Car rental can eat up a huge chunk of your vacation budget. Let Travel Hack Traveling Mom Dia Adams show you easy tricks and tips to save big on rental cars.
I often hear from readers that one of most frustrating parts of the vacation planning process is renting a car. With each company having its own promotions, loyalty programs, and extra fees, you may feel like you’re never going to find the best deal. After close to 100 car rentals I’ve gotten the process down to a science and want to share my best hacks with you.
In my world time is money. I’ve removed the time consuming searching company by company process and streamlined how I book rental cars to a few easy steps.
Car Rental 101: Basic Car Rental Strategy
Before I start, I ask a simple question: Do I have the ability to rent off-airport? If the answer is yes, I go directly to Enterprise Rent-A-Car. 9 times out of 10, any savings I am able to finagle at other sites are eaten up by unavoidable airport concession fees. Enterprise also has frequent sales, especially on weekends.
If I have to go to the airport, I ask: Is my rental less than three days OR do I have to have more than one driver OR is there a chance I’ll need to cancel? If the answer is yes to any of the above, I go directly to Expedia. It has an easy to read matrix sorted by car type and total including taxes and a rewards program.
Note what I DON’T DO: bother with coupon codes, Entertainment books, or other random discounts. The reason is in my close to 100 car rentals, I very rarely find the trouble I went to to locate a code that happens to match my specific trip to generate any savings over the big boys’ negotiated rates, so I let them do the work!
If you’re an occasional car renter, it’s probably not worth trying to collect a rental car company’s rewards points. You can collect loyalty points if you book through Expedia or Orbitz or frequent flyer miles if you book direct through a company.
I also don’t go “no-name” with my car rentals. I just don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Car Rental 201: Autoslash
AutoSlash is built on a very simple idea: car rental prices change constantly, and the only way you know you’re getting the best price is to check them constantly. AutoSlash does it for you! You just input your confirmation number and AutoSlash emails you if there’s a match…and there usually is.
Recently I put a rental in for $149 (and this was from Costco, after research). Less than an hour later I got an alert: $133. Same car class, same cancellation. And you’re booking direct with the Car Rental Company so your status benefits are still valid. Genius! And they’ll keep looking up to the time you pick up your car. In fact, the morning of pickup, my car price went down again, to $111, and since it was with the same company AutoSlash even handled the booking.
Car Rental 301: Membership has its privileges
Before renting a car, it’s a good idea to take a look at your wallet. Many credit cards, notably the American Express Platinum, offer both upgraded status and insurance coverage for no extra fee. You can easily save $20/day by declining the extra coverage.
Costco and Sam’s Club both offer group rates that are competitive- in fact if you’re a member I’d skip Expedia and go directly to them. You can still use AutoSlash after to make sure you’re getting the best price.
Another great deal is offered through AAA: with Hertz you can get a free car seat. While you may save more by bringing it (airlines will check a car seat for free) it’s definitely a nice perk.
Car Rental 401: To Priceline or not to Priceline?
In general, I’m a Priceline fan for car rental, EXCEPT under certain conditions. Be sure you can answer “yes” to these questions before trying Priceline:
- Are your dates firm? If there’s even a small chance you’ll need to cancel, Priceline is not worth the pain. Stick with a cancellable rate.
- Is your trip longer than four days? Three days or less and Priceline’s service fees and the time spent researching may pretty much eat up your savings.
(And the one that has trapped me more than once…)
- Are you the only driver? More than one of Priceline’s partners (notably Alamo/National) charge extra driver fees, even for spouses, of up to $10/day! $70/week more than negated the savings the “negotiator” had gotten for me more than once.
If, however, the trip is longer than four days, my dates are firm, and I’m flex for only one driver, there’s a good chance I’ll do best with Priceline name your own price. I’ll outline basic strategy here:
I’ll select “name your own price”, and bid 35% (assuming I have more than a week till departure date) or 25% (if I have less than a week) under the Expedia basic price for the same rental. You can only re-bid once every 24 hours, which is why I include that caveat. Make sure you add in $5 for the Priceline fees. There are sites out there that tell you recent winning bids (and even Priceline will tell you), but I find that 35% under the base price is a good deal so I don’t bother.
Priceline will often pop up a screen at this point that tells you that you have a very slim chance of winning and that you should raise your bid. Ignore it! Submit your bid, and you’ll get an answer immediately. If you win, you’re done! If you lose, don’t give up, re-bid! Just select the next larger car class, up your bid by 1.00 a day, and submit. You can repeat as many times as you like. Three days later you can do it again!
In my case, there was only a $20 difference between the Priceline bid and the Expedia price, so I just went with Expedia. In the past, there has been a great difference…last year in Orlando I got a full size car for 7 bucks a day!
Elective: One Way Car Rental Deals
One of my favorite deals is the one way car rental deal offered seasonally to drive in or drive out of tourist destinations. The most common is to drive into Florida in the fall and out in the spring, but I’ve also seen Arizona and Nevada deals. I’ve gotten full size cars many times for under 10 bucks a day and have made a trip out of flying into Florida and road tripping it home on I-95, stopping for snacks along the way. Driving there AND back is a long trip for a week, but one way is totally do-able.
What are your favorite car rental hacks? Please share in the comments.