#cheap rental car deals
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How to Find a Cheap Car Rental
Published on September 13, 2013
In this article:
Do you really need a rental car?
For many travelers, a car may seem like a necessity just based on their daily routine. However, if you are traveling to a big city, public transportation is usually a cheaper and more accessible option than renting and parking a car. The independence of having a car can seem freeing initially, but if you plan on driving that car into a major city center expect high stress, gridlock, and parking nightmares. If you know you’ll need a car for at least part of the trip, jot down a quick cost benefit analysis comparing the total cost of renting a car (including parking fees) versus catching a cab, shuttle, or train.
6 tips to save on rental cars
1. Get big savings by avoiding big names
Consider renting from a company you’ve never heard of. FlightCar lets outbound travelers rent their cars to inbound ones at discounted rates; RelayRides is a car-sharing company that’s less air travel-specific.
2. Waive the 24-and-under surcharge
There’s a lot to recommend being over 25, such as the ability to legally serve in the House of Representatives and to rent a car hassle-free. Though some companies will lend to the pre-quarter-life-crisis crowd, they often levy a hefty surcharge. Here are a few ways to avoid the fee, which can run up to $25 a day. Be warned, though, that those under 21 are probably stuck with the young invincible surcharge.
- Search for discounts.
- Consider Zipcar or similar offers. Short-term car rental services may have an affiliation program with your university that’ll get you lower rates.
- Look for affiliation discounts. The USAA, for example, lets members 21 and up avoid the surcharge; military personnel are also exempt.
3. Find rewards and discounts
No matter where you book or how, you’re sure to find discounts with a savvy combination of credit cards and coupons. Here are some good sources to earn money back or get a deal on rentals:
- Credit cards that give bonus rewards on travel or car rentals. Look for one that’ll give rewards on any rental. without tying you to a specific set of dealers. Be careful, though – some only give rewards if you book directly with the rental agency, instead of Kayak or a similar agency.
- Coupon aggregator websites. They’ll tell you which companies are offering promotions like 20% off or one day free. One such is Zalyn. which aggregates rental car deals and lets you filter by location and date, rather than the (more limiting) rental company.
- Rewards malls and cashback websites. NerdWallet’s discount tool can help you find coupons as well as tell you which sites will give you 5% or more back on your rental.
- Affiliation discounts. AAA, the AARP and other organizations offer cut-rate rentals for their members.
4. Go for the compact, hope for the upgrade
Rental companies stock far more mid-sized cars than compacts. If they don’t have a compact on site they will often give you an automatic upgrade at no additional fee. The caveat to this is that you have to hold your ground and not fall for the upgrade fee early on in the conversation. If you remain steadfast the company will have no choice but grant you a complimentary upgrade.
5. Check weeklong rates, even if you’re booking for the weekend
When booking, play around with your rental dates. Sometimes weeklong rates end up being cheaper even if you end up not using the car for the entire seven days. This strange occurrence is due to the fact that during the weekends or peak days, the rate tends to be higher on a day-to-day basis. By renting using the weeklong rate, you avoid these inflated rates.
Another good way to save money at the rental car counter is to book a combined flight and car or flight, hotel, and car option. Check out your favorite online travel agency for package options.
What to watch out for
Avoid the ever-present upsell: Reduce human contact
Determine beforehand what kind of vehicle you are looking to rent. With a clear picture in mind and reservation in hand, you can resist the temptation of adamant upsells at the rental car counter. It’s fine to get the red Mustang if you really want it or need to impress your clients, but you need to think critically about the purchase. Most rental car employees that man the counter are paid based on commission, so they will try their very best to have you walk away with a load of upgrades and the insurance to match. If possible, try to join a membership program that lets you preselect your car and drive off the lot without having to go to the counter.
Surcharges and taxes add up quickly
Fees and taxes may misconstrue the price per day that most rental companies advertise as their going rate. So when you see those pay-per-click advertisements that boast $10 a day rates, be wary that the actual cost will most likely be beyond that due to fees and charges. This is where comparison sites can come in handy: oftentimes, they’ll include fees in the calculated price.
Look for rental locations near, not at, the airport
Airport car rentals often come with fees or higher rates that jack up the price. Look for rental car companies with other convenient downtown or suburban locations to avoid fees.
Don’t take the pre-fill: Fill up on your way back
Many rental car agencies have a pre-fill option, which assumes you’ll return the car on empty and pre-charges you for the tank of gas. Though the rates might seem low, competitive with local gas prices, you’ll be paying for a full tank no matter how much is left over. The only way you come out ahead is if you pull into the drop-off point running on fumes. On the other hand, if you bring the car back less than full, you’ll pay astronomical prices on the remainder. You’ll save quite a bit by filling up on your way to return the car instead of leaving it to the mercenary hands of the rental agency. When you do fill your tank of gas while traveling, use a gas credit card to maximize rewards savings.
Pro tip: Avoid filling up right next to the airport – they always jack up the gas prices.
Skip unnecessary insurance upgrades
You may have steeled resistance to a rental car salesperson’s pitch for upgrading to a luxury sedan, but the most ardent traveler can waver when the insurance pitch is made. The gory details of accidents, hefty fees, and fines make many customers buy into insurance packages even when they do not really need them. Oftentimes, your credit card will cover basic insurance ; sometimes, this coverage is invalidated if you insure with the rental company. Figure out what your current car insurance and credit card contracts already cover in terms of rental car insurance before agreeing to any extra insurance.