Think finding the lowest airfare is tricky? Try getting the best deal on a rental car. These days, car rental rates change faster than television networks launch reality series.
But there are ways to both save and be satisfied, without making you feel like a contestant on Survivor. Here are some tips that should make for a smooth and satisfying ride.
- Go for the triple play. Before booking, try this. Visit a travel consolidator such as Travelocity or Expedia and conduct a car rental search within your specifications (city, dates, vehicle size). Note results for at least the three best prices. Next, visit the website or call the toll-free number for your top three finalist companies and ask for their best deal. If they pressure you to book, respond that you are still finalizing plans. Be sure to ask for the direct phone number to each company’s local office. Then, call the local office of the cheapest company (like ABC Rental at Dulles Airport) and again request the best available price. This approach typically results in cheap, cheaper and then the cheapest price.
- Forget labels. Many high-quality, low-cost brands – like Advantage, Fox Rent A Car and Midway — may not be household names. Check out web sites like CarRentalExpress.com or CarRentals.com to find some of these independent agencies.
- Ask for discounts. Always ask if the rental agency gives discounts for membership in AAA, AARP or a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Most do. Watch for coupons or offers in travel magazines or at warehouse club check-out areas. Often you can couple a tidy discount with a free day’s rental or upgrade.
- Go off-site. It’s often cheaper to rent from a non-airport location. You’ll still pay taxes and some fees, but they will likely cost less than at the airport. Ask your hotel if there’s a nearby car rental agency. Or get the hotel’s street address and plug it into the rental company’s website. Some companies, such as Enterprise, will pick you up or drop you off – usually within a specified mileage radius — at no charge.
- Book small, think big. Always book the smallest car you can tolerate. Odds are you’ll be bumped to a bigger model for free, because most rental companies have larger fleets of intermediate and full-size cars. Just don’t let the agent talk you into paying extra. If your teeny Geo isn’t available on time, enjoy that spacious Lincoln Continental for the same price.
- To insure or not to insure? Ah yes, that’s the question. Whether ’tis nobler to risk it all that some boob won’t sideswipe you in the hotel parking garage or to dole out for extra insurance. My advice: Know before you go. Examine your personal vehicle liability and collision policies. Most cover rented cars as long as you’re behind the wheel. Some credit card companies also pay for damage as a premium card holder benefit. Call to confirm and, if coverage is supplied be sure to use that specific card when you rent.
- Act like CSI. Carefully inspect your vehicle before departure. Note every nick, scratch or dent on your rental agreement and be sure the rental representative sees them, too. Otherwise you could be held liable upon return.
- Tax and spend. Local and state governments have figured out one way to finance stadiums, convention centers and other special projects with nary a peep from voters: Add a fee to every car rental. Not only do renters have no say in the matter but these government-mandated fees and taxes can drive up your tab 30% or more above the base rate. Other fees to note: airport concession (the rent or royalty paid to the airport), excise tax (costs associated with registering a vehicle) and, of course, sales tax. Before you make your reservation, get a firm, bottom-line quote that includes all taxes and fees.
- Beware of hidden charges. For instance, companies are becoming stricter about late fees. A 24-hour clock starts running from the moment the agent hands over the keys. Show up after your agreed-upon return time and you could pay for a full extra day. And, sorry, that one or two-hour grace period is now often only 30 minutes. One-way charges can also add up. While a few routes may incur no penalty for a one-day drive and drop-off, most do. Make sure you don’t pay for bells and whistles, like GPS units or a satellite radio, you don’t need.
- Fuel foolish. Repeat after me … “I will never ever let the rental company fill my gas tank upon return.” Otherwise you’ll pay dearly – two to three times more than filling up at a nearby gas station. One trick: As you are driving away from the rental car lot, note any nearby gas stations and jot down their locations. That way you have a specific place in mind to refuel just before returning the vehicle.