Car rentals are at once one of the easiest and most difficult types of travel to hack. Easy in the sense that reservations can often be cancelled and changed as often as you want with no penalty, that elite status and upgrades flow freely, and that there are lots of coupons and discount codes available.
Difficult in the sense that all of these features make it very complicated to find the absolute best price. We all complain about particular airlines or hotels that have websites with poor user interfaces and bizarre fees. Rental agencies seem to specialize in these perverse practices.
If you happen to be at the Jersey Shore or just about anywhere else where public transportation won’t suffice, you will find that car rental agencies have made it almost impossible to know if you’re getting a good deal. I do better these days, but I still see some absurd contrasts.
Recently I booked a car for Labor Day weekend near San Francisco. I didn’t need a car Friday night and hoped I could pick it up at Union Square on Saturday to avoid the overnight parking and drop it off at SFO on Tuesday. Quotes of $600-800 before taxes were so unreasonable that I don’t understand how they expect to get anyone to accept such offers.
In the end, I decided to pick it up at SFO on Friday night for $170 all-in. The money I save will go toward valet parking Friday night. But after deciding to stick to the airport location and before finding my nice $170 rate, I faced a dizzying number of discount codes and options that made my head start to spin. Here are some of the things to consider when trying to get the best price.
Understand Your Quote
Keep supply and demand in mind. Tourist destinations will charge you more for weekend rates than on weekdays, and business destinations are the reverse. It probably did not help in San Francisco that I was booking over a holiday weekend, but in general a place like SFO would be considered “business” while Las Vegas or Orlando would be considered “tourist.”
How do you get (or avoid) a weekend rate? Generally this runs from noon on Thursday to noon on Monday, but it can vary by company and location. Feel free to call up and ask. You also will need to keep it over Saturday night.
Remember that rentals are priced on 24-hour periods with stiff hourly rates for fractions of a day. (Though weekly discounts exist, I have never had a car that long.) My quote from National below shows two lines, for 4 days and 0 hours. Notice the hourly rate is fully half the daily rate!
Sometimes it’s close, like when I was in Missouri and needed a car from 7 PM to 7 PM. Waiting an extra hour at the airport, hopefully in a lounge, can save you a good chunk of change at the rental station by starting or stopping the clock. Elite members are more likely to get a grace period, perhaps an hour or two, but on my last rental I was given a stern talk for returning my car 30 minutes late. Actually, I was on time, but I overlooked that when I picked it up early, the clock started, too.
Go Where the Taxes Aren’t
Just as high-income individuals have the means to move to places where taxes are lower (e.g., Californians moving to the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, or Portlanders moving across the river to Vancouver, WA) you, the frequent traveler, should consider the implications of changing your rental location. On-site rental agencies near airports tend to have higher rates, not just because they provide convenience but also because they may have to collect taxes and fees for the local port authority.
My receipt from National shows a Concession Recovery Fee of 11.11% (to pay for the rental facility), an Airport Access Fee of $20 (really?!), and a Tourism Fee of 2.85% (to pay for ads that will convince me to visit and pay these taxes). This is before sales tax, which is already relatively high in California but not something you can do much about.
Second-tier airports like Oakland and San Jose might have lower fees as part of their strategy to lure travelers. Or you could look for an off-site location that isn’t subject to these fees. Payless, Thrifty, and Fox are three agencies that typically are only a short drive away. With more airports building remote rental facilities, you’d probably have to take a shuttle anyway.
In this case, using Kayak to find a cheap subcompact at Fox (the lowest rate at SFO), I was given a quote of $177 that still included the $20 access fee, perhaps a mandatory charge for letting their airport shuttle pick you up, but not the 11.11% concession fee that pays for the new rental car facility. This is still higher than my final $170 quote at National for a full-size, so how did I manage that?
Spin to Win
Discounts are a dime-a-dozen thanks to elite status, corporate contracts, agreements with other loyalty programs, public promotions, and targeted email offers. If you’ve ever looked at a reservations page, there will be lots of blank spaces for you to enter with obscure names like “CDP.” National uses terms that all sound the same like “Contract ID,” “Membership ID,” and “Rate/Product Code.” I usually get a good rate with my standard contract ID thanks to being an National Emerald Club Executive member.
It pays to play around with some other discounts. You can find entire lists of them on sites like FlyerTalk. Although you will see discounts for other companies and organizations, I discourage you from using them. Like with corporate discounts at hotels, you might be asked for ID, and if you fail to prove you have a legitimate affiliation, you could be charged some super-high legal maximum that almost no one pays. Except you.
What about all those coupon fields? You’ll find those on FlyerTalk, too, or on National’s homepage, where there are several links below the reservation fields, including discounts of a weekly rental or a free weekend or weekday day. I also get a coupon in my email every other week for $20 off my next rental. Since my daily rate was well over $20, that free day was a better deal.
Without this coupon, the quote increased to from $170 to $228, and without my contract rate it increased further to $327. So I saved ~$160 just by looking for and taking advantage of the discounts to which I was entitled.
Finally, last-minute discounts exist at select locations. If you don’t pre-pay, you can cancel and rebook with no penalty. So always check you reservation a few days before pick-up to see if your location qualifies for a new lower rate. When I was in Irvine, CA, last spring, I did this and moved to a bigger car for less money.
Travel Better without Paying More
If you want to play your chances, rent the cheapest compact car. It may only save you $10 a day vs. a midsize, but the agency probably has only two or three on the lot. Beware of attempts at an up-sell when you arrive to claim your vehicle. They may say you have a rare opportunity to pay only a few dollars more for an upgrade, but they are really just quoting the same price increase you refused earlier when booking online, and their goal is to avoid admitting they don’t have any compacts left. Stand your ground, and you might get that upgrade for free.
Or try to get elite status. It’s not too difficult with lots of free offers here and there. I am a member of Hertz Gold Plus Rewards (~$60) for free thanks to being a United elite, Avis Preferred President’s Club thanks to my United Club Visa, and National Emerald Club Executive because of a mis-targeted promotion. If you don’t have any of these opportunities available to you, sign up for a MilePoint Premium Membership for $59, which includes a free National Emerald Executive membership.
As an elite member, the biggest perk is they keep your data on file so you can wait in a shorter line and don’t have to go through your name, driver license, and up-sells every time you pick up a car. At National, my Executive status also lets me book a mid-size car (again, only $10 more per day) and go straight to the Emerald Aisle to select my own vehicle, all of which are full-size or better.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Finally, avoid paying for all the extra things the agency tries to shove on you.
Most people don’t need to pay for insurance. You probably already have some by owning your own car. Remember that your insurance covers your vehicle AND you. You probably also have some insurance coverage through your credit card, but keep in mind that only applies if you don’t pay for additional coverage from the agency. Credit card issuers typically provide secondary coverage that applies after your own insurance benefits are tapped. A few cards, like the Chase United Explorer Visa and Chase United Club Visa provide primary coverage that will apply first, meaning you can rely on them to cover your deductible.
Avoid renting from one location and returning to another. True, this is sometimes a good deal because the company may want to shift its inventory. But I find this usually comes with a penalty. Maybe it’s a small one, but in my case, renting from Union Square in downtown San Francisco and returning to the airport was going to cost me more each day than it would for my entire four-day rental picked up and dropped off at the same place.
Fill up the car yourself, to avoid paying inflated prices for gas AND a possible service fee. Notice that many places have started advertising some very reasonable rates to let them fill the tank for you? Like $3.84 in California? These pre-pay offers require you to pay for a whole tank. Unless you return it running on vapors, you probably lost money.
What to do about surcharges for being underage or adding a second authorized driver? Most elite programs and loyalty/corporate discount codes will permit a free second driver, but if that’s not the case for you, just ask to have it waived. It’s worked every time for me. If you’re underage, you’re in more of a bind. Many agencies will charge $25 or so per day if you are under 25. Enterprise tends to be one of the better options in the U.S. with no underage penalty, and in my experience they have good rates, too.
I hope these tips have been helpful. There are certainly a lot of them (and I’ll have more tips in the near future), but each plays its own small part in bringing down the total bill. Keep them in mind, and maybe next time your rental car won’t cost more than your flight.
Update: This post got picked up on Reddit, and one commenter there has a list of suggestions that you might want to read, as well. I agree with most of it (especially about not being a dick!).