Dealing with smarmy car rental dudes requires a certain level of strategy and mental fortitude. The big three -- Avis/Budget, Hertz, and Enterprise -- have plenty of evil-genius methods to get you to spend more money, and some of those add-on charges are pretty sneaky. In our effort to uphold moral justice, we asked former rental car agents and travel experts for their money-saving tips so you can score better rates, avoid getting gypped, and master the art of the car rental.
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Never prepay for a rental
By now you know to book your flight about 47 days before your trip to maximize on the fare's value. Well, the rules of the road are different; rental car rates can vary and are largely driven by supply and demand. Whatever you do, don't prepay for a rental -- even if the agency tempts you with 10% or 15% savings. 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. Keep an eye on your reservation rate (I recommend using AutoSlash) and there's a good chance the price will drop. AutoSlash notifies you if the rate changes -- then, you can simply cancel your current reservation and rebook for the lower rate.
Don't prepay for gas, either
Before they hand you the keys, the rental agent is required to ask if you want to pre-purchase gas. Politely decline the offer -- unless you're too lazy or rich to pump your own gas. Another key piece of advice I heard 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 slightly below full. Show them a gas receipt as proof that you filled up within the vicinity and you'll avoid the fee.
Ask for a drop-off grace period in advance
Are you late to pretty much anything in life? Be sure to ask the agent for a grace period before driving off the lot. Most agencies are pretty strict when it comes to timing -- they'll slap a late fee on your bill if you're an hour or two beyond the return time. So before you go, ask nicely at the counter for a grace period; there's a good chance the agent will throw you a bone and give you an extra two hours for free.
Watch out for those sneaky one-way drop fees
Paying a drop fee for one-way trips is pretty unavoidable -- we're talking a few hundred bucks added to your bill. But most drop fees are negotiable, and some companies, like Fox Rent A Car, are known for their low fees. A general rule of thumb from experienced agents: Call the rental car company to see if it'll waive it. Occasionally, drop fees vary depending on the type of car you get. If that's the case, book an economy car -- they're the most common vehicles on the lot and will almost always have a lesser drop fee than, say, an SUV or sports car.
The rate on your rental will almost always be higher at the airport than it is at other regional locations. It might add a little extra time and hassle to your itinerary to rent at an off-airport site, but sometimes the price difference is worth it -- it might be as much as $20 or $30 cheaper per day.
Pay all tolls yourself
Rental agencies will tell you that they offer the "convenience" of an optional 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 car rental. That's the kind of nonsense that adds up.
Say "nah, thanks" to the in-car GPS system
I don't care how directionally challenged you are -- this little luxury come with a hefty price tag. Budget's Garmin GPS service goes for $5.95 to $15.95 per day, or $29.75 to $89 per week. Cost aside, they're usually sucky and out-of-date. So opt for Google Maps or good ole Siri instead.
Always double-check your receipt for add-on fees
Rental car companies pride themselves on speedy returns. But, they can be 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 forget to apply a discount code. Before leaving the lot, always ask for a receipt and review charges associated with your trip. According to the agents we spoke with, that's often where the add-on charges happen. It could be a simple mistake, or maybe the agency is trying to royally screw you. If something smells fishy, talk to an on-site manager and dispute the charge. You'll be much more likely to resolve the issue in person than later by phone.
Don't book through the agency's website
Probably the last place to book a rental is through the agency's website. Discount travel sites like Priceline, Kayak, or Orbitz almost always have better deals -- and they'll still honor any frequent driver or rapid rewards programs that you use with an agency. Also, big-box stores like Costco or BJ's come in handy for something other than a giant 30-pack of toilet paper: These memberships will get you some amazing deals on rentals.
Become a card-carrying AARP member
Maybe you're nowhere near the golden years of retirement. Well, fake it till you make it, as they say. Becoming an associate member of the American Association of Retired Persons gets you savings from agencies like Avis/Budget, in addition to discounts on hotels and flights. If you travel a lot, this annual $16 membership can pay for itself.
Consider the less obvious rental car companies
Your rental probably came from one of the "big three" companies: Avis/Budget, Hertz, or Enterprise. But there are still a few independent and somewhat-national brands out there, like Payless Car Rental or Fox Rent A Car, that usually offer comparable vehicles at lower rates. So why not shop local, support small businesses, etc., etc.
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Tim Ebner is a travel writer in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter for more road trip tips @TimEbner.