As I’ve started traveling more frequently I’ve also started to get the hang of how to find the best deals on rental cars. I’ve learned about the different fees and taxes imposed by various cities, about which car rental companies I prefer renting from, and about how much the prices can fluctuate even from one hour to the next.
The best thing about car rental prices is that reservations oftentimes can be cancelled and re-booked with no change fees, and in most cases your credit card doesn’t get charged until you pick-up the car. In comparison to hotel or flight reservations, car reservations offer amazing flexibility.
Here are the tips that I give my friends when they ask me about car rentals:
1) Check prices constantly
It can be a bit monotonous to check the prices over and over again but I’ve managed to snag some amazing prices on car rentals just by checking once or twice a day over a couple of weeks. I haven’t found that a particular time (late at night, afternoon, weekdays, whatever) is the magic time for discounts so I just try to check at different times of the day.
It’s fairly quick and painless to check the prices and I usually do so with my browser in “private mode” to avoid cookies.
One of my co-workers recently taught me the art of always checking car rental prices in the last day or two before a trip. Sometimes companies will drop their prices significantly right before a weekend if they have a lot of availability. My already cheap $40 car rental for a weekend in California became $25 when I checked the prices 24 hours before the trip and re-booked at the lower price.
2) Join loyalty programs
Alamo & National are my favorite but I recommend joining the loyalty program for any company that you end up renting from. You often get an immediate benefit for being a member, and even if you don’t, you can usually accrue rentals towards earning a free day. Same concept as Starbucks and their gold stars for those of you who do that.
Alamo gives members 5% off automatically, and National has their Emerald Aisle which allows you to pick any car you want while only paying the midsize car price. Both programs are free loyalty programs so there’s no reason not to utilize them.
I’ve also found that being on the email lists for National and Alamo has gained me some valuable discount codes that I’ve been able to use on multiple occasions. National sent me a discount code for a free day when I initially signed up for theirs.
3) Utilize discounts from other memberships
Some people have AAA and other travel discounts but the one membership I have that’s helped me with rental cars is actually Costco. They have a car rental website and on quite a few occasions I’ve found the best rate by booking through Costco.
4) Try tweaking the pick-up & drop-off times
I’ve had multiple situations where tweaking the pick-up or drop-off time by 60 or even just 30 minutes has changed the overall price drastically. The biggest thing that I try to watch for is avoiding just barely going over a 24 hour period. So for example, instead of needing 3 days and 1 hour for the rental, if I make it 2 days and 23 hours, the price might drop since it’s under the 3 day mark. Obviously you have to do what works with your flights if you’re dealing with those but it’s worth trying. If you need to shave a half an hour off somewhere try pushing back your pick-up time by 30 minutes. If your flight gets delayed it won’t make a difference, and if you do get there on time they usually won’t worry about the extra half hour at that point.
One weird example I had of this is when I was booking a bunch of cars for a trip I was organizing that involved over 30 people. One of the other drivers was attempting to book their car and was putting in midnight as the pick-up time on Costco’s car rental search. The company that I was finding the cheap rate at apparently closed at midnight (which I think was actually an error as all the other counters in the shared facility were open past midnight) so when I was searching for 11:30 PM I was seeing it but the other driver was not when he searched for a midnight pick-up. The group was able to get to the car rental place before midnight, and even if they hadn’t I still think they would have been fine.
But the majority of the time it’s about the length of the reservation. Here’s my most recent example of how time tweaking made a difference. I was looking at rental prices in Manchester (my first international car rental!) and plugged in some estimated times. The pick-up time is based on when my flight would land and the drop-off time was something I somewhat randomly selected. I was planning on taking a train to another city on that day I could be flexible about what time I did so.
My first search on Auto Europe (which has become one of my favorite sites to check prices – internationally or within the US!) gave me this:
$154 for slightly over 3 days. I then noticed that I was pretty close to keeping it under a 24 hour period so I tweaked the times a bit and got this:
A $40 savings just for being willing to return the car a bit earlier! I also moved the pick-up time back a half an hour because I realized that with going through customs I probably wouldn’t get to the car rental place that quickly anyway.
5) Be smart with the insurance
Different people have different opinions about how much insurance you need. I always tell people that the most important thing is knowing what your personal car insurance covers and/or what your credit cards provide for you with insurance. There’s no reason to pay for coverage that you already have. If you really feel like you need to purchase extra insurance, it’s probably worthwhile to research third party insurance rather than taking what’s offered from the car rental company themselves.
I always forgo extra insurance coverage when I’m renting a car in the US because my personal car insurance covers me. I also have a couple of travel credit cards that include insurance. In fact, I turn down just about anything a car rental company tries to sell me since it’s almost always overpriced!
What about you guys? What tips do you have for getting the best deal on car rentals?