Car rentals are one of the most elusive aspects when it comes to traveling for “free”. It really is a crap shoot on finding a good deal, but location and time of the year can make play a huge part in pricing.
Let’s talk ways to save money on rental cars since “free rental cars” don’t really exist.
• Reserving the smallest car possible – Generally, most rental car companies will allow you to reserve an economy car even though they don’t keep those cars in stock. This of course is a gamble and can vary based on location and the rental agency. The way this can save you money is that they have to put you in another car, for free, if the small economy cars are not in stock. The other way this can work in your favor is that you can usually haggle on site with the rental car agent to get into something larger. When I book a small car I walk up to it and say “oh crap, this doesn’t have cruise control, do you have something in this category with cruise control”? Usually the answer is no, so just kindly ask if they can upgrade you to a vehicle with CC. I have received an upgrade from an economy car to a VW Passat for $4 a day. When booking online, they wanted $15 more per day to reserve the full size car (Passat, Camry etc) compared to an economy car. At the counter they will sometimes try to charge you for an upgrade even though that is the only car in stock (yes they can get slimy). So to avoid this just ask them in the beginning what year, make and model they have reserved for you, it will force them to be up front.
• Book at off-airport location – Many times the airport location will cost more than a small local location. Airports impose fees on top of the rental car rate at around $10-15 per day. If you can rent off-airport and not pay those fees, that is a good savings for a week long rental. Many of the off-airport locations will come and pick you up at the airport in your rental vehicle. Then you don’t have to sit on those stinky shuttle buses! As always, your mileage may vary so shop around.
• You can book multiple reservations – You do not pay up front when you reserve a car online. They also don’t ask for a deposit or hold on a credit card. What does this mean to you? This means that you can book and if the rate reduces, just cancel and re-book. As soon as you know where you are going to travel, BOOK, don’t wait. There are also websites that will refund you if the rate reduces, check out autoslash.com. Rates change often, so just keep an eye on them, but don’t wait to lock in a rate, nothing is worse than watching it go up after you waited to reserve the car.
• Don’t buy insurance or add on’s – An agent’s job is to sell you everything under the sun. Most major travel credit cards will automatically cover your rental with zero deductible insurance so make sure to waive all their add on’s. The key is that you have to use that card to pay for the entire rental car. Another thing, if you have full coverage on your personal vehicle, your personal insurance will typically carry over to your rental car (or any car you operate for that matter). Call your insurance or credit card company if you aren’t sure. Check out this write up on nerdwallet to get an idea of which credit cards give you full coverage for free. You will notice that you MUST decline the insurance from the rental agency for the credit card insurance to kick in. If your card does cover your rental insurance check to see if that also extends to international rentals, most of the time it does.
• Corporate Coupon Codes – Sometimes rental car companies will offer reduced rates for college students, union workers, etc.. To see a list of coupon codes, check out this site. Many people report that you can use the corporate code and they won’t verify it at the counter. Generally, at the worst they remove the corporate code and you will be right back where you started.
• Be Flexible – This is always my biggest tip when it comes to travel. If you pick dates and your location first, you will always spend more money. What I do is pick about 5-10 locations that I want to visit and when one of them has good deals on flights, hotels, or rental cars, then I book it! I understand this isn’t always possible, but when it comes to leisure you can usually be flexible on the date or location. You might pick a date and location right when a huge convention is in town, that will make rental rates go through the roof. Before you lock in a date and location, always check, flights, hotels, and rentals, then decide whether or not you want to lock it in.
• Book with partner airlines – Southwest, for example, will give you 750-2,750 points for booking a rental car through their
“portal”. Southwest receives a kick back from the rental car company. Those points are worth $10-39. Just make sure those rates are the same price as other sites like carrentals.com and hotwire.com