How to save big on car rental

We chopped 50 percent off the cost of a five-day rental. You can save big, too.

Published: December 10, 2014 10:30 AM

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Upgrade: National didn't have the Toyota Corolla we reserved so we got this Dodge Charger.

When it comes to holiday travel, the cost-conscious part of your brain is probably fixated on the cost of airline tickets and hotels. But don't forget the rental car, which can add several hundred dollars more to the vacation tab.

You don't have to pay $50, $60, or more per day for a rental car. But getting the lowest price takes a little. Here's how we did it on a five-day trip in and out of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif.

Check the broad market

You can't distinguish overpriced from a steal of a deal if you don't know the range of rates available at your destination airport. So start your quest with some preliminary research on big travel websites that aggregate rates from multiple car rental companies, such as Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity. For a midsize car, we found prices as low as $258 (Alamo and Enterprise) up to $478 (Avis), including all taxes and fees.

We didn't find better rates when checking rental company websites.

Don't jump at your airline's fly-and-drive deal

Shortly after we bought our airline tickets, our carrier (Southwest) sent a 30 percent discount offer for Budget, it's partner rent-a-car company. That would have reduced the price to about $250, but we knew we could do better.

Check mystery-brand discount websites

Consumer Reports' indefatigable haggler Tod Marks (aka Tightwad Tod) recommends shopping for a car rental on Hotwire and Priceline. We chose Hotwire.

Like Priceline, Hotwire doesn't disclose the brand name of the car rental company until you make and pay for your reservation. If you're iffy on reserving a rental car that way, do some research.

Hotwire's offer listed several brands, but it also said this deal was from a rental company located inside the terminal rather than at an off-airport location. We checked the Burbank airport's website to find out which car rental companies are in the terminal and crosschecked that list with Hotwire's list of contenders. That left us sufficiently satisfied that the deal would be from a major national brand.

Looking for gifts to take with you on your trip? Check our Holiday Gift Ideas page.

So we booked and got a price of $160 from National Car Rental. That was a 67 percent savings off the highest price we found. However, the Hotwire price was also 52 percent off National's regular price, and 36 percent off the Southwest fly-and-drive offer. In dollar terms, we knocked $90 to $318 off the price. It does pay to shop around.

Book as small a car as you can tolerate

When we picked up the car in Burbank, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that National was out of the midsize Toyota Corollas we reserved and instead offered us a free upgrade to a sporty Dodge Challenger. Sweet!

So it's worthwhile to not opt for the biggest or sportiest car you desire but rather the smallest one that can serve your needs. You might get lucky, as we did, but if you don't, you can always upgrade to a roomier vehicle if necessary when you pick up the car rental.

Skip the unnecessary extras

We stuck to our standard advice of not paying for extras such as a GPS navigator (we used a smart phone navigation app). Other price padders to avoid include an electronic toll-payment device (bring your own or buy a temporary transponder or sticker) and infant/toddler car seats (again, bring your child's own seat).

Carefully weigh your insurance options

Because car rental companies hit consumers up for charges that personal car insurance might not cover, you can't just say "no" to the loss-damage waiver, which absolves you of most damage that happens to the vehicle while it's in your possession. Find out whether you should take the car rental insurance.

Protect yourself from damage claims

When you pick up the car and return it, inspect the vehicle for damage all around and inside and out. This will keep you from getting charged for an existing scratch or ding. Mark even minor damage on the inspection form at the beginning of your rental; also use your smart phone to take pictures of every surface as evidence of prior damage (at pickup) and the absence of damage (at drop-off). Don't overlook the trunk, interior seats, side mirrors, and roof.

—Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

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