Car rental websites
The Cheapest Way to Rent a Car: 9 Tips
Sometimes you just need a set of wheels. But who wants to pay $45 a day or more on a rental car?
1. Skip the airport
We checked rates in March for a Memorial Day visit to Portland, Oregon. An economy rental from Enterprise is $15 per day if you pick it up downtown. The same car is more than $38 per day if you pick it up at the airport. Plus you’ll pay a $6 per day “Customer Facility Charge” and 10% “Concession Recovery Fee” for renting at the airport.
All told, you’d save roughly $110 over your three-day weekend in Portland just by renting from somewhere other than the airport . This isn’t the case in every city, though. You’ll pay nearly the same price renting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as you would at an off-airport location.
Price out rental locations in the city and compare to what you can get at the airport. Make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or Lyft to and from your rental location if you rent at a location away from the airport. And take into account time lost to traffic in a city like Chicago.
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2. Shop around online
Then go directly to the car rental company’s site. You might find an even steeper discount that way, particularly with “Pay Now” options. Just keep in mind that rentals paid in advance are typically nonrefundable.
3. Seek out cheap rental cars
Enterprise, Hertz and Budget aren’t the only outfits in town. Discount brands like Advantage, Payless, Thrifty and Dollar Rental are also vying for your business, often at a lower rate than big-name rental companies.
On a given day, our research showed that the lowest-priced rental from Advantage, Dollar and the like was at least $5 cheaper than the cheapest premium brand rental, depending on the city. That savings multiplies over longer trips.
4. Leverage memberships
An added bonus: You can often add a driver for free.
AAA memberships are another great money-saving tool.
“They offer 8% and 10% savings on Dollar and Thrifty respectively,” says Bason. “Getting an extra 8 or 10% off the cheapest options out there can make the difference and cause AAA to sometimes beat Costco on price.”
5. Opt for economy cars
Economy cars are typically the cheapest, and therefore the most likely to be booked. You can use this to your advantage, says Brett Graff, a family finance expert and author of a syndicated column called The Home Economist.
6. Stick to one driver
Most rental car companies will charge you a daily fee to add an extra driver. That fee is typically $12 per day with Enterprise and National Car Rental and $13 per day with Budget and Avis, but can vary by location.
There are ways to dodge the fee, though. Some companies, such as Enterprise, waive the additional driver fee for a spouse or domestic partner, but you both need to have the same address on your driver’s licenses. Others, including National, will waive the fee for spouses, partners and immediate family members if you enroll in their membership program.
You can also leverage other memberships, such as USAA, AARP, AAA or Costco to get a free additional driver with select rental car companies.
7. Forgo the extras
Many credit cards also include basic insurance coverage if you use the card to pay for your rental. So you can skip it and save as much as $30 a day on your rental. Some cards even offer more comprehensive coverage.
If you’re overseas, map out your route ahead of time and download directions when connected to Wi-Fi. Or go old school and pick up a paper map.
“In the popular vacation destination of south Florida, car rental companies often charge $25 per day for the SunPass, whether you use it or not,” says Goldman of AutoRentals.com. “Instead, purchase Florida’s SunPass for $19.99 at CVS Pharmacy stores, Walgreens and Publix Super Markets throughout South Florida and pay for only what you use.”
8. Price out prepaid gas
It’s typically best to skip the fuel-service option, but occasionally rental companies offer competitive fuel rates. You won’t know what the rental car company is charging until you arrive, so do your research ahead of time.
Use a site like GasBuddy to scope out nearby gas stations and current fuel prices so you can compare against the price offered by the rental car company. Also factor in how likely it is you will have a near-empty tank on return.
On a short day or weekend trip, you may just need to top off your tank before returning the car. Longer trips may allow you to roll in on fumes and save a few dollars as you do so.
9. Walk or ride
While these tips will help you get a cheap rental car, there is one other surefire way to save: Skip the rental altogether. Most major cities have walkable downtowns and extensive public transportation networks, not to mention taxis and ridesharing apps galore.
Need a car for a few hours? Check out Zipcar or Enterprise CarShare. Both operate in more than 20 cities and offer rates as low as $5 per hour — and they pay for the gas. Plan in advance, though, since both require a membership. Otherwise, save yourself the hassle of traffic and often costly parking rates, if you can, and buy yourself a weekend metro pass.