Find the Best Car Rental Price
A rental car can be a big chunk of vacation expenses. If you add in all the state & local taxes, airport fees, facility use fees, underage fees, insurance, additional driver fee, refueling fees… it could get very expensive, very easily. But if you spend a little time you can save a lot of money and get the best rental car deal.
Basics of getting a low car rental price
To get the best price you have to understand a few basic things.
- Contract Ids: Contract IDs are numbers issued to various business and organizations for their employees/members to use. Check with your employer if their contract ID can be used for personal travel, if not, no worries, there a LOT of other contract IDs you are eligible for. For example, use AAA Contract Id, Entertainment Book id, almost all airlines have their own contract Ids, even Walmart has one which is available for shoppers, meaning everyone. Each rental car company has a different name for this, Hertz calls this CDP (Corporate Discount Program), Avis has AWD (Avis Worldwide Discount), with National it is just called Contract Id.
- Rate Code: Special offer rate code. If you include this, you are requesting a specific promotion like 50% off weekend rates instead of the standard rate. Your rental period should qualify for the rate you are requesting. For example, you cannot request the half-off weekend rate if you are renting from Monday-Friday.
- Coupons/Promotion Code: This I think is the most widely used. It is just a code that if applied knocks off $$ or % from your rental price.
- Convention/meeting number: This is applicable and worth a try if you are going for a convention or even a wedding. When you give this number and ask for a quote, you are given the group rate instead of the individual rate.
How and where to to find these contract Ids and coupon codes
- Ask your employer first. Check if you can use their contract ID for personal use. It might even include extras like rental insurance.
- Look online. I love MouseSavers.com. They mainly cater to the Walt Disney and Disney land destinations but the code they have is applicable in any city. Check out their discount pages for individual rental car companies for contract Ids and coupon codes.
- Check out the organization or clubs that you are a member of but not included in the above mentioned sites
- Warehouse clubs (Costco, BJ’s Club)
- Professional memberships (IEEE, American Bar Association)
- Alumni Associations
- Other memberships (USAA, AARP)
- Rental car mailing list. This will allow you to get coupon codes in your mail.
- Check out Flyertalk.com forums and Fatwallet.com/forums as well.
Figuring out the contract Ids is a one time process. Choose 4-5 Ids to work with, so that you can start with that every time. I have found that American Express platinum ID and AAA almost always give me the best rate with Hertz and Costco gets me the best deal from Avis… you get the drift.
Tips to get the best deal on a car rental
Now that you have the basics covered, it is now a mix and match game to get the best deal.
- Shop around. Check with regular travel sites like Kayak, Expedia or Travelocity to get the going rate.
- After you get a rough idea of the price, combine the Contract Id, Rate code and Promotion code to get the cheapest price.
- I know it is a pain but keep checking every one – two weeks to see if there is a new promotion that you are eligible for. If you are a frequent renter this might not make sense, so settling with one excellent contract id-coupon combination will work until the coupon expires.
- When you get closer to the trip check the opaque booking sites (Priceline or Hotwire). You cannot cancel if you book with them, so don’t try this unless you are absolutely sure of your trip. If you can see a substantially lower price (available through Hotwire) or if you could bid for >20% off the price you found so far (available through Priceline), go with it.
- If your situation is a little different – for example, if you have an underage driver or you need booster seats, it might make sense to just stick with the price you found, because these little fees might negate any savings you get with the opaque sites.
- Don’t just look for the cheapest deal. Evaluate your situation and go with a coupon that gives the best deal overall. For example, lets say you are going to rent a car along with your friends who might also drive the car. If there are going to be 4 drivers, the fees for additional drivers alone might exceed the price of the car. If all of them have AAA, it might make sense to use the AAA-Hertz deal. There is no charge for additional drivers who are also AAA members.
- Use frequent renter programs : This way you will not only get some good discount codes and free rental days, it will also save you a lot of time at the counter. All of the basic level frequent renter programs are free. Sometimes even the elite level programs are free too. For example, if you are a Skymiles member (even if you have never travelled with Delta, the Skymiles membership is free, so you could sign up for that) Hertz Gold Club fee is waived ($60 value per year; use Program Name: Delta Skymiles, Code 5765) or if you are a MouseSavers.com readers (which I highly recommend for getting the latest coupons) can sign up for National rental car’s Emerald Club for free, check their National car rental page for more information.
- Be a loyal customer: If you are a frequent renter, it might make sense to stick with 1-2 rental companies that you like most and rent from them most of the time. This way you could get free upgrades, by pass the reservation counter and sometimes if you are a very friendly customer, they might even overlook a small scratch or dent to the car.
- Its all about timing: The weekend rate starts at 12:00 noon on Friday in most of the rental companies, which might be up to 50% off the weekday rate.
- Saturday night stay or weekly rate: Usually the weekly rates are much cheaper than the daily rates, so if you need the car only for 4 days it might make sense to keep it for one more day, even if you had to just park it and not use it for the last day. Some rental companies charge an early return fee (Hertz and Enterprise have never charged a fee, but they mostly won’t prorate as well. Alamo on the other hand, converts the weekly rates to daily rates which are a LOT costlier if you book for a week and return it early, so check with your rental agency if you can return it early).
- Pre-fill the gas: It is always expensive to return the car without filling the tank. You will be charged a much higher fee for the price of the gas per gallon and also billed a refueling service fee.
- Insurance: Know how much you need and buy only that amount. If you have your personal auto policy your liability and collision might be covered. Give your insurance agent and credit card company a call and then decide
- Avoid renting at the Airport location: Almost all airport locations charge airport fees and other facility fees. So try and skip the airport. The next nearest location might be as close as 1 mile and a cab ride could save you a lot. Going to a New York wedding? With alternative ground transportation so accessible from the airport, see if you can pick up a car somewhere else in the city.
- One way rental: Break them up. Lets assume for your vacation, you are going to be flying in to Las Vegas, renting a car, staying there and playing for 6 days then driving down to check out Los Angeles, staying there the night and the next day you’re flying out of Los Angeles. If you rent the car in Las Vegas and drop it off in Los Angeles, Hertz shows it costs $606.53. Instead, break up your trip like this (1) Rent a car in Las Vegas for the first 5-6 days and drop it off at the Las Vegas location itself (cost : 295.77) (2) When you are dropping that car off, pick up a one way rental, so that you won’t pay the one way rental premium for all the 7 days (cost : 176.66). This way for an extra 30 minutes of returning and renting another car, you will save $134.07.
- You can do the similar break down for the weekly/weekend rates: Take advantage of both the weekly and weekend rates. For example, Hertz has very good weekly rates (M-F) whereas for the weekends (Friday, Saturday, Sunday & Monday) the rates are excellent with Enterprise. So If I need a car for 8 days, I would take a car from Hertz for the first five days with a weekly rate and for the next 3 days from Enterprise for their famous 50% off weekend rates. This is not always true but it is worth a check. If the rental agencies are close by it is only a little inconvenient and is much cheaper than daily rates for 8 days.
- Fees: Try to avoid as many fees as possible. If you need child car seat, it might be cheaper to take yours with you for the vacation and save on the car seat fee which could be $10-$15 a day. Or use a coupon code that includes the booster seat (for example if you book using AAA coupon, one booster seat is included for no additional charge).
- Hidden fees: There are some sneaky fees, like the transponder fee. A couple of years back I rented a car in one of the North Eastern cities. I went through one of the toll booths and used the Cash/EZPass lane because it had less number of cars waiting. I paid using cash, it was a couple of dollars, didn’t get a receipt and drove off. When I returned the car, I was charged a ~$15 transponder fee. Apparently my car had a “transponder” that charged my credit card for the toll when using EZPass/Fastrak lanes. The best worst part is you will be charged $2-3 whether you use it or not. I didn’t have the receipt to prove that I paid the toll in cash so I couldn’t even dispute the toll charge. Lesson learnt. Look around in your car, if you have a cool looking device, ask what that thing is and know if they will charge you for having it.
- Book a bigger car: If you need it, it might makes sense to book a bigger car instead of cramming everyone in an economy size. Because of the price of gas, the economy cars which have better mileage are sometimes costlier than the compact or full sized cars.
- But not too big either: As the economy cars are in much higher demand a lot of times the rental company will offer a free upgrade or try to sell it to you for “only $3 extra” a day. It might sound nice, but if you are are travelling alone or don’t need a much bigger car stick with your first choice and save on your gas bill.
- Book 2 economy cars instead of a minivan: If there are more than 2 drivers you could skip that minivan and go for 2 smaller cars. Minivans are a lot costlier than 2 cars together and also credit card rental protection might exclude some minivans and won’t give the extra protection.