How To Get A Deal On A Rental Car

Finding the best rate on a rental car often requires detective work. Despite ever-shifting rates and unadvertised deals, there are a few surefire tips to help ferret out a good deal on a rental:

Avoid Name Brands: Use sites like carrentals.com carrentalexpress.com to find smaller rental agencies.
Avoid The Airport: Rates are always higher near the airport. If you are staying at a hotel, see if there are rental agencies nearby.
Ask For A Discount: Always ask for a discount, especially if you’re a member of an organization like AAA or AARP.

Once you find a deal, take pictures of the car before driving off the lot to protect against fraudulent damage claims; and don’t even think about returning the car without a full tank of gas. What tips do you have to find the best deals? Tell us in the comments.

Tips for Finding the Best Deal on a Rental Car [KABC]
(Photo: presta)

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  1. Major-General says:

    AAA only discounts at Hertz.

  2. FREAKHEAD says:

    I travel for my job, 3 weeks out of the month. I have to rent a car at every destination. Here are a few things that might help. Nothing amazing.

    Check with your employer. Many larger companies have an in-house travel agent and often your eligible for a corporate discount, discount coupons specified for your company or the rental company will waive membership charges to join their mileage clubs. At least that is how it goes for where I work. (fyi similar to a discount you can get with, say Dell, just for working for company xyz).

    Ask the hotel where you are staying if they offer you a discount on a room if you rent with certain company or if they offer a discount coupon/code for a rental car if you stay with them. I saw this at a couple hotels, one in Iowa and one in Winnipeg. I imagine it is more common but I have never just asked them straight up, just saw signage.

    Rent a hybrid if you don’t need a ton of space. I used to work with a guy who would rent ever gas guzzler he could find b/c it is fun to try out all these different cars. But, to save you money, rent a car with great gas mileage. I rented a Prius in San Fran and I got 48 mpg over 419 miles I drove. I know b/c the cool on dash computer told me so. I still had a quarter tank left and it cost me 32 dollars to fill it before I dropped it back off.

    Have a good idea of the gas price in the area you are going. You should be able to check some online sites that tell you gas prices of stations near the airport. I normally have to fill near the airport but a few times I found that the pre-pay gas price is as much as 25 cents cheaper a gallon than the going rate and would save me money to pre-pay. Just depends on the car you get and how much you will drive. It’s a gamble sometimes. If you only travel or rent a car once or twice a year, just fill it on your own. If you aren’t familiar with pre-pay, they offer you the ability to pre-pay to fill that tank at a fair price. Not the same as the price gouging you get if you don’t fill it before returning if you have told them you would.

    Like I said, nothing amazing but might help a few people.

  3. newlywed says:

    Having had the unfortunate need for rental cars about one-two weeks out of the month(due to constant travel for wedding planning and travels for my book) for the past year, I disagree with the “it’s cheaper outside of the airport” bit. For example, at GSO or ROA in the south, airport rentals are sometimes as low as $20 a day (or $99/week even, with a coupon and booked online) while the same level of car a mere seven miles outside of the airport is ALWAYS upward of $30/day, $150/week. The selection of cars/possibility for complimentary upgrade is also better at the airport. As well as their willingness to accept my 20% coupon a billion times in a row without complaint. Rural, non-airport-based car rentals balk after a couple of times. :)

  4. acambras says:

    I’m not a shill for AAA or Hertz, but the past couple of times I’ve rented, I’ve gotten great discounts on Hertz by booking through AAA.com. Everything went very smoothly, and the Hertz agent told me that there would be no fee to add a driver, since we’d booked through AAA.

    Like I said, I’m not a shill for AAA or Hertz, but I will definitely go that route again next time I rent.

  5. Phipps6505 says:

    If you are planning on vacationing, take a look at sites that are dedicated to your destination as well. We visit Disney at least once every two years, and we’ve never failed to find deals, coupon codes, etc. at Mousesavers.com. Another thing to consider is that if it is late in the year, think about purchasing an Entertainment Book. They’re often discounted to nothing, and spending $5-$10 on an older Entertainment book can often net you serious savings on coupons for car rents, and some hotels.

  6. FrinkLemur says:

    I travel -literally- 48 to 50 weeks a year; it’s rare that I don’t have a rental car. Here are a few tips:

    The linked article mentioned that rates change all the time. Not only is this true, but the fluctuations are frequently significant and unpredictable. If you have the time, check rates once a week. Most rental companies have no penalty for canceling [though check with your company, of course]. More than once, I’ve booked a trip three or four weeks out, and a week before the trip, a four-day rental goes from, say, 308.49 (all charges included) to 249.87. If I find a better deal, I’ll reserve it (to make sure that the rate locks in), and then cancel my old one once I know I have a cheaper replacement.

    …which leads me to point #2. MAKE SURE that when you’re comparing rates, you’re doing an equal comparison. Some sites will give you just the rental cost, some sites will give you the “estimated charges”. This makes an enormous difference. For example, a 4-day rental of an Intermediate car in Houston is 247.80. After the fees, it’s $343.73. Make sure you know what you’re really going to end up paying.

    Next point: optional charges (gas and insurance). I think most readers of this site should know about rental insurance: Generally, you’re covered under your own vehicular insurance (provided that you have comprehensive on your policy), and/or by the credit card you use. So you can usually skip that. You might make sure that you have your insurance card, though — Thrifty in Charlotte actually asked me for proof of insurance, and refused to rent until I could come up with it. As for gas… yes, return it full. Or pre-pay and return it empty. If you’re anticipating having some free time on the day of the return, you can actually come out ahead by timing it so that you’re below E when you drop it off. But you might end up out of gas on the airport access road. Some companies offer a pre-paid half tank. Haven’t tried that yet, but it seems like the best of both worlds – If you know you’re going to use at least half a tank of gas, it’s generally cheaper to pre-pay. Of course, if you pre-pay for a tank of gas and return it half-full, you’re giving them half a tank of gas. Budget offers a neat deal for moderate rental-car users: Drive it less than 70 miles, don’t fill it up, and it’s 8 bucks for gas, regardless of what the needle reads.

  7. JustAGuy2 says:

    I’d be cautious about “avoiding name brands.” Some of the smaller agencies (Thrifty is infamous for this) will offer lower rates, but then try to charge you huge fees for any “damage” that they find.

  8. chungkuo says:

    I shopped around for a rental to take on vacation. I used the various deal-finder web sites, tried my company’s discount code, and even called to ask for a quote over the phone. Nothing even came close to Budget’s web-site reservation. It was about $280-300 less than even the deal-finder sites FOR Budget. Heck, it was even $280 less than Budget would give me if I reserved over the phone or used my company’s “discount” code.

  9. threedogleg says:

    I travel frequently and found that the greatest savings can be realized by selecting the sub-compact along + any available discount codes. The rental companies rarely keep the sub-compacts on the lot so they typically will upgrade you to a mid/full size at the sub-compact rate. If they do happen to have a subcompact on the lot you can always ask to be upgrade specials which I have found to be less than their on-line rates.

    When traveling a distance greater than 60 miles from the original rental location I found it best to rent from a national agency. If an issue is encountered with car it can almost always be exchanged at any branch location, whereas the smaller rental companies may require you to return to original rental location.

  10. Shade_Jon says:

    There are a few advantages to car rental companies that have multiple locations in a country as opposed to mom and pop car rental places that may be cheaper but serve a single location.

    I booked at the wrong airport on my last trip (Glasgow Prestwick instead of Glasgow), but the National desk was able to transfer my reservation to the correct location.

    Then, when Glasgow airport blew up and my wife had to fly out of Aberdeen, she returned the car to Aberdeen. Furthermore, Aberdeen corrected mistakes in the pricing made by Glasgow, to our benefit.

    Yehuda

  11. Jasmo says:

    How to get a deal on a rental car? Rent from Enterprise. They rock. They aren’t paying me to say this, either. “Deal” in my case means no hassle and no weird hidden surprises and they do what they offer and it’s quick, etc. etc. If to you “deal” means the cheapest rental possible, well, you get what you pay for.

  12. Major-General says:

    @Jasmo: Then in my case, it’s Alamo. 8 days, midsize, prepaid fuel, after taxes less than 200$ with a coupon advertised on their website.

  13. mike1731 says:

    I’d offer a few ideas that have worked for me:

    – Book a reservation as soon as you know you’re traveling. I will typically check Expedia and several major Car Rental companies that I have frequent travel programs with.
    – Hertz AAA rates really make the membership worth it — particularly keep track of coupons in the AAA Travel magazines, whcih can be really great deals.
    – Be aware of employer contracts – I’ve worked for two companies that had preferred contracts with Hertz, Avis, or others. Those typically don’t provide as good of a discount as AAA, but may offer better insurance, cheap upgrades, etc.
    – Look out for odd charges or features. Enterprise, in particular loves to charge mileage when you travel out of the state of rental or bordering states. This isn’t a big deal if you know it and don’t leave the area.
    – Although I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing this, I have read reports of some minor league rental companies that use GPS to track their cars and charge extra for speeding, travel outside of specified areas, etc.

    – Last but not least, about a week or so before leaving, I’ll check the internet again at preferred rental car companies for last minute rate drops or discounts. Since you can typically cancel rental cars up to the last moment (unless you use a prepaid discount reservation service) it never hurts to make one last loop around the block.

    My final tip — I always ask at the rental counter what cars are available that could be “fun”. By chatting up with the car rental agent, I’ve been pretty successful snagging lower mileage rentals and occasional spot upgrades for free. Niceness pays dividends!

    Happy travels!

  14. veronykah says:

    I second the AAA deal with Hertz. I haven’t had a better car rental experience than my last one-way rental from Hertz. No annoying BS at the counter, no trying to sell me things I didn’t need.
    The time before that I rented from Rent-4-Less through carrentalexpress. When I rented the car online no mention was made as to the requirement of insurance. The company basically forced me to buy the additional insurance when I arrived at the location [I was living in NYC at the time and had no car insurance of my own]. I argued with them that they HAD to have basic liability on their cars, they said no. I asked them to produce a written statement saying they had no insurance on their cars and I was required to pay for insurance myself, they would not. I spoke to the manager and got the same treatment. Being off airport at LAX and having no other options I rented the car despite my anger at being charged double the amount car rental express quoted me.
    An article on Consumerist about renting cars and what you HAVE to pay for or what insurance you HAVE to buy or not buy would be helpful to those of us who don’t actually own a car of our own.

  15. FrinkLemur says:

    I had a similar experience to Veronykah – I keep my car insurance information … well, in my car. I showed up to Thrifty in Charlotte to rent a car, and they demanded my insurance information. Similarly to Veronykah, they said they’d be happy to cover me themselves. Fortunately, I was able to get a policy number and company for them, but it did delay me by about an hour as I tracked that down. …and while I was trying to get in touch with people who had that information, I saw a lot of irate customers with the same problem, who mostly ended up buying the insurance.

  16. aparsons says:

    If you are a Marriott rewards member, you can sign up for the free Hertz’s #1 Gold membership – this allows you to bypass the counter and go straight to your car. Also, if Marriott doesn’t offer a good deal, you can always call later and change the contract number from Marriott to AAA.

  17. Lyn Never says:

    Use off-premises and knockoff brand car rentals only if you can afford the extra time and potential hassle that it will take – find out before you reserve what the procedures are. I spent an hour hanging out at the Oakland airport car rental facility waiting to be picked up by my off-off-airport rental agency shuttle (= surly guy in rental minivan). I don’t think I saved more than $25 over what I would have paid at Dollar, especially after I had to upgrade to get a car with power steering. And it took 20 minutes to check in, where I’m out in 5 minutes with my loyalty membership at Dollar. (Always join the frequent-flyer plans.)

    Lesson learned: do my own travel arrangements in the future.

  18. Jeff says:

    I swear by Priceline “Name Your Own Price” for car rentals. It’s not like naming your own for Airfares, where you could easily get stuck with some horribly timed flights.

    With car rentals, I really don’t care where I’m renting from, as long as I’m getting a good price. With Priceline, I always get unbelievable deals for car rentals. I travel to Minneapolis quite a bit, and consistently get $9-$13/day for a midsize. And an example in a more expensive part of the country — I recently got a $19/day rental in Newark.

    There’s a little skill in naming your own price, namely checking betterbidding.com, and not being afraid of being rejected. The block-out period is no longer 72 hours after a rejected bid, but now an smooth 24. Testing out ridiculously low rates is easy as pie.

  19. FrinkLemur says:

    The “club” memberships are always a good deal if they’re free. National will periodically do a promotion where their Emerald Club membership is free (usually $50); Avis Preferred is free; thanks to Aparsons for the tip on Hertz #1 club. Generally, these let you bypass the counter; best case is that you walk right up to your car and drive off; worst case is that you pick up your keys at a kiosk. Either way, you can avoid waiting hours in line at the counter. Added bonus with National: Once you’re enrolled, you can accrue points towards free rentals or airline points.

  20. loueloui says:


    I travel for work frequently, and I am always renting cars. One of the best discounts I have come across is Costco. They are much cheaper than even our corporate rate. I recently rented an SUV for a full week for $161 TOTAL with unlimited mileage. There is a link to the respective rental car companies on the Costco website. You can just click on the ‘services’ link and get the deals, no member number or login required. I have never once had anyone ask me for my Costco card.

  21. shaunirving says:

    Three words: Hotwire, Hotwire, Hotwire.

    I’ve paid as low as $15 a day and never more than $25 a day. Typically, it’s around $19. It’s tricky to use for flights, since you don’t know when you’ll be leaving or how long your delays are. But cars are basically a commodity product, and a rental from one company is just as good as a rental from another.

    And even if you don’t believe in credit cards, always rent with a platinum card of some sort. They typically include CDW insurance (check your card agreement first to make sure). Which means you don’t have to drop the extra $20 a day for coverage.

  22. RichardEastes says:

    Just search google for VroomVroomVroom

  23. themidget says:

    CostCo saves huge and the interface is nice–it clearly shows what cars coupons apply to once you start booking (you always get a discount, sometimes also a coupon. I’m basically paying the same rental car price I paid for the same number of days in 2001, but getting a much nicer car. Price wise, the car I booked through CostCo’s portal cost just under $400 for 6 days. The same car and rental agency on Expedia costs $562.50, and that doesn’t include the additional driver I need and get for free with CostCo, or the GPS that is included in my CostCo price. Rock on. I’m sure with coupon codes, etc., I could have done as well, but this was way faster.

    One of the earlier posters noted that they didn’t have to show any CostCo card, but wanted to give a heads-up that when you go to the CostCo coupon description, it says that they may require a CostCo card when checking in at the counter, so it may just depend on how nice the counter agent is…