How to Rent a Car Without Getting Totally Ripped Off

Tips the rental agencies don't want you to know.

It's time to stow your tray tables and secure your luggage in the overhead bins—travel is back in full swing. Introducing Return Ticket, a collection of first-person stories, thoughtful guides, and clever hacks designed to help aspiring globetrotters navigate our new normal as safely and smoothly as possible. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff.

Renting a car these days can come with a lot of bumps in the road—from sky-high gas prices to rental car shortages to those annoying fees they tack on by surprise—the process can be filled with expensive mistakes.

And much like the airline industry, demand is high for rental cars, with costs doubling since 2019. But there are ways to avoid paying a premium as you buckle up for your next trip, says Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a cost-comparison site for rental cars.

“We recommend consumers book as far ahead as possible. Demand is already high,” Weinberg says. “Those who wait until the last minute to book will end up paying significantly higher rates.”

Booking early has become the new golden rule, but there are also a few other tricks to save you time and money on your next rental. Here, Weinberg shares some money-saving tips that’ll help you merge seamlessly into your next trip.

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Book way, way in advance

It may sound obvious, but how soon you book can make the difference between scoring a great car rental rate or getting screwed by high prices.

This is especially true in places where it’s essential to have a car for travel (think states like Hawaii, Florida, Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming) and in popular search areas (we see you, Orlando, Miami, Tampa, Denver, Vegas, and Phoenix). Autoslash recommends consumers book at least six to eight weeks out. “But honestly, the earlier the better,” Weinberg says.

Whatever deal you think you might be getting, there’s probably a cheaper one out there. First, know that the last place to book a rental is through an agency's website. Discount travel sites like Priceline, Kayak, or Orbitz almost always have better deals—and they'll still honor any frequent driver rewards programs that you have.

Then take a look at the pick-up location. The rate on your rental car will sometimes be higher at the airport than at an off-site location, because airports tack on extra fees and taxes. Sometimes the price difference is worth it, with savings of $20 or $30 per day. Other times, it might not be worth the extra hassle, especially if you have to pay for a cab or rideshare to get there.

Don’t prepay for a rental

While supply-and-demand dynamics have dramatically altered the game, you still want to avoid prepaying in full for a rental. Rates can vary from one city to the next and can fluctuate even up to the day you pick up the keys. The beauty of the rental car is that reserving one is basically risk-free. You can change or cancel it before you get to the counter.

Just keep an eye on your reservation—which is where AutoSlash comes in handy. They’ll send you a notification should a cheaper rate pop up. If the rate changes, simply cancel your current reservation and rebook at the lower rate. There’s just one exception: “Some rental companies let you lock in on a discounted or low rate in advance while giving you the option to cancel later with a full refund,” Weinberg says. “In that case, it may be a good idea to buy a prepay rate.”

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Don't prepay for gas, either

The rental agent is required to ask if you want to pre-purchase gas. Unless you’re very lazy or very rich, say no thanks. “While rental car companies will generally offer you a below-market rate on gas, what most people don’t realize is that you’re actually paying for the full tank, whether you use a full tank or not,” Weinberg says. “And even then, often there are high fees and taxes added on.”

Another key piece of advice from those in the know: When you return your vehicle, fill up within a 10 miles radius of the drop-off location and save your gas receipt. Why? It’s better to refuel further away, since there is always that one gas station right outside the airport terminal, and it will undoubtedly be the most expensive place to fill-up.

Instead, take an earlier exit and fill-up on cheaper gas—apps like Upside and GasBuddy will help you find the cheapest fill-up.

And as you approach the drop-off site, be prepared to check the fuel gauge. There's a good chance the drop-off agent will try to ding you with a refueling fee, even if the gas needle is only slightly below full. Show them your gas receipt as proof that you filled up within the vicinity and you'll avoid the fee.

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Consider one of the car-sharing disruptors

Several new car-sharing startups are disrupting the rental car industry, which has traditionally been built around Hertz, Avis-Budget, and Enterprise. If you’re in the mood for something swanky and electric, try Sixt, which includes Teslas and other premium electric and hybrid vehicles. For the budget-conscious, check out Turo; similar to the Airbnb model, it lets you temporarily rent out cars directly from owners.

Other car-sharing services like Getaround and Avail are also becoming more popular, and ride-hailing apps Uber (in partnership with Avis and Hertz) and Lyft (in partnership with Sixt) both recently announced the launch of rental car services. “You can reserve via their app, and they'll either give you a ride credit to get to the car or even deliver the rental right to you for an extra fee,” Weinberg says.

And sometimes the perks are much better than traditional booking experiences. For a trip to Cape Cod, I used Silvercar, an all-Audi fleet. The price was comparable to what I would’ve shelled out at Enterprise, and instead of a mid-sized Camry, I got a high-performance vehicle—an Audi Q5. Plus, rather than making you wait in line at the rental car counter, Silvercar picks you up at the curb, making it easier to move from the terminal to the open road.

Take advantage of memberships, discount promos, and loyalty programs 

Savvy consumers frequently subscribe to memberships or services that could save them money on a rental. Some of the best options include Costco, AAA, AARP, and USAA. “The savings can be very significant. Some companies, including the airline you frequently book trips with, even let you apply a coupon along with a discount code for even greater savings,” Weinberg says.

And if you’re renting more than once or twice a year, consider enrolling in a rental company’s loyalty program. Not only will you earn points toward future trips, but you’ll be able to skip the line and go straight to the lot.

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Say "nah, thanks" to the in-car GPS system and other add-ons

I don't care how directionally challenged you are—this little luxury comes with a hefty price tag. And cost aside, rental companies’ roadside services and GPS options are usually slow and sucky. Opt for Google Maps or good ol’ Siri instead.

And if you’re traveling with the kiddos, consider bringing an infant car seat and stroller all-in-one, like The Doona. Otherwise, you’ll be paying for a used car seat.

Pay the tolls yourself

Rental agencies will offer the "convenience" of a toll transponder, located inside the car. But if you turn it on, you'll pay a daily fee—usually about $5 per day for the duration of the rental. That's the kind of nonsense that adds up. Do yourself a favor and bring your own EZ-Pass or pay in cash at the toll gate.

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Upon return, double-check your receipt for add-on fees

Rental car companies pride themselves on speedy returns, but they're notorious for tacking on extra and unexpected fees at drop-off. Agents are banking on the fact that you're in a hurry to catch a flight, so they might sneak in a refueling fee or charge a late fee when you were actually on time. Before leaving the lot, always ask for a receipt and review the charges. If something smells fishy, talk to an on-site manager. You'll be much more likely to resolve the issue in person than later by phone.

Finally, stop paying for rental car insurance

Car insurance is an obvious must, but what most renters don’t realize is that their rental is usually covered by their existing car insurance policy or a premium credit card that’s in their wallet. I swear by the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum cards, which come with several travel perks, including an auto rental collision damage waiver. With just the swipe of my card, I can rest easy knowing I’m covered, whether it’s an accident, theft, or a wandering baby bear.

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Tim Ebner is a travel writer in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter for more road trip tips.