How to Find and Book Cheap Car Rentals (March 2023)
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Rental cars can be surprisingly expensive for what you get and how often you might use them. Thankfully, there are multiple ways you can find cheap rental cars for leisure and business trips. In addition, you may be able to combine several of these suggestions to maximize your savings.
What are the Cheapest Days to Book Rental Cars?
Ideally, you should finalize your rental car reservation 3-6 months before the pickup date. This lead time usually offers the lowest prices and ample selection for the various size and trim classes (i.e., economy, luxury).
A refundable fare can also help in this situation as you can cancel penalty-free and rebook if a better price comes.
If you need to make a last-minute reservation, try to book at least 48 hours in advance. As you might expect, the selection will be better at airports for close-in bookings than at smaller airports and off-site rental agencies.
Booking in advance is also one of the best ways to find cheap flights and find and book affordable hotel rooms.
Avoid Same-Day Rentals
Walk-up rates and same-day rentals tend to be the most expensive because you’re desperate to rent a car and more willing to pay a higher price. Additionally, you can only rent from the remaining inventory which is more likely to be the more expensive vehicles.
However, the counter attendant might be able to apply discounts that can lower the price for prices that compete with advance reservations. This is a risky gamble but something to ask about if your original transportation plans fall through at the last minute.
What are the Cheapest Car Rental Days?
You will also want to avoid peak travel periods like Thanksgiving or Christmas to find cheaper rates as supply and demand determine rates. Weekends and special events such as football games or festivals can also result in higher rates.
However, if a destination is mainly for business travel, rates can be cheaper from Thursday afternoon until Monday, when business-related rentals are less common.
Consider Refundable Rental Car Fares
You might pay a few extra dollars for refundable car rental security deposits but you have more flexibility. Rental car prices can fluctuate and canceling your original reservation and booking a new fare can be less hassle than requesting a price match.
Additionally, you can cancel your fare for any reason within the cancellation window for a full refund if your travel plans change. For example, bad weather, work conflicts, or sickness may cause you to reschedule a trip.
Airport car rental kiosks may have a better selection but you’re more likely to pay more for rentals. Local governments love collecting extra fees from airport-originating car rentals as it’s an easy way to raise tax revenue from tourists instead of residents.
If you’re flying to a major city, you will likely have several off-site car rental booking options. You might be able to take a shuttle bus or public transit to a nearby or downtown location.
While it takes a few extra minutes to get on the road, you might be able to save a few bucks. However, off-site rentals are not always guaranteed to be cheaper and you must also factor in the incidental transportation costs.
Try Discount Car Rental Agencies First
Instead of trying the “Big 3” rental agencies (Avis, Enterprise, and Hertz), you can try discount agencies.
These budget-minded companies can be more likely to offer lower rates, waive fees and offer complimentary upgrades:
What you may not realize is that many of these discount agencies are owned by the major ones. So the fleet size may not be as large and the car may have a few more miles on it but you’re still getting a clean, secure, and new ride.
Some agencies may also let you pay with a debit card or cash if you don’t have a credit card.
Cheap Car Rentals by City
Major destinations can also offer independent rental agencies unaffiliated with a national brand. It can be worth exploring these options if you’re on a shoestring budget or want to exhaust every opportunity.
- Rental Cars in Atlanta
- Rental Cars in Denver
- Rental Cars in Fort Lauderdale
- Rental Cars in Honolulu
- Rental Cars in Kauai
- Rental Cars in Las Vegas
- Rental Cars in Los Angeles
- Rental Cars in Maui
- Rental Cars in Miami
- Rental Cars in Nashville
- Rental Cars in Orlando
- Rental Cars in Phoenix
- Rental Cars in Seattle
- Rental Cars in Tampa
Consider One-Way Rentals
One-way rentals are another possibility to find a savings loophole for same-city rentals. For example, you might be able to pick up at an off-site location and drop it off at your departure airport.
It only takes a few extra minutes to perform this search so it’s worth exploring.
You might also explore this option to drive in one direction and book a flight back home. For instance, a common tactic is driving rental cars from Florida back to the northern states during the winter or early spring as the “snowbirds” drive them south for an extended stay.
As a warning, many of these rentals incur a one-way rental fee. Therefore, you will need to get quotes from several agencies and look for one-way rental specials to pay the lowest drop fee.
Book the Smallest Car Possible
Small and compact vehicles tend to be cheaper than larger rides. Going with the smallest size that fits your travel party and luggage is an easy way to save several hundred dollars over a week.
For example, you could pay $390 for a compact, $480 for an intermediate size, and $530 for a full-size sedan during a 7-day rental. The price difference can potentially be more for a small SUV.
Smaller cars also tend to get better gas mileage which can be hidden savings as it’s easy to overlook fuel costs as it’s not an upfront travel expense.
Use Car Rental Aggregators
One wonder about booking travel online is that it’s easy to compare rental car prices. You should try several best car rental websites to find today’s best rates.
Car rental aggregators such as Kayak – (learn how to use Kayak here) compare rates from multiple booking sites in the same search. You can use this preliminary search as a baseline and then dig deeper with your preferred booking site and agency.
Three other platforms that specialize in comparing rental car bookings are:
These platforms partner with more rental agencies to offer more options from the major and discount agencies.
It can also be possible to book directly from the rental agency or through a third-party booking portal using an aggregator.
Book Directly from the Car Rental Agency
There are several benefits to booking directly through the rental agency.
First, you can do any current agency promotions that online travel agencies may not offer or match. For example, there might be a “manager’s special.”
Second, direct bookings can be cheaper than third-party bookings as you avoid the middle man. Travel agents receive a booking discount but may charge a premium to make a profit.
Third, you have more negotiation power if you encounter reservation issues. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to rent a larger vehicle only for it to be out of stock and you’re given a smaller car instead.
You can have a significantly easier time getting a partial refund or other compensation by booking directly.
If this happens with third-party bookings, you must call the booking site or travel agency. Even then, depending on the rental terms and conditions, you may not be eligible for a remedy.
Use Online Travel Agencies (OTAs)
You may also be able to secure discounts with third-party booking sites such as:
These agencies book the reservation on your behalf and you might be able to secure a discounted rate. This is because rental agencies partner with these sites to reach more travelers and acquire some of the competition.
The most transparent research option is comparing the current rates by agency.
You might be able to get exclusive discounts by joining the travel agency loyalty program and booking through their mobile app.
Rental Car Mystery Vehicle Deals
Consider the mystery deals for the cheapest travel booking site rental car prices. You can choose the car size, rental dates, and pickup/dropoff locations.
However, the booking site previews a handful of agencies but selects the rental agency in exchange for a lower price. Hence, why this is a “mystery deal.”
You might be able to save as much as $30 per day through this random selection. First, however, you should compare the mystery prices to the self-booking prices to determine if the savings are worth the risk of drawing an undesirable agency.
While you save money, the booking site will try and maximize their profit and may not choose your most desirable agency (which might be the most expensive of the options).
A Quick Warning About Rental Car Mystery Deals
These deals can be OK for most bookings if you’re keeping the car in the nearby area or you’re not picky about your car type.
However, speaking from personal experience, you will likely be paired with a smaller discount agency like Alamo or Sixt which may offer unlimited mileage but prohibit you from taking your car to other states.
On a recent trip, we rented a car for a cross-country trip and wanted to save money using a mystery deal. It turns out that the agency required its fleet to stay east of the Mississippi River.
Thankfully, we received a full refund as this restriction wasn’t in the booking terms and conditions but it required being on the phone for two hours and booking another rental by paying the walk-up rate.
Use Costco Travel to Avoid Add-On Fees
Costco Travel is one of this warehouse club’s most valuable member perks if you love finding travel deals.
You won’t pay an additional driver fee (for one driver) with these agencies:
The fee is waivable on rentals in the United States. Additionally, Alamo and Enterprise will waive the fee on rentals in select European countries.
This online travel agency also offers discounted rates and you won’t pay cancellation fees.
Executive members ($120/year) can earn a 2% reward on qualifying travel and warehouse purchases.
This booking platform is also an excellent place to book cruises.
Compare Vacation Package Bookings
Travel bundles that can include flights and hotels may also deliver lower prices. Airlines, hotels, and OTAs offer vacation packages.
As usual, compare the bundle price to booking each itinerary separately to see if you’re saving money.
Utilize Membership Discounts
You can also be eligible for discounts when you belong to a membership club like AAA or AARP. Your home and auto insurance carrier may also have discounts with select rental agencies.
Military and government discounts are also popular.
The discount can be from 5% to 30% off the base rate and varies by agency. However, only select rentals might be eligible for the maximum discount, such as 5 weekdays to get the best rate.
Compare rates for different discount codes if you have multiple booking options. Even if various organizations advertise a similar savings rate, the price difference can be surprising.
You should also see how these third-party discounts match against the rental car specials. The agency-provided rental car deals may still be cheaper and comparing prices is quick.
Use Cashback Sites
Cashback websites can help you receive cash back on retail and travel purchases. You might be able to earn up to 8% back on car rentals through participating agencies and OTAs.
Terms and conditions can apply and you can easily see the exclusions on the shopping rewards portal before visiting the booking site. For example, bookings that use discount codes or are outside the United States may not earn money back.
Three of the best shopping portals include:
Join Rental Car Loyalty Programs
Rental car loyalty programs can offer upfront discounts and you can also earn rewards points to redeem for future rentals. You may also be eligible for complimentary upgrades and waived additional driver fees.
You can join these programs for free:
- Alamo Insiders
- Avis Preferred
- Budget Fastbreak
- Dollar Express Rewards
- Enterprise Plus
- Hertz Gold Plus Rewards
- National Car Rental Emerald Club
- Silvercar (Audi)
Consider Prepaid Car Rentals
Prepaid car rentals can help you save money as you’re waiving the flexible cancellation option of “book now, pay later” bookings.
The discount for upfront payments can vary but can be as much as 30-35% of the pay later rate.
Be sure to read the cancellation policy before booking if you’re hesitant about your travel plans. In most cases, you can cancel up to 24 hours before pickup but pay a $50 cancellation fee.
More Car Rental Mistakes to Avoid/Things to Take Into Consideration
Avoid Additional Drivers
Switching off with another driver can be nice if you want to rest your eyes or get some work done before reaching the destination.
However, adding an additional driver usually costs $10 to $15 daily. Some states limit or prohibit charging this fee to spouses.
You might also be able to waive the fee with elite rental car loyalty program status. Booking through select affinity groups like AAA, AARP, and Costco Travel can also waive the fee at select agencies.
Avoid Under 25 Car Rentals
Car rental agencies will also tack on an extra fee for drivers younger than 25 years. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the same age when car insurance premiums tend to start dropping.
The young renter fee differs by agency, location, and driver age.
Renters between 18 and 20 years can expect the highest fee which can be as much as $65 per day but that number can be closer to $50. Drivers between 21 and 24 may only pay from $20 to $40 per day.
No matter how you cut it, this fee is expensive and you can plan on paying at least $30 per day in this situation.
Thankfully, there are two ways to waive young driver fees:
- AAA waives the fee on Hertz car rentals
- USAA can waive the fee on Avis, Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz rentals.
Compare Unlimited Miles to Limited Mileage
While most car rentals offer unlimited mileage, you might spend less if you’re able to get a limited mileage plan instead. These plans typically provide a daily or rental period cap and you pay a certain amount for each excess mile that you drive.
The limited mileage plans can be a better option if you’re driving short distances.
Skip Collision Damage Waiver Protection
The last thing you want to happen to your rental car is getting into an at-fault collision. The rental agency knows that and their counter agent is going to pitch buying add-on car rental insurance to reduce your financial liability and hedge risk.
The product might be called collision damage waiver or loss and damage coverage.
This conversation isn’t as intense as timeshare presentations (it’s a hidden price for free weekend stays) but most agents are pretty persuasive. You can easily say no and get your keys to pick up your car.
While this optional policy can provide additional peace of mind, the total cost can be staggering as you will most likely pay at least $30 per day for coverage.
Thankfully, several credit cards with rental car insurance can provide similar coverage for free. To be eligible, you decline the rental agency’s policy.
Additionally, your auto insurance policy usually covers rental car incidents so you’re not entirely unprotected if you don’t purchase this add-on.
Skip Amenity Add-Ons
Rental car companies depend on equipment and service upgrades (plus insurance sales) to turn a profit as it’s expensive to maintain a vehicle fleet and pay employees.
You will most likely need to pay extra for these amenities:
- Child safety seats
- Mobile WiFi
- Satellite radio
- Toll road transponders
These upsells can easily cost $5 to $20 per day each. Instead, bring your own equipment whenever possible or look for cheaper (potentially free) alternatives.
For example, you can bring your GPS device or use your phone to navigate. If you’re going to a destination with spotty coverage, consider downloading offline maps before hopping into the car.
Another suggestion is to carry your own E-ZPass and temporarily connect the rental vehicle license plate number to your account. Some toll roads also let you pay your tolls online within a 14-day grace period if you have your plate number and list your toll plaza visit times.
Don’t Prepay for Gas
Rental agencies will also likely offer a prepaid gasoline package so you don’t have to return your car with a full tank.
In most instances, the rental car company will charge a higher price per gallon than nearby stations to hedge against rising gas prices.
More importantly, renters must also return the car with a nearly empty tank (⅛ fuel remaining or less) to potentially break even.
Instead, choose to fill up the tank yourself as you’re more likely to pay less overall. You can also use the Upside App to find a nearby gas station with additional savings.
Compare Rental Car Credit Card Benefits
Most rental car companies prefer paying for your reservation with a travel credit card as it’s easier for them to collect payment and you have additional purchase protections.
Many credit cards offer complimentary secondary car rental insurance on most bookings. You may also be able to earn bonus points, enjoy accelerated loyalty status, and redeem travel credits.
You will need to book rental cars through the credit card travel portal instead of directly from the agency to earn the most points.
Some of the best credit cards for rental cars are the following.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
The Chase Sapphire Reserve – (Learn How to Apply Here) offers these rental car perks:
- Primary rental car insurance up to $75,000
- Earn up to 10x points on car rentals through Chase Ultimate Rewards (after earning the annual $300 travel credit)
- 3x on all remaining car rental bookings (after earning the annual $300 travel credit)
- Avis Preferred Plus status
- National Car Rental Emerald Club Executive status
- Silvercar (Audi) discounts
- Annual $300 travel statement credit
If you’re redeeming credit card points for car rentals, the Sapphire Reserve is your best option. Each point is eligible for a 50% redemption bonus making each one worth 1.5 cents each for award travel bookings through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
This card’s annual fee is $550 so you will need to be a frequent traveler to maximize the card benefits.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Budget travelers can benefit from the Chase Sapphire Preferred – (Learn How to Apply Here) when booking rental cars:
- Primary rental car coverage up to the actual cash value of the vehicle
- Earn up to 5x points on car rentals through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 25% travel redemption bonus through Chase Ultimate Rewards
You will also receive an anniversary bonus equal to 10% of the points you earn for your membership year.
The annual fee is a reasonable $95.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The American Express Platinum Card – (Learn How to Apply Here) offers luxury benefits for flights, hotels, and car rentals. Its best car rental features are:
- Elite status benefits and discounts with Avis, Hertz, and National
- Complimentary secondary auto rental coverage
- Can upgrade to primary loss and damage coverage
Eligibility and Benefit level varies by Card. Terms, Conditions and Limitations Apply. Please visit americanexpress.com/ benefitsguide for more details. Underwritten by AMEX Assurance Company. Car Rental Loss or Damage Coverage is offered through American Express Travel Related Services Company, Inc.
This card is best suited for frequent flyers and those who stay in luxury hotels. Most of the benefits and statement credits are for these two travel categories.
The annual fee is $695 (see Rates & Fees).
Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
For a budget-friendly premium travel credit card, consider the Capital One Venture X Rewards – (Learn How to Apply Here). Its rental car benefits include:
- Primary rental car insurance (up to $75,000)
- Hertz President’s Circle loyalty status
- Earn 10x Venture miles on car rentals through Capital One Travel
- 2x miles on all remaining car rental reservations
- Up to $300 Annual Travel Credit for bookings through Capital One Travel (statement credits)
This card also offers several air travel benefits. Its annual fee is $395.
Consider Rental Car Alternatives
The sharing economy is helping apply pressure to the traditional car rental competition. You may be able to book cars from individuals or only rent a car for several hours.
Several carsharing platforms can be cheaper than going to the rental counter. It’s possible for the host to deliver your car to the airport, train station, hotel, or another public space.
Depending on the platform, your rental may also include liability insurance. Collision and theft coverage can be optional and cost extra.
Some of the leading carsharing platforms include:
- Lyft Rentals
Hourly Rental Cars
Zipcar is one of the most affordable ways to rent a car for several hours and you don’t need to keep it overnight. As a result, you can avoid the hefty rates that traditional agencies charge.
This service is also handy as you can find rental kiosks in downtown districts, college campuses, and other popular shopping areas where there isn’t strong demand for a rental car lot.
Short-term car rentals can be worth it if you only need a car for a brief period during your trip. You’re also not bound to the public transportation routes and schedules.
Electric Scooters and Electric Bikes
Most mid-size and major towns have services for renting electric scooters and bikes. You have probably seen these unattended scooters sitting on street corners or in public places.
Bird and Lime are the two most prevalent companies.
After downloading the platform’s app, you can reserve a vehicle. How much you pay depends on the city and your rental length.
Taking the bus and riding the subway can also be a more efficient way to get around town.
While public transit can be surprisingly expensive (especially during rush hour), you’re not paying for gas and parking. Additionally, you’re not at risk of getting in an at-fault accident.
You may also be able to go where you need by walking. This transportation method is free and allows you to sightsee in a leisurely manner. Just be sure to bring some comfortable walking shoes.
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
You can employ several strategies to save money on car rentals when you travel for leisure or business. Comparing prices requires a small amount of free time but the effort can be worth it to pay significantly less while getting your desired vehicle.
You also have plenty of savings potential as you are likely eligible for several discounts and special offers. Rental car prices are also competitive as there are multiple agencies and you can get quotes for different pickup locations.
Editorial Disclosure: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply
Upon enrollment, accessible through the Capital One website or mobile app, eligible cardholders will remain at upgraded status level through December 31, 2024. Please note, enrolling through the normal Hertz Gold Plus Rewards enrollment process (e.g. at Hertz.com) will not automatically detect a cardholder as being eligible for the program and cardholders will not be automatically upgraded to the applicable status tier. Additional terms apply
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