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- Is a Hassle-Free Car Rental Possible?
- 1. Compare prices.
- 2. Book as early as possible.
- 3. Check Priceline after step 2.
- 4. Decline extra rental car insurance.
- 5. Bring your own GPS, toll pass and car seat.
- 6. Don't pay extra for satellite radio.
- 7. Beware pre-pay gas options.
- 8. Cut down on the number of days of the car rental.
- 9. Rent from non-airport locations.
- 10. Be nice.
- 11. Pass on frequent flier tie-ins.
- 12. Choose one driver.
- 13. Drive safely, avoid penalties and return the car on time.
- 14. Beware 'no-name' car rental companies.
- 15. Let someone else do the work.
- 16. Membership has its privileges.
- 17. Take a chance on a non-refundable rental.
- 18. Look for one-way car rental deals.
- 19. Use these car seat rental tips.
- 20. Book the lowest cost car model.
- Covid Considerations When Renting a Car
- What to Look for in a Family Road Trip Car Rental
Whether you’re flying for a vacation or planning a road trip, renting a vehicle can be a must for a family vacation. It can also take a chunk out of the vacation budget. These car rental tips, including the secret site veteran renters always use, will help you save money on your next car rental.
Is a Hassle-Free Car Rental Possible?
Renting a car is much more complicated than choosing between a compact car or minivan. Yes, it can be that easy. But to save money, rent a car the way the experts do. These insider car rental tips will help you save time, money and your sanity on your next family vacation.
1. Compare prices.
Start early — at least two months before your vacation. Then visit Kayak.com or Expedia first. This will give you a ballpark figure of what your rental will cost. Kayak and Expedia are aggregators — that means they comb through all of the car rental companies and compile the deals in one place. The results from that search will give you the best price available — the price you want to beat.
2. Book as early as possible.
The key here is to book a REFUNDABLE rate. That way you have locked in the best deal you could find but still have the flexibility to find something even cheaper. Then, two weeks before your vacation, check prices across the rental companies again. Do it again one week ahead. And then the day before. Rental agencies tend to run specials when they have a lower than expected demand for car rentals. When you find a deal, rebook at the special rate and cancel that refundable reservation.
3. Check Priceline after step 2.
You might be able to snag an even better deal. Bid low; you can always bid again in 24 hours if your bid is rejected. Priceline rentals are non-refundable, so no more price checking after this!
4. Decline extra rental car insurance.
Check your own car insurance policy to see if it covers collision damage on a rental car. The American Express credit card and many other premium credit cards cover auto insurance for car rentals. Check your travel insurance, too. Chances are it covers car rentals.
5. Bring your own GPS, toll pass and car seat.
This saves you money so you don’t have to pay extra to rent these. Use Google maps on your phone for navigation. If you bring your own toll pass, be sure to call and add the rental car to your account. And remember to call back and take the rental car off your account after you return it. If you prefer to rent a car seat, read tip #19 below.
6. Don’t pay extra for satellite radio.
Load some audio books and music on your smart phone and your content is free. Car rental companies assess extremely high daily surcharges for add-ons like satellite radio.
7. Beware pre-pay gas options.
This one takes a little analysis and research. Pre-pay works like this: You buy the first tank from the rental company, and bring it back (ideally, for you) on fumes. But the pre-pay per-gallon price is usually higher than you would pay at local gas stations. And, if you don’t use all the gas, you definitely pay more than you need to pay.
The right answer is to forego pre-paying and fill up the tank yourself just before you return the car. Download the Gas Buddy app to find the cheapest gas close to the airport. Don’t wait for the last station before you turn into the airport — it likely charges more than a station a mile or two away because of all those car renters desperate for a top-off. You can usually drive five to 10 miles after a fill-up with the fuel gauge still registering full.
Just remember to leave yourself a few extra minutes to stop for gas. The most expensive option is to drop off the car without a full tank in violation of the rental agreement. The rental car company will fill it up for you — at monstrously high per-gallon rates.
8. Cut down on the number of days of the car rental.
The biggest way to save on a rental is a shorter car rental period. One year, we had a late flight into Florida over the holidays and stayed at an airport hotel the first night. We took the free shuttle to the hotel, then took the free shuttle back to the airport the next day to pick up the car, saving $100 on that day’s rental.
9. Rent from non-airport locations.
When TravelingMom Nasreen Stump visits Seattle, she takes the bus into town and rents from a downtown location. She notes that “airports charge all kinds of additional fees. Often you can rent from a downtown location and return to the local airport for no additional charge and not pay airport fees.” And if you are a Zipcar member, you can rent in town for just the period you need – maybe even just for a day trip.
10. Be nice.
Ask for an upgrade. Chances are you can upgrade for no additional charge. But it always pays to ask nicely. Just beware that it isn’t completely without cost. Upgrading from an economy car that gets 37 miles per gallon to an SUV that gets 20 MPG means you will pay a lot more for gas. I recently got an unwanted ‘upgrade’ when the car I wanted was unavailable. The vehicle, a pick up truck, not only burned a lot of fuel, but I was charged extra at the hotel garage for an oversize vehicle.
11. Pass on frequent flier tie-ins.
You might get charged a convenience fee if the rental car agency has to communicate with another loyalty program about points. It may not be worth the increased cost.
12. Choose one driver.
Additional driver fees, even for spouses, can be $10 a day or more. Since I’m better at figuring out directions and the infotainment systems, I usually ride shotgun and my husband drives. But we also switch occasionally. Just having one renter definitely can save a lot of money.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t even think about paying for only one driver and letting the other person drive. If you get caught speeding or you have an accident, you could be in for a world of hurt.
13. Drive safely, avoid penalties and return the car on time.
All your savings will go out the window if you nick the car, return it late or don’t fill the tank.
14. Beware ‘no-name’ car rental companies.
I try to get the best deal possible with the big 3 car rental companies: Enterprise, Avis and Hertz. Enterprise owns both National and Alamo. Avis owns Budget, Payless and Zipcar. Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty. You know the car rental fleet is well maintained and if something goes awry – a flat tire, broken windshield – the company will take care of you.
15. Let someone else do the work.
AutoSlash is the secret site travel experts use to get the best rate on rental cars. It’s built on a simple idea: Car rental prices change constantly, and the only way you know you’re getting the best price is to check them constantly. The best part: AutoSlash does it for you! Just input your confirmation number and AutoSlash emails you if there’s a lower rate available.
Even after you book a car, AutoSlash keeps checking, up to the time you pick up your car. If the price goes down more, your savings automatically increase.
16. Membership has its privileges.
Costco, Sam’s Club and AAA memberships all offer group rates for car rentals that are competitive. You can still use AutoSlash afterwards to make sure you’re getting the best price.
17. Take a chance on a non-refundable rental.
Sometimes you find such a great rate that not even AutoSlash can beat it. Usually, this is nonrefundable, so if you cancel your trip – or even if you miss a flight due to weather – you are still charged for the rental.
However, there are exceptions in extreme circumstances. Just before most of the country went on pause due to Covid-19, we were in San Francisco and had rented a car just for one day. With the country shutting down, we switched our flight. We were still on the hook for the rental, but decided to just call and see – and guess what? We were refunded. It may have helped that we are Hertz Gold Plus members. But also, my mantra – be nice. Call and explain, calmly, why you need to cancel that non-refundable rental and you just might get a refund.
18. Look for one-way car rental deals.
You can sometimes find a great one way car rental deal. These are 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 from time to time you see Arizona and Nevada deals. My kids got an amazing deal to drive a car from Cleveland to NYC for $80, less than a typical one day rental in New York.
19. Use these car seat rental tips.
In advance, specify what type of car seat you need – infant, rear facing, booster, etc. Ask what models the company has so you can familiarize yourself with how to install. Don’t expect the rental agency to know. You might have to pay $10-15 a day for the rental. AAA members get a free car seat rental with Hertz, a nice perk.
20. Book the lowest cost car model.
Book the cheapest option. It might be small economy car, or there might be a deal on a mid-size. Always scroll through all of the car choices and rates before you book. Chances are you’ll be able to get an upgrade when you arrive (see tip #10 about the importance of being nice — and the increased costs you might still incur for that “free” upgrade).
Covid Considerations When Renting a Car
- AAA recommends asking the car rental agency about their vehicle cleaning process. Hertz, for example, has introduced Hertz Gold Standard Clean, an enhanced vehicle disinfectant and sanitization process.
- Avoid the rental car counter by choosing a car rental agency that offers contactless rentals like Enterprise or Avis.
- Before getting in and driving away from the rental agency, use disinfecting wipes to wipe down door handles, steering wheels, shifters and control panels.
What to Look for in a Family Road Trip Car Rental
If you’re renting a car for your family road trip, you’ll want a vehicle with space for everything (and everyone!). Here are a few things to keep in mind when booking:
- Most rental agencies indicate the number of suitcases that will fit in the car. Make sure all of your bags will fit and include room for a cooler too if you plan on packing one for your road trip.
- If you’d like to save money on your family road trip, consider a hybrid car rental. You’ll feel good about the sustainability and save money on gas. And time at rest stops. I recently drove the 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX, which gets 39 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg overall.
- Luxuries in a rental car, like a panoramic sunroof, individual entertainment consoles and roomy captain’s chairs can make a family road trip comfortable and fun. Gone are the days of crowding into the way back of a rear-facing bench seat in a station wagon.