Get Better Rental Car Deals

I am not sure why, but paying too much for a rental car bothers me more than paying too much for lodging or airfare. I think it is because it is almost a commodity at this point and there are many companies offering this service. I have also found amazing rental car deals in the past, and it has spoiled me for future purchases. I really expect to find a good deal and when I can’t it is very disappointing. Part of the frustration for me is that there is no rental car company that seems to offer the best prices consistently and there are many options. So many in fact that it can be a little overwhelming. The good news if that you are willing to spend a little bit of time, you can get a great price on a rental car. I do not claim to be an expert on this subject but I do travel and have been trying various tactics over the years to get the best price I can find. My hope is that this will benefit you if you find yourself looking for an affordable option.

What’s Important to You ?

I feel the first thing to consider, is what is important to you?  If money is the only factor, there are ways to save at almost every turn. Sometimes saving a few dollars is not worth the effort required though.  I travel often with my wife and children.  I have complaining children, lots of bags, and the general annoyance of getting from the plane to the rental counter through airport lines and baggage claim. So, convenience is very important to me. Everyone’s situation is different. You must decide how far you are willing to go to save money. Let’s look at the ways we can save and you can decide for yourself.

1. Book early and monitor the prices

Generally, I am a planner and I tend to book vacations a year out from departure time. Not everyone does this but if you are like me, then the strategy here is to be vigilant. I start by making a list of companies that meet my criteria (which will be covered later on) as soon as I book my flights or know where I am going. I then go through the list of these agencies and start looking at prices online. I find the car I want and the lowest price among the various companies and I reserve it. The great thing about rental car companies is they let you reserve the car at the price you want and you can cancel anytime. Once you have the lowest price, you are done for a couple of weeks or a month. You will check back periodically (every month or so) and see if the price has dropped. If so, you cancel the reservation and rebook the new one. I find if I start this process a year or so in advance, I generally make changes about 3 times before settling on a good price. This is a little tedious but it works. I would say on average I can shave $100 – $300 off the original price. This depends on a lot of factors such as location and time of year. If the airport you are going to has a large rental car market, you are better off because of the competition. Smaller or regional airports with less competition will be more difficult to play this game.

2. Pay now vs. later

Most of the rental agencies will offer a pay now vs. pay at time of pickup. They offer a better rate if you pay now and lock in the purchase. This can save a decent amount of money if you are doing a weekly rental. I have seen this save over $100 for the week many times. The downside to this is you are locked in and if a better deal comes along, you may not be able to cancel. Read the fine print of the deal you are looking at. This is a great option if you travel to the same place often and know what the price range usually is. Then you can pounce on this if you are able to recognize a great deal.

3.  Airport rental car vs. off-site

I mentioned earlier that I prefer to be on site at the airport but generally, rental counters located off airport offer better deals. This is because most people opt for convenience over price. If you are willing to hop on a shuttle bus and trek to the off site location you can save some money. Companies are eager for your business so they are trying to entice you to make the extra effort of coming to them off site. Before deciding if this is right for you, investigate the prices and see what your threshold is for your time and convenience. It may well be worth it.

4. Alternate Location

Depending on where you are going, it may be worth it to use a different airport or an alternate location to rent a car. For example, I am heading down to Myrtle Beach, SC with the family in the next few months and I am using my airline points. The problem is, my airline does not fly into Myrtle Beach. I have the option of flying into 3 other airports, Charleston, SC, Raleigh-Durham, NC or Charlotte, NC.. We decide to go into Raleigh-Durham, in part because of convenience and because of rental car pricing. Charleston was by far more expensive to rent a car and the ride is almost identical to Raleigh when you consider we are staying in North Myrtle Beach.  Rental car is one piece of the puzzle when planning a vacation and in my case, it was easier to grab the pay now at RDC airport. I saved about $200.00 total for the car I wanted between the price and the pay now option. This is not always an option but often times it is and should be a consideration.

5. Type of car

When booking a car, it is important to understand that certain types of cars are more expensive than others but it is not always what you would expect. Sometimes larger vehicles are less in demand than smaller vehicles. Every traveler will have different criteria for their trip depending on number of people, amount of luggage, and size of the passengers. When we go to Florida, we need a minivan because we bring my Mother-in-Law with us. but when we go to Myrtle in the summer we will be able to get a smaller midsize car if we want. If there is a run on midsize vehicles and the inventory is down for the week you want, the remaining midsize cars will be more expensive. I once rented a minivan (generally more expensive) for cheaper than a compact sedan. It really depends on what the situation the rental agency is currently in with regards to inventory.  If you are traveling with 1 or 2 people and you do not care what you are driving, one option is to use the wildcard option. This means you have a reservation for a vehicle, but the rental agency will pick the car when you arrive. You have no idea what it will be until you arrive. The benefit is that the rate is usually pretty low. This is a great option for a couple.

6. Skip the extras

When you arrive at the rental counter the real fun begins as they give the hard sell on all the extras you should purchase to ensure you are not liable. Skip the insurance if you already have car insurance. Check with your insurance company but you should be covered if you get in an accident while driving a rental car. You can also use a credit card that offers rental car protection to make the purchase at the counter. Insurance is really expensive I have seen charges upwards of $400.00 for a week’s rental.

Another extra is GPS. If you have a smartphone, you already have it. Why pay $5-$10 a day for something you already have. I also opt to fill my gas tank myself before bringing the car back.  I can generally find cheaper gas on my own than the price they quote you. If you know the area and know there is no gas station close by the airport you may want to change that option and pay them to fill it. A good rule of thumb is that extras equal extra profit for the rental agency.

7. Coupons and discounts

You can also join the rental company loyalty program to sometimes save a few dollars. All the programs are different and it may take more than one purchase to get any benefit but it is worth exploring. You can also look for online coupon codes. Often I see some discounts advertised. These may or may not work with a particular deal but it is also worth exploring. Be sure to check airline points, and hotel rewards programs for any discounts that may apply. I have found these rarely pay off but something to consider.

8. travel sites

When polling for prices, it is worth it to check out the travel all-in-one sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz. There are many of these sites and they do sometimes have great deals. I would include hem when shopping around. They also have rewards programs and it may be worth it to look.


As you can see, it does take some work to find a great deal but I don’t mind. I get to think about going away and it gets me all fired up for the upcoming vacation. I have found these tactics very useful over the years and I almost always get the price that I find acceptable or even great.  The one exception is a holiday week. It can be difficult to get a good deal when there are elevated levels of travelers looking for rentals. I also wouldn’t wait until the last week. Sometimes it works but sometimes you pay 2 or 3 times what you wanted and are left without options.  Good luck, I would love to hear if any of these tactics worked for you. Happy Travels!