Unless you’re splurging on a convertible or some other flashy ride, renting a car is often the least glamorous part of a trip. What most travelers need is a set of wheels to get them from point A to point B—so why pay a fortune for it? The following car rental hacks can help you save big bucks on your next reservation.
Get a Better Rate Even After You’ve Booked
When you book a nonrefundable flight and then see a cheaper fare later, you’re pretty much out of luck—but that’s not the case when renting a car. Most car rental companies give you the option to reserve a car without prepaying, which gives you the opportunity to cancel or change the reservation later if you see a better deal.
If you’d rather not spend time continuing to shop around after you’ve made your reservation, AutoSlash will do it for you. You can make your initial booking through the site, or put in your existing reservation code from the car rental company, and AutoSlash will notify you when a cheaper rate becomes available.
Look for Coupon Codes
Before pulling the trigger on your booking, check the car rental company’s website for discount codes to use toward your rental, and also do a Google search for “[car rental company name] coupon code.” Sites like RetailMeNot and SlickDeals often list codes that can save you up to 25 or 30 percent.
Check Rates on Multiple Versions of the Car Rental Company’s Site
When renting in a foreign country, try both your home country’s version of the car rental company’s site as well as the local version. For example, I tested prices for a three-day car rental in Glasgow, Scotland on both Hertz.com (the company’s U.S. site) and Hertz.co.uk (the U.K. site). The U.S. site quoted me a rate of $166.04 for a small car with manual transmission, while Hertz.co.uk offered a rate of 64.98 GBP for the same vehicle, just $83.50 at the current exchange rate—a savings of about 50 percent.
A couple of caveats: First, if the price difference is very small, it might be canceled out entirely if your credit card charges you a fee to pay in a foreign currency. Second, this car rental hack can be tricky if you’re trying to book on a site in a language you don’t speak. Google Translate and other machine translators aren’t always reliable, and you want to make sure you understand the terms and conditions before you book.
Take Advantage of Group Memberships
Are you a member of a group like AAA, AARP, Costco, BJ’s, or USAA? If so, you’re probably eligible for car rental discounts.
The AARP lists partnerships with Avis, Budget, Payless, and Zipcar in its member benefits, while Hertz offers exclusive deals for AAA members. Hertz will also waive the youth driver fee for AAA members between the ages of 21 and 24. Additionally, Costco, BJ’s, and USAA have search engines where you can look for car rental deals from their partners.
Keep in mind that group memberships are just one possible discount and that other, more generous offers are sometimes available. You probably won’t be able to combine both, so don’t simply default to your preferred group rate without shopping around.
Book Your Car as Part of a Package
You can often save big by bundling your car rental into a package with your flight and/or hotel. For example, I priced out a weeklong trip from New York City to Los Angeles on Expedia and found that the flight would be $247 per person and a car rental would be $174, or $87 per person. The total cost of booking flights and car separately: $334 per person. But when I tried a flight + car package, the cost was just $240 per person—less than the cost of the flight alone.
Get a One-Way Rental for Free
One-way car rentals are notoriously expensive, as the rental company often charges a fee to cover the cost of getting the vehicle back where it belongs. But what if you’re actually doing the company a favor by driving it where it needs to be?
That’s the premise of Transfercar, which lists vehicles that need to be moved from one destination to another; if you’re willing to do the driving, you can snag a car or camper for ultra-cheap—or even free.
For example, the Australian version of the site is currently advertising an automatic-transmission compact campervan that needs to be driven from Cairns to Sydney within the next few weeks. You can drive it for up to nine days for free, including insurance. In Canada, you can drive a car from Montreal to Quebec for just $1, including fuel and insurance.
Join a Loyalty Program
Become a member of your favorite car rental company’s loyalty program, and you’ll immediately enjoy benefits such as skipping the line at rental counters and access to members-only deals—even if you’re not a frequent renter. Most of these programs have partnerships with airlines and hotels, so you can apply points from your rentals toward future flights or stays.
Check Your Credit Card Benefits Before Buying Insurance
Do you really need the pricey insurance the rental car agent is trying to peddle? Maybe not. Many credit cards offer certain types of rental car insurance as long as you pay for your rental with that card. It’s worth calling your credit card company or digging into your card’s terms and conditions to see what coverage you already have. You might also be covered by your own car insurance policy at home.
To learn more, see 9 Nasty Truths About Car Rental Insurance.
Take Photos or Videos of Your Car During Inspection
During your initial walk around the rental vehicle, take out your phone and snap a few pictures or even a video of any dings or scratches. Note that this doesn’t take the place of reporting these issues to a rental company staffer as soon as you see them—but it gives you documentation just in case your rental company tries to charge you after the fact for damages you didn’t cause.
Don’t Overpay for Gas
Most car rental companies expect you to return the vehicle with a full tank, and they’ll often give you the option of prepaying for fuel. This is nearly always a terrible deal. Instead, use an app such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest nearby station and fill the tank yourself. Keep in mind that gas stations right near the airport tend to be quite expensive; you’re often better off filling up about 10 miles away.
More from SmarterTravel:
Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.