If owning a car is “married” and leasing one is “in a relationship,” you know what renting one is: the “it’s complicated” in the staggeringly expensive world of dating different vehicles.
Facebook references aside, renting a car really doesn’t have to be complex or costly (neither does dating, but that’s not my column). I’m not an advocate for the car rental industry, but despite having a few kids and a modest car-trip schedule, owning a car doesn’t pay for me right now. If you’re in a similar situation, or traveling somewhere on a plane, consider these ways to save.
Work the clubs.
Even if you don’t have time to hunt for the best deals, the variety of discounts available from car rental companies and the airlines and associations they do business with means you should never have to rent a car again without getting a discount or two.
Membership in AAA will save you big time if you need roadside assistance, but the association is also a source of other savings. Through its “Show Your Card & Save” program, AAA partners with many retailers you probably already use. Check the AAA site for details and if you have an iPhone, the free, GPS-based AAA Discounts app will help pinpoint discount-offering businesses while you’re on the go.
A preferred partner with AAA, Hertz offers discounts to AAA members on rental prices as well as add-ons like satellite radios and GPS devices. If you join Hertz’s frequent traveler program you’ll also snare handy coupons for extra hours, free days, and upgrades. The extra-hour coupon is particularly helpful if you’ve just missed your return window and are officially in danger of being charged for an extra day. If you’re fresh out of extra hour coupons, kindly ask the staff person at your car rental return location if he can slip you the extra hour anyway or let you pay a little extra in lieu of the full extra-day charge.
If you’re willing to prepay for your rental you can save up to 20% at Hertz, though there is a cancellation fee and the discount does not apply to already-discounted rates; for instance, you cannot combine a pre-pay with a CDP (corporate discount plan) number you might have through work or a membership association. Likewise, if you pre-pay for your rental at budget.com, you can save up to 40% off a non-discounted rate. As with Hertz, there’s a cancellation fee for prepaid cars.
If you find yourself at a Budget airport or branch location, pick up a Budget Summer Coupon Booklet, which includes discounts on hotels, airlines, and other fun stuff.
Don’t buy unnecessary insurance.
Americans historically buy redundant insurance while at the car rental counter, so check with your credit card company to see if and how you’re covered, and do it before every rental “as credit card companies are always changing their benefit levels,” advises Paula Rivera, manager of public affairs for Hertz. If you’re renting and also happen to own a car, AAA also suggests checking with your auto insurance company “before renting a car to find out if you are covered in the event of an accident.”
Timing is money.
Like most vacation destinations, car rental agencies have high, shoulder, and low seasons, and that seasonality depends on when and where you’re renting. Summer rentals in Europe, winter rentals in Florida and the Rockies, school breaks, and Thanksgiving are all peak periods, Rivera says. Not sure if your desired rental period is peak or off peak? Ask a reservation agent, Rivera says, and while you’re at it, ask if adding a day or losing a day from your rental period will significantly alter your cost.
As for the best days to rent, Rivera notes that renting in leisure destinations is typically more expensive over weekends, loosely defined as Thursday through Monday. Conversely, rentals in business travel destinations tend to be more expensive Monday through Thursday.
Economy cars aren’t always economical. “Rental car pricing is based on supply and demand,” Rivera observes, “and if economy cars are in high demand, naturally prices would trend higher.” Further, notes Becky Alseth, senior vice president of marketing for Avis, “all car classes are not created equal. Make sure that a mid-size or full-size vehicle will accommodate your passengers and luggage.” Concurs Rivera, “four guys going on a golf outing with clubs in tow will not fit into a small car,” adding that “booking the small-sized SUV in advance will frequently be less expensive than waiting until arriving at the rental counter and discovering an alternate car is needed.”
A hybrid might save you some dough if you’ll be “doing a large amount of driving, as the cost savings comes in play with the car's fuel economy,” Rivera says. In a non-hybrid, she notes that driving 500 miles at 20 mpg requires 25 gallons of fuel, which at $2.50 per gallon is $62.50. In a Toyota Prius, 500 miles at 50 mpg requires 10 gallons of fuel, which at the same gas price would cost you $25.00.
Don’t learn the hard way that SUV’s, mini-vans, hybrids, and other specialty vehicles sell out fast and early, says Alseth. Unclear what size vehicle you need? Make more than one reservation. There’s no cancellation fee at most car rental agencies if you’re a no-show for a standard rate reservation, though out of courtesy to fellow renters you should cancel unused ones, especially over busy holiday weekends.
Don’t goof on gas.
Car rental companies advocate the advanced fuel purchase option, which is supposed to be based on street level prices. The option will pay for itself if you know you absolutely won’t be able to return the car full, a transgression that invites wicked surcharges if you haven’t pre-paid for your tank.
If you plan to fill the tank yourself, and most of us do, comparison shop. “Gas prices along the highway are usually more than if you drive into town a few blocks, says Traveling Mamas blogger and frequent road tripper Beth Blair, who adds that “planning and timing your gas stops can save a few bucks.”
Blair is a fan of gasbuddy.com, which provides user-contributed quotes of gas prices at stations across the country. Gasbuddy also powers the Expedia.com gas station locator tool, geared toward finding the best-priced gas station in the vicinity of your airport’s car rental return.
Need a little extra help in determining your potential fuel savings? Once you enter the details of your trip and the make and model of your vehicle, the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator will estimate your gas costs.
One more thing: rental car gas gauges doesn’t always register full despite your most frantic efforts to top off the tank. Most rental car companies will give you the benefit of the doubt if you hand over your gas pump receipt.