If you need wheels for an upcoming vacay, chances are you’re searching for rental options and trying to understand why prices can fluctuate so much. Typically, car rental rates vary based on supply and demand, just like airline tickets and hotel rooms. Lower availability generally means higher rental car rates.
There are some obvious times when demand will be high, such as spring break in Florida. Much of the time, though, there’s no way to know when a car rental company has a surplus or not, so car rental rates can seem to vary with no rhyme or reason.
But there is a method to the madness. With a little shopper savvy, you can snag the cheapest rental car rates for your next getaway. Learn more here, including:
• What factors impact car rental rates?
• How can you get the best car rental rates?
• What are some alternatives to renting a car?
Why Are Car Rental Rates So High?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people scrambled for car rentals to escape the doldrums of lockdown. As a result of demand, car rental rates shot up, reaching record highs in July 2021. While weekly rental car rates have dipped since the summer of 2021, they’ve remained consistently higher than before the pandemic.
With more Americans traveling lately, the demand for rental cars has remained high. Plenty of people who fly to LAX, Orlando, or elsewhere are in search of wheels to get around.
Combine those forces with the effect of inflation, and your weekly car rental can cost more than a plane ticket.
Factors That Influence Rental Car Rates
Beyond supply and demand there are other factors that play into the prices of weekly or monthly car rental rates. It’s important to be aware of them when budgeting for your next family vacation.
Factors that can affect car rental rates include:
• Age of the driver. Car companies may have a surcharge for renters under 25.
• Type of car. Luxury brands and larger cars can push prices higher.
• Pickup location. Prices can vary between airport vs. in-town branches.
• Day of the week. Your pickup and drop-off days can influence cost.
• Length of the rental. Deals can be found for short- and long-term rentals if you know the rules of the (rental) road.
• Extra fees and add-ons, including insurance, additional drivers, and perks like satellite radio.
11 Ways to Get the Best Car Rental Rates
Wondering how to get the best car rental rates? Whether you’re planning a quick weekend getaway or an epic cross-country road trip, here are some tips for scoring the lowest price.
1. Book Early
Booking in advance can help you snag a low price, which can be an incentive for planning ahead. Reserving your rental car three to six months in advance can be the ideal time frame for finding the lowest prices. So if you know, say, you are going to be doing some summer travel and are making hotel reservations, don’t forget to book your car too. Bonus: You’ll likely have your pick of vehicles, with compact sedans, minivans, and SUVs available.
Waiting till the last minute can definitely be risky: What if every car is already booked? But if you do have late-breaking travel plans (maybe you want to visit your college roomie who just had a baby), you might luck out. One recent report revealed you can save around 15% when you book the same rental only a week in advance, provided a vehicle is available.
2. Shop Around Online
Online searching can help unlock travel deals. The same holds true for car rentals. There are a lot of online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Kayak and Expedia, that can do the comparison shopping for you. They review all kinds of sites to find you the lowest car rental rates, so you don’t have to click through to each individual company.
But remember, these are third-party vendors. If you need to change or cancel your reservation, it can be easier to do so directly through a car rental agency.
3. Check for Membership Discounts
Most rental car companies offer loyalty programs that are typically free to join. In the same way you earn credit card points for swiping your plastic, you can earn points for each booking that can be applied toward a free rental or vehicle upgrade in the future.
There are also warehouse club memberships, such as Costco, that provide discounts at major car rental companies, such as Avis, Alamo, Budget, and Enterprise. AAA works with Hertz, Dollar Car Rental, and Thrifty to bring down costs for members.
Many travel credit cards can help you earn points to spend on whatever you’d like — including car rentals.
Recommended: A Guide to How Credit Card Travel Insurance Works
4. Use Your Own Insurance
Your personal car insurance typically covers a rental car with the same limits and deductibles — as long as your trip is for personal travel. If you’re on a business trip, you might need commercial coverage or your company might have a commercial auto policy that can cover the rental.
Most rental companies prefer for you to pay with a credit card for your car rental reservation. But what most people don’t know is that many travel credit cards will cover basic collision insurance on rentals, saving you up to $30 a day. Check with your credit card provider to fully understand the terms and conditions.
Recommended: Apply for an Unlimited Cash Back Credit Card
5. Rent for the Weekend
If your schedule and plans allow, time your trip for the weekend, when you can nab the lowest rental car rates for a getaway. Rental car companies cater to business travelers who tend to need cars Monday through Friday, making rates per day higher during the week.
6. Rent by the Week
What if you have a longer adventure in mind? Rental companies can offer deals if you rent a car for the whole week versus just a few days. (And if you are planning a major road trip or renting a car all summer for beach getaways, check with rental companies and see if monthly car rental rates are available at a discount.)
If you are planning on covering considerable ground, be sure and ask about weekly car rental rates with unlimited mileage. That way, you can take to the open road without worrying about the odometer.
7. Avoid Airport Pickup
Picking up your rental car at the airport is convenient when a flight is part of your travel plan, but doing so can come with a higher price tag. Airport rental locations may charge a “Customer Facility Charge,” which can add up to several dollars a day.
Plus, demand can be high at the airport, leading to higher prices or lack of available cars. Renting from a local branch in town can save you money. Just be sure to factor in the cost of the transportation from the airport.
8. Don’t Add Additional Drivers
Most rental car agreements charge extra to add an additional driver — between $12 to $15 a day, depending on the location. Some companies will waive the additional driver fee for a spouse, as long as you have the same address on your driver’s licenses.
9. Refuel Yourself
Rental car companies typically require you to return your vehicle with the same fuel level you left with. If you leave with a full tank and come back half full, they’ll charge you a fueling fee. This can trigger an additional “ka-ching” to your bill.
You can opt for a prepay fuel option, but rental car companies tend to charge a lot more for their gas than the going rate. So if you’re not rushing to an early-morning flight, it’s worth making a pit stop at a gas station. (Hint: If you have a gas credit card, use it to help boost your rewards and savings.)
10. Skip the Extras
Opting out of the extras offered by car rental agencies can save you some cash. Make a playlist instead of paying for satellite radio, bring your kid’s car seat if possible, or utilize your phone’s map apps vs. renting a GPS with the car to help navigate.
11. Opt for a Modest Car
This may sound obvious, but the larger and fancier the vehicle, the bigger the price. Selecting an economy vehicle can save you hundreds on a weekly rental, and you’ll spend less on gas.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Car Rental Rewards Program
A car rental rewards program can help you earn points toward free rentals, allow you expedited check-ins, free car upgrades, and more. Familiarize yourself with the benefits of your tier status, so you can take full advantage of the perks. Also be sure to stay on top of any reward point expiration dates.
Recommended: Guide to Choosing a Rewards Credit Card
Alternatives to Car Rentals
Another way to save money on car rentals is to not rent a car! Hey, when money is tight, it’s worth exploring all your options.
• If you’re visiting a city, explore local mass transit and taxi/rideshares. Book a conveniently located hotel where you can walk or bike to everything.
• Investigate the cost of rideshare services. Could you take an Uber to the resort you’re staying at and then use shuttles to get around?
• Consider car-sharing services like Getaround and Turo that can allow you to use a car just when you need it. If you have a vacation planned and need wheels for only one or two excursions, that might save you money and keep you from blowing your entire travel fund.
Recommended: Apply for a Rewards Credit Card
If you need a car when traveling, you can find good deals on car rentals by doing some comparison shopping, being flexible with your travel schedule, and maximizing any rewards programs. Doing so can help you put your money toward what makes a vacation the most fun and memorable vs. watching it fly out the window.
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