12 Tips for the Cheapest Way to Rent a Car

By Anna Davies · March 07, 2023 · 10 minute read

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12 Tips for the Cheapest Way to Rent a Car

There’s nothing like the convenience and freedom of having a car at your disposal when traveling, but it can definitely add to the cost of a trip.

What’s more, it can be hard to know just how much a car rental will add to the bottom line because the daily rate you see advertised may wind up not reflecting the amount you will pay once surcharges are added to the bill. Additional insurance, mileage, and other fees can really add up.

But with some smart strategies, you can control the costs of renting a car. These include uncovering special offers and deals, knowing which day of the week is cheapest to rent a car, and avoiding those pricey add-ons that you don’t truly need.

Here, you’ll learn some of the best ways to rent a car for less.

12 Tips to Save Money on Car Rentals

These tactics can help you save money the next time you rent some wheels while traveling.

1. Understanding All Those 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. However, if you are the kind of person who likely returns a car close to the deadline and is racing to catch a flight, the FPO can save time and might be worth it.

•   Fuel and Service. If you forgo 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 car insurance coverage or the possibility of coverage via the credit card used for the reservation.

•   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 to seamlessly pay those charges.

Recommended: How to Save Money on Gas

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.

Find out what your car insurance covers. It 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.

As noted above, your credit card’s car rental coverage may be a money-saving option. 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.

Some pointers:

•   If you are renting a car with a credit card, as many people do, 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 a membership to another roadside assistance company.

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3. Looking Beyond Airports and Hotels

Because of the fees associated with renting from an airport or hotel — which can add as much as 20% 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 the 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 the hassle.

5. Using Your Memberships

There are various ways to snag a reduced price on your car rental, including working your memberships.

Many big-box stores and wholesale clubs 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.

6. Booking Early

Reserving a car as soon as you know your travel dates can be a money-wise move. Here’s why: 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. To encourage customers to book early and help them manage their pool of vehicles, they may offer lower rates when you reserve in advance vs. last-minute.

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.

•   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 canceling.

7. Shifting Your Dates

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 as a frugal traveler, you may want to weigh the cost-benefit of not having a rental car for a few days to score a lower rate.You could reap significant savings.

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.

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 point out and/or document any damage to the car when you receive it. Consider the following:

•   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.

Recommended: Different Ways to Earn More Interest on Your Money

9. Paying Tolls in Cash if You Can

Rental car companies commonly tack on fees for using their transponder (the gizmo that lets you whiz past toll booths), in addition to the toll itself.

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, try these hacks:

•   Pay cash at tolls that still accept it. For cashless tolls, you may be able to pay online later.

•   It may also be possible to use your own transponder. Some transponders (such as E-ZPass) can be used in multiple states, so it could be 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. You might pay $10 to $15 per day, per seat, plus tax, up to a cap of $66 and up.

In addition to the cost, you may not necessarily know the size and reliability of a rental car seat.

Obviously, it is not always convenient to bring your own seat, but It may be a better bet when possible. Even though car seats are bulky, airlines typically don’t charge baggage fees on them.

11. Think Small and Simple

This one may be obvi, but renting a larger or premium car will likely jack up your costs considerably. Though this is a no-brainer, it’s easy to creep into higher pricing tiers as you scroll through the options and see a cool SUV or convertible next to that economy sedan you originally thought you wanted to book.

For example, a recent search on Enterprise for a rental car found a compact car in Los Angeles for $75 a day, a mid-size SUV for $106 per day, and a convertible for $143 a day. That’s a major difference!

12. Let One Person Do the Driving

It’s not always possible, of course, to have a single driver (say, if you’re criss-crossing the United States), but for shorter distances, having just one driver can help you save money.

Many rental car agencies will add $10 to $15 a day for an additional driver who is not a spouse, domestic partner, or business partner. So, if you are on a trip with a friend and the distances are fairly short (perhaps zipping between Miami and the Florida Keys), having just one driver can help cut rental car costs.

The Takeaway

Car rentals often end up costing more than you expect, due to add-on costs and the details of when and where you rent a vehicle. To get the best deal on a rental, it’s a good idea to do some research in advance so you can get the best rates and opt out of the extras you don’t need.

You can also explore other ways to get a good deal, such as looking for discounts through clubs and organizations you already belong to, shifting your dates slightly, and trying other clever hacks.

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