Ways to Reduce the Cost of Renting a Car

by Gary Foreman

Careful shopping can make a big difference in how much you’ll pay for a rental car. These tips can help you find a car suitable for both your needs and your budget.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
My husband and I are going to visit relatives over the holidays. We’ll probably want to rent a car. Can you suggest ways to reduce the cost of renting a car?
Dianne

Dianne asks a great question. And, whether it’s holiday travel or your next vacation, if you’re renting a vehicle you’ll want to get the best deal. So let’s explore how to reduce the cost of auto rental.

Basic Car Rental Requirements

You’ll need to be over 25 years of age, have a valid driver’s license and credit card in order to rent a car. Many rental companies will also check your driving record. If you’ve had a problem with accidents, tickets or driving while intoxicated, you might not be able to rent a car.

Get Familiar with Rental Car Classifications

Decide how big a car you’ll need. Don’t depend on labels like ‘mid-size’ – they’re not the same at all rental companies. Use the company’s website or ask an agent which models are included in a class. Make sure that you’d be reasonably happy with any of the models in that class. In most cases you won’t get a guarantee of a specific make and model.

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Save on Taxes and Surcharges

Taxes and surcharges can greatly affect your rate. Taxes can vary even within the same destination area. Airport surcharges are common. The airport charges the rental company and they pass it along to you. That will translate into a cheaper rate off-airport rate. An online map will show you how far the nearest off-airport rental location is. A short cab or Uber ride could save you a bundle.

If your pick-up and drop-off locations are different, you may face a drop-off charge. Find out in advance. Don’t forget to ask about fees for additional drivers.

Read all the fine print. The conditions and limitations could be different than what you thought the agent has said. If that happens, the contract will be the final word. Ask if there’s a charge for ‘no shows’ or early returns.

Don’t Stop Shopping Until It’s Time to Travel

Be prepared to keep shopping even after you’ve booked a car. Car rental rates are determined by availability and demand. There’s nothing wrong with making a reservation and then canceling it if you find a better deal later. In fact, you should shop again before you leave. Prices often change and you might find a better deal.

Take these Steps to Find the Best Rental Car Rate

Now that you know what you need and have a plan to get the best deal, let’s go shopping. You’ll want to use every tool at your disposal.

  1. Begin by checking the various rental company sites. All the national and many local companies have websites. Get a feel for prices.
  2. Then check the comparison sites like Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Priceline.com or AirportRentalCars.com.
  3. It’s also wise to call dealerships in the area. Some will let you rent cars from their fleet at a rate lower than rental companies. You’ll need to make a few phone calls to see what’s available.
  4. Finally, call the car rental companies in the city. Tell them what the best rate you’ve gotten is and ask if they can match or beat it.

Get Every Discount You Can

Don’t overlook discounts. There are many available. Your membership in a union, professional or social organization, AAA, AARP, wholesale buyer’s club, etc. could earn you a discount.

Also, sign up for memberships with the various auto rental companies. There are often “member-only” upgrades and discounts. And membership is usually free.

If you’ll be using a coupon or an ad, read the fine print carefully. Sometimes the car advertised is only available on a “limited basis.” That could mean that by the time you get there the special won’t be available. Find out when you make your reservation.

Don’t Pay for Unnecessary Items

You’ll be offered optional insurance. You can buy a collision damage waiver (CDW), liability insurance and coverage for your personal items in the car. Your current auto or homeowner’s policies may already cover these risks. If they do, you don’t need any additional insurance.

Even if your auto policy doesn’t cover rental cars, it’s possible that your credit card does. Some provide coverage if you use the card to charge the rental. A phone call will verify what insurance you have.

Ask specifically about mileage charges. Some companies will charge for every mile over 100 per day. That’s not very far if you’re on vacation.

Watch Your Back

There are also some things to remember when you go to pick up your car. If no cars are available in your class, the rental company should upgrade you to the next larger class without additional charge.

Look the car over carefully before you leave the lot. Any scratches or dings should be noted on the rental agreement and initialed by the rental agent. Proof now is better than your word later.

Find out about fuel. Some companies will charge you a set amount regardless of how much gas is in the car when it’s returned. If that’s the case, do not refuel. You will not receive credit for your generosity. If you are responsible for returning it with a full tank, buy your own gas. You’ll pay less for gas, even near the airport, if you refill the tank before returning the car.

When you return the car, make sure that they inspect it for any damages. You want them to acknowledge that you returned the car without any new dents.

In Summary

Being able to rent a car at your destination can be a wonderful convenience. But it’s not as easy as ordering a book online. Careful shopping can make a big difference in how much you’ll pay for that holiday ride!

Reviewed October 2019

About the Author

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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