Save big bucks on car rentals

Traps to avoid and strategies for getting the best price

Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 PM

The car rental industry may be a cutthroat business for the big players like Hertz and Avis, but for consumers it’s death by  a thousand cuts. Rent a car at an airport and you may be hit by separate fees for the airport concession, another for the “facility,” and perhaps another for a local stadium or other civic improvement, plus a juiced up local sales tax and other surcharges. Those can push up the basic rental by 50 percent or more.

But you can save money—and your sanity—by planning ahead. Start by asking yourself what you really need. If the car is just for you alone to get from point A to point B for  a couple of days, think small. But you may be surprised to learn that there is a minimal price difference if you move  up a class or two. And if you can take a shuttle or taxi to your hotel, you can save a lot of money by renting away from the airport. Keep this in mind: The more $$$ you see below, the more money you can potentially save.

$$ Shop online

Comparison shopping is key since prices among the well-known brands can differ a lot. Shopping is easiest online. You can use a travel site such as Orbitz, Kayak, or Expedia, or a dedicated site such as Carrentals.com, or simply Google “cheap car rental” and the name of the city you’re visiting.

We recently checked out prices for renting a Toyota Corolla for four days, midweek, from Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The nine quotes produced by Orbitz ranged from $20 to $80 per day, not including those pesky extra fees. With those, the four-day rentals actually ranged from $37 to $119 per day.

Another interesting site to check out is AutoSlash.com. When you book through AutoSlash, the site hunts for coupons and specials that apply to your choice, and then automatically applies them, rebooking your rental if better deals pop up.

$$$$ Skip the airport

While it’s terrifically convenient  to arrange to rent a car at the airport, the rental counters that are in large metropolitan areas make you pay dearly for the privilege. Onerous fees and taxes are added in so that tourists end up paying for the newest sports arena, helping the city recoup money from bad investments, and subsidize the local coffers. You may be much better off taking a shuttle or rapid transit or even a taxi and renting your car downtown or at a suburban location.

As an example, Enterprise gave us a quote to rent a Toyota Corolla for four days from Chicago’s O’Hare airport at $386. But it was just $157 to rent it for the same period at an Enterprise office in downtown Chicago. You can often rent the car offsite, but return it to the airport. You’ll still come out ahead even if there is a charge for this.

$$ Ignore the big boys

Local and regional car rental agencies often charge less than many of the big national chains—sometimes  as little as half the rate of the major players. Don’t be afraid to check out the  terms at smaller car-rental concerns such as Ace,  Advantage, Fox, Payless, and Sixt. You may  not find a lot of variety in their fleets but you should have no problem finding basic transport. One caution: a 2013 J.D. Power customer-satisfaction survey put independents way behind the top companies, especially National, Enterprise, and Alamo.

$$ Join the club

Organizations such as AAA and AARP offer cheap or at least discounted rental-car deals. AAA members may get perks such a free use of a child seat. Costco and BJ’s can also offer some great discount deals, and credit-card companies also offer car-rental promotions.

$$$ Timing

Weekend rates are often the cheapest, but you can also get cheap deals by renting at a weekly rate. But watch out for big charges if your plans change mid-trip and you end up returning your car later than you planned. If you’re as little as an hour late at drop-off you may be charged for a full extra day. Some companies also charge you extra for dropping your car off too early. For example, if you drop off a car a day or two earlier than anticipated, you may find that your weekly-rate discount is voided and you’re stuck with a far higher daily rental rate.

$$$$ When to decline insurance

Agreeing to a rental company’s insurance offerings can add $20 or $30 per day—or even more—to your rental  fee. But you can save money by using your own automobile insurance. Before you leave for your trip, check with your insurer to see if they will cover you while renting a car. If you don’t carry collision coverage on your own car, you probably won’t have it on your rental either.

A number of credit cards, notably Ameri­can Express and many Visa and MasterCard programs, also offer rental-car insurance as a membership perk if you book on that card.

The rental clerk may say your own insurance doesn’t cover tires or glass or days out of service to fix the “damage.” In all of these cases, check your coverage before you leave home on your trip.

$$ Extras to turn down

If you’re traveling with a child who uses a child safety seat, you’re probably better off bringing your own rather than taking a chance on whatever the rental company has on offer. The fee—typically $10 a day—can mount up quickly.

It may not be worth your while to rent a navigation system, especially if you have a smart phone with GPS or own a portable system already. And unless you’re really, really hooked on HD radio, which offers great sound but spotty coverage, we’d skip it.

$$$ Playing the gas game

Rental companies don’t want to give gasoline away, but they would really appreciate it if you not only paid for your own fuel, but some of the next customer’s as well.

You’re often given three fuel choices: prepay for a full tank, agree to return the car with a full tank, or let the rental company top up the tank when you return the car.

Prepaying makes sense if you can contrive to return the car almost empty. The second choice makes sense if you start with a full tank, use less than a tank on your travels, and fill the car immediately before returning it. (Save the receipt.) The third option only makes sense if you light cigars with cash: Rental companies add “service” charges that can raise the price to as much as $9 a gallon.

Where the cars are—Who has what

This table shows typical sedans you’ll find in retail rental fleets, according to their websites. Note that most sites mention a model name with the caveat “or similar.” That means you often can’t know for sure that you’ll get the exact car you wanted. Try calling the rental location to nail them down on what they have on hand. We’ve marked the cars in Italics that we suggest you avoid. There  is no reason to ruin your vacation by renting a model that has an uncomfortable seat, harsh ride, and/or poor fuel economy.


E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News


and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:


Cars New Car Price Report
Find out what the dealers don't want you to know! Get dealer pricing information on a new car with the New Car Price Report.

Order Your Report


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more