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10 Tips for the Cheapest Way to Rent a Car

February 11, 2021 · 6 minute read

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10 Tips for the Cheapest Way to Rent a Car

Renting a car can quickly ratchet up the cost of a trip.

And, trying to figure out exactly how much that care is going to cost isn’t always easy, thanks to all kinds of surcharges, such as additional insurance, that often get tacked on to the final cost.

But there are ways to get a good deal on a rental car.

Cost-saving strategies include knowing where to look for special deals, picking the cheapest day to rent a car, and nixing costly add-ons you really don’t need.

Read on to learn some of the best ways to rent a car.

10 Tips to Save Money on Car Rentals

1. Understanding all the Add-On Costs

At first glance, advertised deals on car rentals can seem inexpensive.

The sticker shock may come once you’re actually at the counter. That’s because, in addition to the base rate of a rental car, costs may include:

•  Additional driver cost. Are you going to be the only driver or will you be sharing driving duties with someone else? If someone else will be driving, it’s a good idea to add them to the rental to potentially avoid liability if something were to happen if someone else were behind the wheel.
•  Fuel Purchase Option (FPO). This option allows a renter to pay for the full tank of gas at the time of rental and return the tank empty. It may be cheaper to fill the tank yourself but the FPO can save time if you’ll be cutting it close prior to your flight.
•  Fuel and Service. If you forego the FPO and don’t return the car with a full tank, you will likely be charged for the cost of fuel, as well as a fee for the refueling service.
•  Insurance. Insurance can include Loss Damage Waiver, Liability Insurance, Personal Accident Insurance, and Personal Effects Coverage. This insurance may or may not be necessary, depending on your existing insurance coverage.
•  Premium Emergency Roadside Service. This service can provide roadside assistance in the event of an emergency.
•  Additional fees and taxes. Fees and taxes are not optional and can add up. Taxes and fees are dependent on where you rent your vehicle (different states have different taxes). There is typically an additional fee for cars rented at an airport or a hotel.
•  Toll fees. This typically includes not only the cost of driving on toll roads, but also convenience fees for having a transponder included in your rental.

2. Considering Your Insurance Coverage

One way to get the cheapest possible deal on a rental car is to make sure you’re not doubling up on insurance coverage.

Your personal auto insurance may cover collision damage, and your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance may cover personal items that could be stolen from your vehicle.

But the disadvantage would be that if the worst were to happen, you would need to file a claim through your personal insurance, which could cause your rate to increase.

Your credit card also may offer coverage. This can be a good travel hack that allows you to waive the insurance offerings from a rental car company, yet not need to use your personal car insurance to file a claim.

To find out if your card has the coverage you need, you can check your card’s benefits to see if it includes primary car rental coverage. If it does, it’s a good idea to read the fine print for exactly what the insurance covers, as well as any coverage limits.

Calling your credit card company, as well as your car and home insurance companies, with any questions can give you a full picture of whether or not added car rental insurance is necessary for your situation.

You may also be able to waive roadside service if you have membership to another roadside assistance company.

3. Looking Beyond Airports and Hotels

Because of the fees associated with renting from an airport or hotel — which can add as much as 25% to your total bill — it may be cheaper to rent from an outpost within the city.

The flip side is that it’s less convenient, and you may need to take a taxi or use a rideshare service to get to and from the car rental agency.

Comparing costs of rentals both at the airport and within 20 miles (adding in cost of getting to that other location) can help you assess whether giving up some convenience will pay off.

4. Signing Up For Loyalty Programs

Before you rent a car, it can be helpful to sign up for several loyalty programs across rental companies.

To avoid junk mail, consider creating a separate email address to register for loyalty programs.

Some rental car programs will give you an automatic percentage off just for being a member.

Other rental car programs may give additional perks, such as upgrades or separate lines at the agency, which can help you avoid hassle.

5. Plugging in Your Memberships

Many big box stores have ties with rental car companies that can net you significant discounts if you’re a member.

Auto clubs (like AAA), trade associations, unions, as well as AARP, may also offer rental car perks and discounts, including insurance on rental cars.

Shop around, and don’t be surprised if the most enticing deals emerge from an unexpected source.

[Travel apps can also be a good source for deals and cost comparisons as well.]

6. Booking Early

Rental car companies often keep a limited number of cars in their fleets. As a result, they need to estimate demand several weeks ahead of time.

Booking a car in advance can help you not only get a better deal, but also help to ensure you’ll get the car you want. This can help you avoid paying for a suburban, when all you need is an economy car..

If you do book early, consider searching prices again right before your trip.

Here’s why: If you find a better deal last-minute, you may be able to request a price adjustment from your original agency.

Or, you may be able to cancel your current reservation and book a cheaper reservation at another company.

Before you book, you may want to read through the cancellation policy, and make sure there is no penalty for cancelling.

7. Playing with the Calendar

Prices of rental cars can fluctuate based on demand, and these fluctuations can sometimes be significant.

Of course, you can’t always change the days of your trip. But it might be worth doing without a rental car for a day or two, and then renting on the day when the price is the lowest.

The cheapest day to rent a car can vary depending on market demand, but you may see lower rates on Fridays and Saturdays, and the highest rates on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

As a frugal traveler, you may want to weigh the cost benefit of not have a rental car for a few days to score a lower rate.

8. Noting Any Damage Before You Drive Away

You may be eager to get on the road, but it’s a good idea to do your due diligence and make sure you record any damage to the car when you receive it.

No matter how minor a scratch or ding, you could get charged for the damage unless you account for it on your rental agreement prior to driving away.

You may be asked to mark damage on the car rental agreement, but you may also want to take photos as well. That way, there is less likely to be any dispute about the extent of any damage or markings.

9. Paying Tolls in Cash if You Can

Rental car companies commonly tack on fees for using their transponder, in addition to the toll itself (which is often charged at its highest rate).

You may also have to pay a daily convenience fee for having the transponder even if you don’t use it.

To avoid using the rental company’s transponder, consider paying cash at tolls that accept it. For cashless tolls, you may be able to pay for online later in the day by inputting the rental car license plate number.

It may also be possible to use your own transponder. Some transponders (such as E-ZPass) can be used in multiple states, so it’s worth doing your research beforehand to see if your personal transponder is accepted.

For a longer-term rental you might consider buying a transponder or toll pass that is accepted in the state where you’ll be driving. In many cases, the fee for the pass goes into your account as credit for tolls.

10. Bringing Your Own Car Seat

Rental car companies may offer infant and child car seat rental options, but the additional charges can add up.

In addition, you may not necessarily know the safety or collision history of a rental car seat.

It may be a better bet to bring the car seat your child knows best. Even if it’s bulky, airlines typically don’t charge baggage fees on car seats.

The Takeaway

Car rentals often end up costing more than you expect, due to add-on costs.

To get the best deal on a rental, it’s a good idea to do a little advance research so you know exactly what extras you need — and which ones you can opt out of.

Other ways to get the best deals on rental cars include looking for discounts through clubs and organizations you already belong to, joining car rental loyalty programs, playing with your dates, and choosing a slightly out of the way pick-up and drop-off location.

With a little advance planning, you may be able to save yourself a headache—and sticker shock —when you get the final bill for your rental car.

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