible about the dates you pick up or drop off your car, you can avoid premium rates during peak travel dates,” Moyse said. “For example, starting your trip during a weekday rather than weekends.”
Book in advance.
“Booking rental cars early is always the No. 1 rule,” Moyse said. “You can get ahead of the price hikes by booking before availability becomes limited.”
She pointed to TripIt data which shows most people book their travel about 2-3 months in advance, but nearly a third still book their trips 4-6 months in advance.
“If you know your travel plans far enough in advance, you can join the few that book more than six months in advance and can take their pick of preferred options,” Moyse added.
Do not prepay for fuel.
“I would say the No. 1 mistake that people make is not filling up the car rental’s tank with gas before returning the car,” Sokunbi said. “Car rental companies typically require that you return the rental with the same amount of gas that you left with. Otherwise they charge a significantly higher rate for gas than if you were to fill up the car yourself.”
Avoid paying a premium on gas by carving out a little extra time to fuel up before you drop off the car.
“You can find cheaper gas on the way to the rental car return by using the GasBuddy app,” Woroch said. “It uses your location and pinpoints gas stations in your area, sharing the current price per gallon so you can find the best deal along your route easily.”
Ask for free upgrades.
As with hotel upgrades, never underestimate the power of just asking.
“When you arrive to the rental counter, you may get lucky and score a free upgrade if you ask politely,” Woroch said. “Some reservations may fall through, leaving a bigger or more luxurious vehicle up for grabs. This may even help out the car rental office in the event they are missing the type of car you booked for an upcoming reservation.”
Reconsider renting at all.
“Consider the rental car duration — do you really need to rent a car for the entire trip or could you rent for just a few days?” Woroch said. “Otherwise, if you’re heading to a city, you may be able to get away with taking public transit and walking and then avoiding the added costs of having a rental car, like hotel parking fees.”
If you’re going to a beach house and plan to stay there most of the time, for example, she suggested using Instacart for grocery deliveries and taking an Uber or taxi to the one or two meals you eat out.
“Travel can be an enlightening experience, but as the impacts of climate change become more evident, many people are rethinking how they travel,” Moyse said. ’Travelers can give their rental car a break by opting for trains, bicycles or walking to get around their destination. This eliminates carbon emissions from personal or local transportation and is a great way to experience a destination.”