For many Americans, embarking on road trips has been a way to keep traveling during the pandemic. And if you’re not a car owner, now may be a good time to rent one.
According to data from CheapCarRental.net, a car-rental comparison engine, road trip travel is up, but the travel industry as a whole is still hurting. As a result, rental car rates in the United States are down by between 15 and 40 percent, depending on the region.
Unlike airplane tickets that can change in price by the minute, the price of renting a car isn’t a mystery.
“Between now and Christmas, your flight might change a hundred times,” says Liana Corwin, the travel expert for Hopper, the flight and hotel booking app. “With car rentals, they’re a little bit more static.”
While renting a car isn’t complicated, there is legwork to get the best deal. Here are tips from rental car insiders on saving money on your next booking.
The earlier you rent a car, the better
According to data from Avis, more travelers this summer have booked trips less than a week out than in previous years. But booking at the last minute isn’t usually going to get you a deal.
“The best thing to do and the easiest is really just to book early, especially if it’s for peak season,” Corwin says. “A lot of rental car companies will reward travelers with lower prices for their advance planning.”
Beth Gibson, an experiential travel expert at Avis, says that is because car companies prefer to know what kind of demand they will have at their different locations.
Booking early doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind about your trip. Gibson says to book a flexible or refundable rate, and keep checking back to see if the price drops. If it does, you can cancel your existing reservation and book the lower fare. However, if you are 100 percent sure you’ll be taking your trip, Gibson says to book a nonrefundable rate for the cheapest option.
Install the Honey widget on your desktop
This is helpful not just when you’re renting a car, but when you’re shopping online in general. Honey is a browser extension that you download once and benefit from in perpetuity. The tool trawls the Internet for fair-game coupon codes and automatically applies them to your online shopping cart.
If no discount is available, Honey will let you know if you’re looking at the cheapest price available. The app will also show you if the rate tends to fluctuate. It’s a low-effort way to stay informed of potential discounts on all of your travel needs, from rental cars to flights to luggage.
Tweak your rental times
If you have some wiggle room in your schedule, adjust the pickup and drop-off times to explore different price options. “Try minor tweaks to your rental times,” CarRentalSavers.com CEO Mark Mannell said in an email. “Especially if you are near a weekend or close to 5 days. You may qualify for a cheaper weekend or weekly rate.”
As you figure out when to get your car and how long to rent it, keep in mind that Gibson says longer rentals “typically are the better deals. The shorter weekend rentals could be more expensive.” This is because rental car companies want customers to keep cars longer, she says.
Factor in gas when choosing your rental car
Sometimes a larger car may actually be cheaper to rent than a sedan, says Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director at the Points Guy, a travel-focused site. But before you pick the bigger car, factor in how many miles you’ll be driving and how much gas costs in the area.
“If I’m going on a 500-mile road trip, I’m probably not going to want that SUV because of the gas consumption,” Mayerowitz says. “But if I’m just driving around the city and plan to put 50 or 60 miles on it, why not save that money on a car?”
See if your credit card, or your own car insurance, covers your rental
Add-ons, like car insurance, significantly bloat the price of your rental car. “This can be usually nine, 10 dollars a day, sometimes more, and can really add up,” Mayerowitz says. “There’s no reason to pay it if you already have such coverage through other means.”
He says if you own a car and already have car insurance, your coverage may apply to rental car liability insurance (the kind you need to protect yourself if you hurt someone while you’re driving). Additionally, Mayerowitz says, many travel credit cards cover damage and collision insurance.
Before you go ahead and decline a rental car company’s insurance, Corwin says to call and ask your credit card or insurance company questions including: Is rental car coverage primary or secondary? How do I make sure coverage applies to my rental? What coverage is included? What isn’t covered?
The nitty-gritty details matter here. Some credit cards, like Capital One’s World Elite Mastercard, have time limits for their insurance coverage.
Check to see if you have memberships and affiliations with discounts
Do you work for a big company? Are you a member of AAA or AARP? Costco? Amazon? You may have access to perks like discounted rates on rentals, free upgrades and a free additional driver on your contract, among others.
However, don’t be tempted to use discount codes that don’t apply to you. Even if your uncle knows a guy who knows a guy with a special state employee discount code. Mayerowitz says, it’s risky to engage in back-alley booking.
“I would just say forget the ethics for a second, and think about the practical applications,” he says. “If you get into a car accident and you’re using a code that you’re not entitled to, there’s a chance that someone might deny your insurance claim.”
And Gibson, the Avis travel expert, warns that rental companies may verify whether someone is actually a member of the affiliation they are claiming. In the case of an accident, “if we find out that the customer is not affiliated with that business, obviously those charges would come back to the customer,” she says.
Compare rates before you book
Schmidt says that on average, prices at the main rental car agencies are roughly the same. But on certain days, some agencies might not have any affordable cars available — causing the prices to be much higher.
“We found that if you compare across several agencies, rather than looking at just one, you’ll save an average of 12% with airports and 15% with city centers,” Schmidt says.
Call the agencies to negotiate or ask about special pricing
Phil Partridge, the marketing manager for the company RhinoCarHire.com, says customers shouldn’t be too shy to ask for a discount.
“You’d likely make an ‘offer’ on a new house, apartment or car, there’s no reason not to ask for a discount on a rental car either — the worst they can say is no,” Partridge said in an email.
Matt Colyer, a co-founder of the blog the Nomadic Couple, says one of the best ways to save money on a car rental is by calling a company and requesting a “drive-away deal.”
“Basically car rental agencies need to move their cars from one location to another every year to move inventory around,” Colyer said in an email. “This is a great option for flexible travelers since the rental is often deeply discounted or free.”
Colyer says drive-away deals usually have specific time frames, and the length of time you can rent the car may depend on when it needs to arrive at its final destination.
Don’t get a rental car from the airport (with some exceptions)
Booking a rental car from the airport may be more expensive because of the fees an agency has to pay for operating out of the airport.
“Many, many times the taxes and fees are less picking up locally than at airports because there are expensive fees associated with the airport itself,” Mayerowitz says.
In the case you’re actually flying and need to pick up or drop off your car by an airport, check rates at rental car companies nearby that offer free shuttle services to and from the airport for its customers.
“If you’re planning to book a rental car at the airport, you should also consider agencies not located inside the terminal,” Daniel Schmidt, a spokesperson for CheapCarRental.net, said in an email. “On average, we found off-airport companies are cheaper by 20%.”
There are exceptions to the rule that airport rentals are more expensive. For example, Mayerowitz says that because New York City often has a shortage of cars in the city proper, rentals may be cheaper if booked and returned to the airport. You may also find deals to or from airports if you’re booking one way, Mayerowitz says.
Join a free loyalty program to skip the line and get upgrades
Mayerowitz says rental car loyalty programs, such as Enterprise Plus or Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, aren’t going to save you money from the get go, but they can immediately save you time: “There’s just the smug sense of satisfaction that you can skip that car rental line and go right to the car."
Eventually once you’ve reached elite status with a loyalty program, you’ll be entitled to free car-class upgrades. Mayerowitz says he now saves money by booking basic rental cars and then upgrading with his elite status. And loyalty programs aside, some travelers can end up with similar perks by booking the lowest-class car, knowing rental places may run out and give them an upgrade by default.