Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

How to Rent a Car This Holiday Season Without Getting Totally Ripped Off

Rental car demand and prices have skyrocketed, but there are still ways to save.

Despite rising concerns about the Omicron variant, the 2021 holiday season looks set to go full steam ahead as families across the US prepare to reunite over pints of creamy eggnog and fabulously shitty Christmas specials. But as sure as you’ll give up on your New Year’s resolutions two weeks into 2022, the struggle to rent a car will likely rage on.

Like the airline and hospitality industries, rental car companies suffered during the early months of the pandemic and had to sell large portions of their fleets to survive—over 750,000 vehicles total, according to Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a cost-comparison site for rental cars. Once travelers returned to the road, though, rental agencies lacked the vehicles to meet demand. Prices skyrocketed, some cities and airports completely sold out of vehicles, and a few customers went as far as to buy used cars or rent U-Hauls rather than wait on an affordable rental.

Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, the situation has yet to resolve itself completely, leaving eager road-trippers around the world from Florida all the way to Dubai searching for a ride. And according to Kayak, rental demand is up 230% compared to pre-pandemic levels—meaning prices will likely stay high throughout the holiday season, the rest of winter, and even beyond.

That being said, there are still some hacks you can use to avoid sticker shock on a rental and secure a cheap deal. Here, Weinberg shares some money-saving tips and tricks that’ll help you score a better rate this winter.

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. “We recommend consumers book as far ahead as possible. Demand is already high and expected to increase,” Weinberg says. “Those who wait until the last minute to book will end up paying significantly higher rates or be shut out of the market completely.”

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.

And 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, the golden rule of renting a car still applies: avoid prepaying. 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.”

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 10 miles of the drop-off location and save your gas receipt. 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.

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 recent 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.

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.

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 credit card, which has 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.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

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

Tiana Attride contributed to the reporting of this story.