Looking for the secret to a cheap rental car? Follow these insider tips and you'll never overpay again.
The Golden Rules of Scoring a Cheap Rental Car
Take advantage of membership discounts and coupons.
Do you have a Costco, AAA, AARP, or USAA membership? The discount codes for these organizations regularly offer excellent rates. It can be worth paying their annual fees just for access to cheap rental cars. Airline frequent flyer programs and even the rental companies' own loyalty programs, which are all free to join, can also score deep discounts on rental cars.
You'll also find long lists of coupon codes and corporate discounts on various deals sites and even some great ones hidden in plain sight right on the rental companies' own websites. Others pop up on their social media pages or email newsletters. Between all of these options, it's not impossible to save 50 percent or more off of retail rental car rates.
The downside is that hunting down discounts can feel like a full-time job. When you ask AutoSlash for a quote, we use a system called Coupon ID to automatically scan thousands of discounts and then crunch the numbers to find the very best deals, taking into consideration your memberships and clubs.
Book early and check often.
When is the best time to book your car? As soon as you know your dates. Unlike airline tickets, rental car reservations can usually be canceled without a penalty. So if prices drop—as they often do—there's no reason you can't cancel and rebook at a cheaper rate. The best strategy is to book as early as possible, and then keep checking to see if prices go down.
Again, it can be a time-sucking chore to constantly check for lower rates so you don't miss an opportunity to save money. Fortunately, we're happy to do this for you at no extra cost. After you book your car, ask AutoSlash to track your reservation. We'll let you know if there's a price drop.
Check both on and off airport.
Flying in to your destination? An airport rental might be convenient, but it might also be pricey. Taxes at airport locations can push well past 30 percent, and a short bus or Uber ride to a nearby neighborhood rental location could cut your rate in half. But off-airport rates aren't always cheaper, so it pays to check both.
Say "no, thanks" to extras.
The fastest way to turn a cheap rental car into an expensive one is to add unnecessary extra options. Most rental agents work on commission, and the bulk of profits for a rental car operator come from sales of insurance and services you probably don't need. So think long and hard before ticking the box on a service that can end up costing as much or more than the rental itself.
If you own a car and have personal auto insurance, it likely also covers rental cars. So you probably don't need to spend $30 per day on coverage from the rental company. Likewise, check to see what kind of coverage your credit card company offers for rental cars. It's very likely you are already covered.
Belong to AAA? (We recommend membership for the discounts alone.) Membership will cover everything the rental company's expensive roadside assistance does. Avoid falling for confusing and expensive refueling options—it's cheaper and just as easy to bring the car back full.
Your smartphone works as a GPS, so why spend $15 a day for one from the rental car company? Instead of spending $8 a day for satellite radio, play your own music—or download the TuneIn Radio app and get free access to hundreds of radio stations and podcasts.
The bottom line is that you can politely decline anything the agent recommends or even tries to strong-arm you into.
Become a car rental hacking guru.
When all else fails, reach for these tactics from your toolkit:
- Play with your dates and times, adjusting them forward and backward by just a smidge. Even slight tweaks can affect rates significantly. Instead of reserving for your 11:45 pm flight arrival, try checking rates at 12:15 am, as we've seen a slight change to a new calendar day drop rates by half.
- Try renting at a car dealership, which can sometimes offer significant savings when rates at the major rental companies are stratospheric or when cars are sold out. This will take some manual hunting on Google or in the Yellow Pages, since dealerships aren't listed on travel booking sites. On the upside, few other travelers even know this is an option, so there's a good chance there are cars available at reasonable rates even when other options aren't.
- Renting in a city? Zipcar's daily rates aren't cheap, but when you're in a sold-out city where everything else is $100 a day, a $74 rental that includes gas and insurance doesn't look so bad.
- Peer-to-peer car-sharing services like Turo and Getaround work like Airbnb for rental cars. Essentially, you'll drive someone else's car. Rates vary (they're set by the owner of the vehicle) and there are still unsettled questions about risk and insurance, but it's good to remember that it's an option.
- Lastly, consider forgoing a car altogether. While this might be easier in New York or Paris than in Peoria, most major and many mid-size cities have functional mass transit, taxis and Uber, which can be easier and maybe even cheaper than renting a car and worrying about parking.