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How to get cheap rental cars

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

    Article Highlights

    Over 331 million drivers are expected to rent a vehicle in 2021. You may be in search of a cheap car rental for a business trip, to go on vacation or because your vehicle is in the shop for a car insurance repair. Knowing how to get a rental car is essential — not doing your research could cost you extra money. The cheapest way to rent a car involves some preparation, but it’s worth the effort. Here’s how to get the best rental car for the best price.

    Tips for the cheapest way to rent a car

    The same type of vehicle may be different prices at different rental car companies, since each company sets its own prices. The best way to rent a car is to do a little legwork upfront and rent in advance so you have enough time to find the best deal. Here are some ideas for how to get a rental car for less:

    Shop around online

    As mentioned, the cost of the same rental vehicle can be dramatically different from one agency to another. That’s why it’s important to shop around for the best rates. You could go directly to each car rental company to get a quote or you could try a travel website that returns the cost of a rental car from several agencies at once.

    Be sure to read the fine print to understand what you’re getting. A less expensive car may come with a limit on miles. And in some countries, the cheapest rental car may not be equipped with air conditioning.

    Compare airport and off-site prices

    Airport locations typically have the largest selection of vehicles but often charge higher fees than off-site locations. If you’re willing to jump in a taxi and pay for the ride to an offsite rental agency, you could rent the same vehicle and spare yourself the expensive airport prices.

    Look to discount brands

    Some rental car agencies specialize in cheap rental cars. Others specialize in cars for corporate or business customers and provide higher-end vehicles. If you’re looking for the cheapest way to rent a car, discount brands are the best place to get started. Some include Fox Rent a Car, Payless and Thrifty.

    Utilize memberships

    Most rental companies reward loyal customers with exclusive deals and perks. In most cases, a membership is free and could save you money when you provide your membership code. Some outside memberships also providing significant savings on your car rental, including memberships with:

    • AAA
    • Costco
    • AARP
    • USAA

    You may also qualify for discounts through your employer. You can ask your HR department if there is a group or corporate code you can use. And even if you don’t get a discount on your rental, joining a loyalty program may earn you points on every rental that can be redeemed in the future for free days or vehicle upgrades.

    Opt for economy cars

    Savvy travelers have a trick up their sleeves — they rent an economy car, knowing they have a good chance of getting upgraded for free. Economy cars are often the cheapest cars to rent and therefore the most popular. During busier days, a rental car company may not have the number of economy cars it needs. To free up their inventory, they may choose to upgrade you to a full-size or luxury vehicle for the price of your economy rental car.

    Only have one driver

    Some car insurance companies charge a daily fee for an additional driver, although the amount may vary by state and company. The best way to save is to have one driver or choose a rental car agency willing to waive the fee. If your backup driver is your spouse, these rental agencies don’t charge an additional driver fee:

    • Avis
    • Budget
    • Enterprise
    • Dollar (no fee for rewards members)
    • Hertz (no fee for rewards members)
    • National (no fee for rewards members)

    Use your own insurance

    Declining the additional insurance that car rental companies provide can save you serious money on a rental car. But only decline the coverage if you have an alternative. Your existing car insurance may automatically cover your rental, but you should check with your agent before you rent a car. In addition, some travel credit cards provide rental car insurance.

    Skip the extras 

    Renting a car seat, navigation system or onboard WiFi adds up. Avoid the extras and arrive at the rental counter prepared. Bring your own car seat. Use your phone to provide you with turn-by-turn navigation. If you’re renting a vehicle for longer than a weekend, you’ll be glad you did when you see the savings.

    Walk or ride

    In some areas of the country, finding a cheap rental car is difficult. High-demand times of the year, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, may make it even harder. You may be better off walking, taking public transportation, hailing a taxi or renting a bicycle. Skipping the rental car altogether will also save you from the hassle of parking tickets or getting lost in an unfamiliar place.

    Best time to rent a car

    According to rentalcars.com, the best time to rent a car is three to six months before you need it. It’s when agencies are most competitive and willing to offer great deals. Regardless of how far in advance you start, look for your car in the morning. If demand is high, the cost of renting a car will be higher at the end of the day.

    How to get the best rental car

    Getting the best rental car requires a little research. To get the best deal, comparison shop rental car companies and get online rates. It doesn’t hurt to call and speak to a customer service representative about additional specials or offers which may not be available online. Watch out for the extras — forgetting to refuel your vehicle or choosing to rent a GPS could dramatically increase the cost of your rental.

    COVID-19 and renting a car

    Rental car companies are aware of how quickly coronavirus can spread. Most companies regularly sanitize high-touch areas in their vehicles and in pick up locations to minimize the risk of the virus spreading. In addition, many car rental companies have limited hours or have changed the check-in process to make it more socially distant. Look for COVID updates when you rent a vehicle or speak to a customer service representative about how the rental car pickup will work, since it may have changed due to COVID-19 precautions.

    AgencyCOVID-19 precautions
    AlamoDisinfecting wipes are provided at pickupExtended no-fee cancellationsSanitizing of over 20 high-contact areas in the rental car
    BudgetEmployee education about COVID-19Enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas in the vehicle
    EnterpriseAdvance check-in minimizes time spent checking inCurbside pickupSanitation of all surfaces
    HertzAll vehicles are sanitized before pickupCar pickup available if the customer is self-isolating after contracting COVID-19 and can’t return the carRefunds for days not used will be issued if a customer returns a rental early after contracting COVID-19
    NationalDisinfecting wipes are provided at pickupLimited passengers on shuttle busesSanitizing of high-touch areas in the rental vehicle

    The takeaway

    • When looking for the cheapest rental car, read the fine print and watch for extra fees.
    • Shop around — the same vehicle could be much more expensive at a different agency.
    • Consider renting a car from a city location instead of the airport to save on the high airport fees.
    • Take advantage of any affiliations or memberships to get better deals and bonus perks.
    • For the best deals, search in the mornings and book in advance — three to six months seems to be the cheap rental car sweet spot.

    The rental car market is filled with competition. There are dozens of car hire agencies competing for your business at any given time. Leverage the fierce competition to your advantage. Shop around, call ahead and ask for discounts and don’t forget to use any memberships, such as AAA or Costco, to get the best deal.

    Cynthia Paez Bowman

    Writer

    Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women’s NGOs about small business development.

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