It is not fun spending an hour shopping online to find the best rental car deal. Rental cars are unlike airline tickets, the prices for a car can vary greatly depending on the third-party site you are shopping. With airline tickets, the price is almost always going to be the same regardless of where you book. I am not suggesting you don’t shop around for your airline ticket, I am just letting you know that many times the price will be the same across all sites.
I have compiled a comparison of the top rental car portal sites and their best offering. Keep in mind price is not the only thing to focus on here. You are entering an agreement for a $20k+ asset so it is important to go with a reputable company.
Kayak is one of the most popular travel portals, and rightly so. I really like the ease of use and competitive pricing of Kayak. Using my 1 day example booking in SFO, I was able to find an intermediate/midsize car for $35 grand-total. Considering that San Francisco has a $20 airport transportation fee, $35 for everything is a great deal. The cheapest mid-size on Kayak is with Fox and Payless car rental. Fox, like Payless, Thrifty, Dollar, Ace, and Advantage, is a low-cost rental car agency. Many folks report that lines are incredibly long and that cars are generally not kept-up to the same level as the big guys; Alamo, Avis, Budget, National, Enterprise, and Hertz. Make sure to weigh the pro’s and con’s when you are comparing prices of low-cost rental car companies against the big guys.
Hotwire has a special pricing program called “Hot Rate” cars. This program shows you the price of the vehicle (midsize), but does display the company you will be booking with. They will show you about 6-9 companies and you are guaranteed to get one in that list. The drawback to this is you could end up getting hitched with a low-cost company even though the rate is similar to one of the big guys. Another thing to note about these “hot rate” cars is that all bookings are FINAL. I always avoid prepaying for rentals cars if given the option. Rental car prices are so fluid I would not want to commit to a rate that could drop the next day. Unless the price is super low, I would not lock-in a non-refundable booking through Hotwire’s Hot Rate. In this case, they were $22 more than Kayak for the same class of vehicle on the same date.
Southwest Airlines books cars? Yep! Many airlines have portals where you can book hotels, cars, and even vacation bundles. The great part about booking on Southwest’s portal is you also earn Rapid Reward points. You can earn anywhere between 600-2,400 points depending on the company and the rental length. 2,400 points are worth about $40 in Southwest flights. That makes this a no-brainer if the prices are on the cheaper-end compared to other third parties. When booking a car in the Southwest portal you are not pre-paying and you can cancel with no penalty. With a competitive price, free points, and easy cancellation, this is definitely a good choice!
Booking on the Payless site you are given two options, pay now or pay at the counter. They only offer a $2 discount to pay in advance. I would pay the extra $2 so that you can freely cancel and so you do not have to be charged in advance. With Southwest you pay the Payless “prepaid” rate but you do not have to pre-pay. You also earn rapid reward points when booking on Southwest.
Now, my recommendation is to always check a few corporate sites, like Alamo.com, since they will sometimes offer exclusive pricing. On Alamo I would recommend becoming an “Alamo Insider”, their free loyalty program. They have different specials for Alamo insiders like “free vehicle upgrade” or “last-minute specials”. I logged into my Alamo Insider account and looked up some last-minute specials for the same time and date as the above examples. Surprisingly, I was offered a $35 mid-size vehicle as a last-minute special. I would go with Alamo over Payless and Fox, HANDS-DOWN. This same Alamo mid-size vehicle is priced at $46 on Kayak and Southwest. So in this case, the best option was to log into my Alamo account and look for ‘last minute deals’.
The moral here, make sure to weigh the pro’s and con’s before just landing on price. Do you have to pay in advance? Do I earn any airline points? Is this a reputable rental car company? Can I cancel at anytime?
One last thing, make sure to utilize the insurance that your travel credit card offers. You may be able to opt-out of the rental company’s LDW and CDW waivers which can save you even more money when picking up the vehicle. (The prices displayed on all the above examples do not include any add-on’s like gas, insurance, etc.)