Money-Saving Secrets Car Rental Companies Don’t Want You to Know
Gas is expensive, rental cars have shortages—don’t get ripped off even more.
Everybody loves a road trip. The trouble is, not everybody has a car. That means that for many, the great American road trip kicks off not on the highway, but in a long line at a rental car counter. That is, unless you know the rental car ropes. Which, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t… yet.
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in rental cars. But there’s so much we can learn from people who do. Like how to avoid waiting in line. Or how to save money, score an upgrade, or reduce headaches.
The once-rigid world of rental wheels used to mean you were at the mercy of the big three: Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise. But with more car-rental agencies and industry disruptors in the fray, we’ve got more options now than ever. That means even more ways to tip the scales in your favor—and avoid getting ripped off—as you prepare to hit the road.
To get the inside track on saving money (and stress) on your next car rental, we talked to industry insiders and rental agency employees (who shall remain anonymous so they can keep their jobs). Follow their advice and you’ll save time, energy, and money… money that’s much better spent on gas-station snacks and souvenirs from roadside attractions.
Sign up for free member programs to reap the perks (and skip the lines)
Airline frequent-flier programs really only benefit you if you fly with one particular airline a LOT or use an airline-branded credit card for all your spending. Car rental agency member programs like National’s Emerald Club, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, and Avis Preferred are different. They’re free to join, don't require a credit check, and begin accruing benefits pretty much as soon as you drive.
The best immediate benefit? Members get to bypass the rental counter entirely, regardless of how many people are in line or how infrequently you actually rent a car. That alone makes the simple sign-up process worth your time. In fact, the goal of most rental companies is to get members out of the building (if they have to enter at all) in under a minute. One minute!
Additionally, members typically score pre-assigned newer, nicer vehicles, and possible automatic upgrades by enrolling in the program. It’s a no-brainer.
Consider car-sharing and ride-hailing apps
Offering an alternative to traditional car rental agencies, car-sharing is a relatively new concept that spun off of old-school services like Zipcar. Essentially, individuals can rent their personal cars to you at a moment’s notice, and they’ll drop the ride wherever you are. These services offer some variety in vehicles, including accessible vans, rugged pickup trucks, electric cars, and swanky luxury sedans.
One of the biggest success stories in this disruptive space is Turo. The car-share company is currently available in all 50 states and offers spontaneous deals to help users save big—for example, a recent deal offered $25/day rentals from New York to the Hamptons. But even the regular service saved us $300 on a week-long rental of a fuel-efficient sedan in Florida compared to Hertz.
"Recent travel and supply-chain disruptions have caused consumers to flock to innovators in the travel and transportation industry like Turo, who are transforming the car booking process from a chore into an exciting part of the vacation planning process,” says Albert Mangahas, Turo’s chief data officer.
Uber Valet, meanwhile, caters to last-minute needs. Our recent experience allowed us to reserve a rental car via the ride-hailing app and received a performance-driven Dodge Charger with only 11 miles on the car for about the same price par with what the cost of a sedan at Enterprise (which can also pick you up).
“We built Valet for an on-demand and delivered world as we heard from users time and time again that they want to rent a car the way they order an Uber ride,” explains Caleb Varner, global head of Uber Rent. “We leaned into near on-demand access with just two hours lead time and no need to plan far in advance.”
Book as far in advance as possible, but keep an eye on prices
Unlike airfare, you don’t typically prepay for a car reservation. That means you can give yourself the security of a reservation while continuing to shop around… and cancel if you find a better deal.
Each company has software that links to the online travel sites and adjusts prices according to both other listed prices and the company's available inventory. If it's a holiday weekend or peak travel time (like Thanksgiving), inventory gets booked sooner and rates will go up.
If your travel plans are already locked in, book your car as far in advance as possible… but then keep an eye on rental car rates using an automated tool like Autoslash.
Book via a third-party site—but always shop around
If you don't care which company you rent from, third-party sites like Kayak, Priceline, Travelocity, and Expedia are your best bets for deals. Are you a Costco member? You’ll score some premium car-rental rates to go along with your Chicken Bakes. And as always, being an AAA member usually scores you discounts.
Regardless, compare as you search. Rates can vary between the agency's website and these third-party booking sites. It’s often the case that $30/day for an economy car from Enterprise through Orbitz is also going to be $30/day on Enterprise's website. All of these websites are pulling from the same rate tables. Sometimes you'll get a better rate through the company's website or by calling the company directly, but most of the time it won't make a difference.
That said, occasionally you can get special manager rates on the company's site. This isn't that common and certainly not a guarantee, but if there's a lull in booking or they need to get certain car classes on the road, companies will open up very specific rate codes to unlock low rates. And those rates will only be available on the company's website, so it's worth at least checking before you make a reservation.
For lengthy or complex trips, call the company
For trips longer than a week, it's worth your time to call and ensure you’re getting the best pricing. Many companies now offer long-term, monthly, and mini-lease options that are cheaper than published daily rates. Plus, you could also avoid costly fees like those pesky one-way drop fees for trips that start in one destination and end someplace else.
Non-airport locations can be cheaper… but come with added headaches
Rental car companies operating out of airports are charged for something called airport concession recovery, and that cost is subsequently passed on to the consumers in the form of a fee. It ranges from 2% of the total rental price, all the way up to 18% in certain markets.
So yes, non-airport locations may be cheaper. However, your vehicle selection may be limited, and if you’re airport-bound, you’ll still have to get there, which might be more trouble (and more costly) than the rate difference is worth.
Cancellations are almost always free
Get this in your head: There's NO penalty for canceling or just not showing up for your car, assuming you didn't prepay for it.
This means if you see a great rate, book it (just don’t prepay in advance)! You can cancel it without penalty. And be sure to read the fine print. Some prepaid bookings can be canceled up to 24-hours in advance without penalty. If you didn't use a credit card for the reservation, you can even no-show without charge—a bit shady, yes, but you can still do it.
Prepaid fuel is a terrible deal
How it works: You pre-purchase a full tank of gas so you don't have to worry about refueling before you drop off the car. Some companies also offer partial tanks and blah blah blah—the thing is, it's not that hard to fuel up close to the rental drop-off and avoid being charged upwards of $10 per gallon for the refueling penalty.
One agent recommends filling up within 10 miles of the drop-off location and keeping that receipt as proof, since companies will sometimes try to overcharge you for a refill even if you’ve only gone a few miles. Purchasing fuel in advance only pays off if you somehow manage to drop the car off needing exactly that much fuel. If you bought a full tank in advance but drop the car off with still two-thirds full in the tank, you do not get a refund for the leftover gasoline you ended up not using.
It's also a complete rip-off: Not only is it subject to the local gasoline tax but also all the taxes and fees that the airport tacks onto every purchase there. This is strictly a convenience purchase, and it's not smart.If you’re opposed to paying for gas at all, check to see what the price differential may be on an electric vehicle. Most rental fleets offer hybrids and electric vehicles as an option, and while it may cost you more in terms of the rental car rate, you could save money if it’s a particularly long-haul drive.
Pay tolls yourself
As you drive, you’re probably going to encounter a toll road. Rental agencies say they offer the “convenience” of a toll transponder, located inside the car.
But if you turn it on, you'll usually pay a service fee of about $5 per day to use it, even if you don’t hit a single toll. Do yourself a favor and bring your own EZ-Pass or pay in cash at the toll gate.
And watch out for automatic toll charges. Those will be tagged to your car, and you’ll receive a bill in the mail from your rental car agency with—drumroll, please—processing fees tacked on to the bill.
And finally, the biggest FAQ of all: What about insurance?
Every person who has ever rented a car has at some point panicked over the additional insurance offered, especially as over-aggressive counter agents strike fear into you with mention of a $100-per-day loss of use fee should the car be damaged in an accident (which they can, and will, charge).
Allow us to parse out the three kinds of insurance you’re being offered minus the ominous language.
1. Damage waiver
This is a waiver that means you wouldn’t have to pay anything for any damage to the rental car (note this does not cover damage to other people’s cars or to people, including yourself; more on that below). You might not need this if you have a special rewards credit card or personal car insurance that covers this. The simplest way to find out if that includes you is to make a phone call. Ask your insurance company if you're covered for rental cars, if you have a deductible for rental cars, if there is a dollar limit to that coverage, and if there are any exclusions. Then ask them if they cover loss of use from car rental companies.
Certain American Express and Chase credit cards offer A+ premium insurance if you book using their credit card. These are card perks you can easily use, but be sure to call and ask the same questions above.
Then again, sometimes it's just not worth the hassle of going through your insurance provider and credit card company in the event of an accident. Being able to just turn in the wreck with the keys is a nice convenience.
Additional coverage costs anywhere from $10 to $25 per day, which is economical for short weekend trips. But for longer trips, it becomes cost-prohibitive, and as long as you know that between your insurance company and your credit cards you're fully covered, you don’t need it. However, if you travel abroad, some countries may require you to hold insurance.
2. Liability coverage
This is coverage for damage you cause to someone else's person or property. In this case, car rental coverage can be a good deal: It offers $1,000,000 in coverage before you contact your own insurance. It doesn't cover the car at all, but it covers other people you hurt or cause loss to.
Again, if you have your own insurance, call and find out the specifics (and limits) of your own coverage in a rented vehicle. And if you’re traveling out of the country, study up and see what liability insurance may be required to drive.
This covers any occupants in the case of injury, death, or damage to personal items from an uninsured or under-insured motorist. Usually, if you’re visiting another country you should seriously consider this, as insurance coverage in different countries may differ widely.
Remember, all these options are just that: optional. You are not required to purchase any of them. But if you do, don’t forget to pull up this handy guide before swiping your card.