Renting a car can be a pain. It’s a pain to your sanity with all the strange rules and policies of the rental companies. And it’s also pain on your wallet, with rentals costing way more than you want to pay.
I’ve rented my share of cars over the years, and in the process, I’ve figured out how to pay as little as possible. Below, I share my best tips for getting cheap car rentals every time.
Check Aggregator Sites First
Renting a car in the first place is overwhelming. Where should you start? I always recommend starting with the car rental aggregator sites, which search all the major car rental companies at once.
There are dozens of these sites out there, but there’s a lot of overlap between them. So I tend to stick with the following sites:
These sites will give you a good ballpark figure for what you should pay. But don’t just stop here and book your rental. Be sure to read the next two tips first.
Always Check the Car Rental Sites
Aggregator sites like Kayak are great for quickly showing you cheap car rental options. But before you book through one of these sites, always compare their quotes to the rates on the actual car rental site. In some cases, the car rental company will offer you a better deal for booking directly.
For instance, if Expedia shows you a great price on a rental from Enterprise, go to the Enterprise website and search for the same rental. You won’t always find a better deal using this method, but it’s worth a look to be sure.
Don’t Rule Out “Budget” Rental Companies
Everyone knows car rental companies like Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis. In many cases, these are the companies to go with. But there are also lots of smaller companies that are worth a look at.
Sure, they may not have the same fancy websites and extensive locations as the big companies. But they sometimes have better prices.
To see rentals from these smaller companies, search on CarRentals.com. They won’t always be cheaper, but they’re worth a look.
Compare Weekly and Daily Rates
You would assume that the weekly rate would always be cheaper than the daily rate, but this isn’t always the case. If you’re taking a trip of 3 or 4 days, it’s sometimes cheaper to book a car for a week and then return it early.
So before you book, check if the weekly rate is cheaper than the daily one. Just be sure to read the rental’s fine print to check that you won’t get hit with extra charges for returning the car early. And never tell the company that you’re planning to return the car early, or they might try to charge you extra.
Skip the Insurance
So you did some diligent research and found the best car rental rate. Congratulations! This is where most people pat themselves on the back…and then proceed to waste lots of money once they’ve rented the car. Don’t make this mistake!
One of the biggest wastes of money for car rentals is insurance. The rental companies will use all kinds of scare tactics to convince you to get the insurance, but you likely don’t need it.
If you have car insurance for your personal vehicle, then that insurance will usually cover you when you’re in a rental car. Just call your insurance agent to be sure.
And even if you don’t have car insurance, you can usually get it when you book your car rental with the right credit card. That’s right: most travel credit cards offer insurance on rental cars at no extra cost to you.
If you’re looking for a credit card that offers rental car insurance, here are some we recommend:
Say No to Upgrades
In addition to insurance, rental car companies will try to sell you a bunch of “upgrades” and extra items that you don’t need. Here are a few upgrades you should always say no to:
- GPS — Your phone already has excellent navigation apps built right in.
- Satellite radio — Just use your phone to play music.
- Toll passes — These are rarely worth it. Just bring a bit of cash in case you have to pay a toll that doesn’t accept credit cards.
Book Economy Cars
There’s a special type of upgrade that deserves its own section. At every stage of the rental process, the company will attempt to upsell you to a fancier car model. I never take these offers. I always choose the “Economy” car when I’m booking, even if I’d prefer a nicer car.
In most cases, I’ll show up at the rental place to pick up the car and find out that I’ve been automatically “upgraded” because they didn’t have an economy vehicle available. Worst case, I just drive the economy car (which is still going to be a nice, new car).
Never Pick Up the Car at the Airport
It’s tempting to use the airport as your rental car pickup location, particularly if you’re arriving on a plane.
Resist the temptation! Most car rental companies will charge you an extra $30 for the “privilege” of picking the car up at the airport. Instead of throwing this money away, choose a non-airport pickup location.
Even if you have to pay $15 for an Uber or cab to get to this rental location from the airport, it’s still worth the savings.
Only Have One Driver (When Practical)
Doing all the driving on a long trip can take a toll. So it’s understandable if you want to add an extra driver to your rental to break up the miles. However, be aware of the cost of doing so. Adding a driver to your rental can cost you an extra $12 a day (at least).
If you must have an extra driver, see if you can get the rental company to waive this fee. Many companies will automatically waive it if the additional driver is your spouse or domestic partner. You can also get the fee waived when you book your rental through Costco Travel.
Return the Car with a Full Tank
After a long trip, when all you want to do is get home, it’s easy to return the car without refueling it. However, I strongly discourage you from doing this, as the rental companies usually charge an absurd rate for refueling your car.
Sure, it can make sense if you’re in a big hurry, but otherwise, I always refuel the car myself. You’ll save quite a bit of money when you take a few extra minutes to do so.
Get the Best Deal on Gas
Besides the cost of renting the car itself, gas is the most expensive part of any car rental. So it’s worth taking time to find the best deals on gas.
My favorite tool for finding the cheapest gas is an app called GasBuddy. All I have to do is open the app to see the best current deals on gas near me.
You’ll be surprised how much you can sometimes save when you drive just a few extra miles. If you don’t want to download the app, you can also use the GasBuddy website to find the same information.
See If You Qualify for a Discount
There’s a ridiculous number of car rental discounts out there. Here are just a few of the car rental discounts you can get:
- AARP member discount
- AAA member discount
- Hotel loyalty program discount
- Frequent flyer program discount
- Costco member discount (when you book through Costco Travel)
- Corporate discounts
- Government employee discount
- Military discount
- Veteran discount
And this list is by no means exhaustive. If you belong to any kind of organization, see if you get a car rental discount for being a member. You’ll often be surprised to learn how much you can save.
Book with Points If it Makes Sense
The only thing better than saving money on your car rental is getting it for (basically) free. This is possible when you book a rental car with your airline miles or credit card points.
This doesn’t always make financial sense. In many cases, you’ll get better value using your points for air travel or hotel stays. But if you’re taking a long trip, then it could be worth it to book your car rental with points due to the extensive savings.
Use a Peer-to-Peer Car Rental Service
When people think of car rental, they usually think of a company that owns a fleet of vehicles. Until recently, this was the only way to rent a car. Now, however, a variety of peer-to-peer car rental companies have emerged as an exciting alternative to traditional car rental.
So what is peer-to-peer car rental? Instead of renting from a company, you rent the car from an individual. Marketplaces like Turo and Getaround allow car owners to list their vehicles for rent, similar to what Airbnb does for houses.
You can book your rental directly within the app and then pick it up from the owner. Many owners will even deliver the vehicle to you for an extra fee. When you’re done with the car, all you have to do is return it to the owner.
This whole process is not only more convenient than a regular car rental; it’s also cheaper in many cases. If you’re interested in renting a car with this method, we recommend these two sites:
Ditch the Rental Car Entirely
Rental cars are handy, but how many trips require them? Probably fewer than you imagine.
For instance, if you’re in a city with an extensive public transit system, a car is unnecessary. And you can usually buy a 3-day or 7-day transit pass for less than the cost of renting a car for one day.
And let’s not forget walking and biking. Walking is obviously free, and most cities have bike-share services that cost very little. As long as you’re comfortable biking in cities, you can use a mix of walking and biking to get to most places.
If public transit, walking, and biking aren’t an option, you can use a rideshare service such as Uber or Lyft to get just about anywhere. Unless you’re taking very long trips, this will usually be cheaper than the cost of renting a car and paying for gas.