Need to get from A to B, but are unfamiliar with the ropes of car rentals? Many travelers mistakenly assume that all car rental rates are about the same and that shopping around is a waste of time.
But car rental rates do vary—sometimes by quite a bit! Factors that can affect your car rental rate include not only which rental company or destination you choose, but also where you pick up your vehicle and when you choose to fuel it.
Follow these tips to make your next car rental a little less confusing (and expensive), and hit the road without worry of hidden fees.
Just Say No To Extra Insurance
Sure, sure, no one wants to take unnecessary risks. But before you accept those charges, know that the car rental counter clerk is trained to increase your anxiety with scary stories of loopholes, deductibles, and failed coverage—oh my!
The truth is that extra coverages such as Loss Damage Waivers and Personal Effects Coverage are optional in most states. They can also account for an additional $20 to $40 per day on your rental fee.
If you’re renting a car in the United States and already have car insurance? It should cover a rental car (just call to make sure).
If you are renting in the US and don’t have car insurance, book using a credit card that offers supplemental insurance as a perk. If you’re unsure about what coverage your card offers, check out this great breakdown by NerdWallet or this infographic from Lifehacker. You can also call your credit card company directly.
If you’re renting internationally, the supplemental insurance offered by the credit card usually becomes primary insurance—and so once again, you’ll be covered.
Look Beyond the Lowest Advertised Rates
Low rates are often jacked up by hidden fees, taking what sounds like a nice deal up to eye-gouging rather quickly.
For example, a report by BudgetTravel.com showed a weekly rate of $125 for a compact rental out of San Antonio International Airport. That's about $18 per day. Not bad, right?
However, once you go to the reservation page, you’ll see that taxes and fees add more than $50 to the final price. There's 10% sales tax, something called a vehicle license fee of nearly $19, and an "arena fee" of $7.19.
Those fees hike the rate up from $18 per day to $25! Bottom line? Check all the extra fees when price comparing, and know that the bottom line price is rarely cheapest after signing.
Decline Extras Like GPS
You don’t have to turn the clock back to the 20th century and use only a map, but don’t get the GPS the rental company offers. If you’re renting in the US, simply use your smartphone’s map function.
This option is also available when renting internationally. Instead of a $13 a day GPS, get a new SIM card for your phone (make sure your phone is unlocked first) or rent a phone from the international airport upon arrival.
Want more info on staying connected while on the road? Check out “When In Roam: How to Travel With Your Phone.”
Know When to Fuel Up
Don’t feel like making one final stop before dropping off your rental? Know that if the rental company has to top off the gas tank after your return, you will pay a ridiculous price per gallon.
To avoid their inflated fuel prices, always ask that the car be filled up prior to your departure, and then bring it back full of gas. If they won’t fill it up without a fee, be certain you return the vehicle with as much gas in the tank as when you started.
Also, never agree to pre-pay for gas. You’ll be charged upfront for a full tank and unless you return it completely empty, you’re losing money.
Avoid Airport Rentals
It’s not always the most convenient, but if you can avoid picking up the car at the airport location, you can save some big money.
Most rental car companies will place a premium on to your rental for picking it up at the airport—sometimes up to $30!
Instead, save those dollars for a better use and head to a secondary location to pick up the car. If you’re in a big city, there should be plenty of options, and they should be located conveniently around public transportation. Hop on the metro or shuttle, get away from the airport, and rejoice in having saved what might be a whole day’s budget by going a little out of your way.
Reserve Small, Hope Big
Many North Americans who rent cars don't like driving compacts. Rental companies know this, and they usually order more mid-size and full-size cars to meet the demand.
If your destination is a smaller facility or non-hub airport, chances are good that they have only a few compacts. On some days, they might not have any compacts when customers arrive.
If you've reserved a compact and they’re fresh out? The rental company is obligated to give you a free upgrade!
Granted, this strategy is only worth attempting if you don’t mind spending your trip zipping around in a compact car. Travelers should also be aware that this strategy is unlikely to work outside of North America, as the rest of the world often prefers very small, fuel-efficient cars.
Grab a Discount Code
Belong to AAA, AARP or Costco? Now is the time to scour all your frequent flier clubs, credit cards and membership organizations for discounts on car rentals. Even a 10% discount or $35 rebate off a weekly rental will help to offset rising rental car costs.
A simple Google search of “(Your Car Rental Company) discount code” can also yield some great savings options. Look through the first few sites and see what type of codes there are, and then use them to get up to 50% off your rental.
Sometimes Keeping It Longer Is Cheaper
Simply tacking on an extra couple hours or a day to your reservation can lower your base rate, even though you ultimately plan on returning the car earlier than you’ve arranged. The system will often discount your rate, especially if you can extend your reservation into Fridays or Saturdays to utilize weekend rates.
On top of that, some rental companies will give you a prorated refund for an early return. Be careful, though, as other rental companies, like Hertz and National, charge early return fees. Make sure you ask the car rental company for clarity or check the terms and conditions of any rental agreement before confirming.
Look Beyond Regional Chains
Be sure to check out car rental deals available from smaller, regional chains and local independent agencies. They may have lower prices than the big national chains.
Regional car rental chains in North America include Midway Car Rental, Fox Rent A Car, Triangle Rent A Car and Ace Rent A Car. To search for regional chains available at international locations, check out Carrentalexpress.com, which allows you to search for local rental car deals by airport, city, and even your address.
Another way to track down a smaller rental car agency near your vacation destination is to ask for a recommendation from the hotel or resort where you'll be staying. The local agency may even be willing to drop the car off at your hotel.
Consider Booking Your Rental When You Buy a Flight
It might sound counterintuitive to add an expense in order to save more on travel, but you can actually access hidden discounts by booking more than just a flight, at least with some airlines.
British Airways, for example, says that when you select a package option (flight plus car or flight plus hotel), they then sell the package as a tour operator, with preferential rates passed on to you.
How to Create the Perfect Itinerary
Not all airline websites make it as easy to bundle a hotel or car rental as others. Finnair, for example, doesn't offer a bundling option, while Aer Lingus and Icelandair offer only their own prepackaged vacations, which may or may not suit your needs. American Airlines' site has a "Round-Trip + Hotel" button, while Delta provides both package deals and build-your-own options.
Be warned that bundling is not always cheaper, so you'll want to check the individual pricing as well. If you don't actually need a car or hotel, you should not try to book a bundle anyway, lest your entire booking be voided by your failure to pick up your rental or show up at your hotel. Finally, keep in mind that packages nearly always include larger hotels, which might not be your cup of tea.
Look Out For Other Sneaky Fees
You already know to top off the gas tank before you return your car. But, how else can you cover your tail?
Inspect your car for any dings and damage before pulling off the lot. It’s a good idea to snap a couple pictures with your phone of the front, back, and sides of the vehicle, leaving little doubt as to the condition the car was in before you stepped foot in it.
If you’re behind schedule when it comes time to return the car, call the agency you’re returning the vehicle to and ask if it will be cheaper to pay late fees or extend your rental.
Finally, always check for fees tied to electronic toll collection systems, car seats, or any other extras before you agree.
Final Thoughts Before Signing the Dotted Line?
As long as you do a little bit of homework, renting a car should never cost you an arm and a leg. Just denying the insurance they push can save you a huge amount of money.
Couple that with using your own GPS, scoring a discount code or two, and quickly checking multiple websites for the best price, and you’re staring down some big savings.
And always remember; return the car with a full tank!
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