Nothing puts a damper on an otherwise inexpensive trip quite like a pricey rental car. You may have done your research when it comes to finding cheap flights and accommodations, but renting a car as an afterthought could easily drive up the cost of your vacation.
Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies frugal travelers can use to get the best price on a rental car. You may even already have some tools at your disposal that you’re not aware of. Snagging a low-price car rental might take a little planning and research, but the effort will be well worth the savings.
How to save money on rental cars
There are a number of factors that determine the price of a rental car, from when you book to what you book to who you talk to at the rental car office. Likewise, there are several ways to save money when renting a car. Here are 11 strategies to help you get the best possible deal every time you rent.
1. Get the smallest car available
An economy vehicle is going to be your best bet for getting the cheapest deal. This might not be an option if you’re bringing your extended family and all their luggage, but when possible, rent the smallest car on the lot.
Note that rental car agents will usually try to get you to upgrade. The cost might seem minimal but can add up over the days. If you can fit everything you need into an economy car, this additional charge simply isn’t worth it.
2. Stick to just one driver
Most rental car companies charge an added daily fee for additional authorized drivers, and it can get quite pricey. For example, both Alamo and Enterprise note that the average cost per day is $12 for adding an authorized driver, and the cost can climb even higher depending on where you’re traveling.
Some companies, such as Enterprise, will waive the added fee for a spouse or domestic partner, while others, like Alamo, will not. Make sure to do your research if you and your partner both plan on driving, since this can have a significant impact on the total cost of your rental.
3. Skip the upsells and add-ons
Rental car agents often work on commission and will try to convince you to upgrade your vehicle or purchase add-ons, such as rental insurance and roadside assistance. It’s likely that your existing auto insurance policy will cover you, and many credit cards also provide additional coverage when you purchase your rental with your card, so do your research beforehand.
Rental car agents may tell you that your insurance isn’t sufficient or that the car you chose won’t fit your luggage. Recognize these comments as sales tactics, and don’t let them persuade you if the purchase is unnecessary.
4. Fill up the tank yourself and pay your own tolls
Rental car agencies can charge exorbitant fees if you return the car with an empty tank. Fill up the tank yourself before returning the car, but avoid gas stations near the airport or at rest stops, since those tend to charge more for fuel.
Likewise, don’t allow the rental car company to charge tolls to your card. You can get stuck with hidden fees that can drive up the total cost of your rental. Either pay in cash or bring your own transponder to avoid this trap.
5. Don’t rent at the airport
When you rent at the airport, you’ll often pay extra for the convenience. In some cases, you’ll save money if you grab a rideshare to a local car rental office instead. Compare prices beforehand to make sure you’ll be saving money by using this strategy.
6. Compare prices ahead of time
If you book your vehicle at the most convenient rental car location without checking competitors’ prices, you’ll have no way of knowing if you’re getting a good price or if you’re getting swindled. Compare the prices of several local car rental companies to ensure you’re getting the best deal.
7. Negotiate costs
Comparing prices can also help you get a better deal at the most convenient or favorable car rental company near your travel destination. For example, if you prefer to rent through Enterprise but Fox has a better price, you can show the Enterprise rental car agent the competitor’s price and ask if they can match it or give you a discount. While there’s no guarantee this will work, it’s definitely worth a try.
8. Use a third-party site for deals and specials
Sometimes, third-party sites will feature discounts that you won’t find when booking directly through the car rental company. This strategy can also help you compare prices in your area. Check the following sites for deals:
9. Don’t forget about Costco Travel
If you have a Costco card, you might find the best deals on rental cars through Costco Travel. However, don’t assume that Costco Travel will get you the best price; it will depend on your location, when you book, and what specials are being offered through other sites. Still, Costco Travel is definitely worth including in your comparison research.
10. Use credit card points or statement credits to get a free rental
There are a few ways to use credit card rewards to book a trip. You can use points directly, such as through the Chase travel portal. The only problem with choosing this route is that you may not get any additional rental car insurance benefits, since you typically need to charge the entire amount of the rental to your card to get the coverage.
Make sure your existing car insurance will cover you, or you could end up spending more for coverage purchased from the rental company. One exception to this issue is American Express, which allows you to use membership rewards points or a combination of points and your card while still receiving the insurance benefit.
Another option is to apply a travel credit from a premium credit card to your rental car purchase. This won’t interfere with your ability to take advantage of any insurance benefits included with your card. With the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, you’ll be automatically reimbursed for your rental car purchase up to $300.
You could also use the Purchase Eraser feature on the Capital One® Venture® Card to retroactively apply your rewards points to your rental car transaction.
11. Use the right credit card
One of the unexpected perks that comes with most credit cards is rental car insurance, which can reduce the total cost of your rental. If you decline the rental company’s coverage and pay with your card, you can receive some sort of coverage, which varies by card. Most policies exclude antique and luxury cars, which won’t be a problem if you’re trying to save money. Read the fine print before you decide which card to use.
The Platinum Card from American Express, for example, is a charge card that comes with secondary car rental and damage insurance and also gets you loyalty status at Hertz, Avis, and National. These perks can save you money and get you potential upgrades. There are also plenty of fee-free cards that provide secondary coverage, such as the Chase Freedom Card.
On the road again
The rental car process can be a nightmare if you’re not prepared. Know what sales tactics to look for, which upsells to avoid, compare prices, and use the best travel rewards card in your wallet to snag the lowest price.
With these strategies in mind, renting a car will be a breeze — and you can cruise down the highway to your destination for less money.