Renting a car can be expensive, but it’s often a necessary part of a trip. Like airfare or hotel rates, car rental rates can be relatively opaque, and it can be hard to figure out rules like timing and tricks to save money.
While figuring out and predicting car rental rates can be difficult, there are still a few easy ways to save money without having to make major adjustments to your travel plans.
1. Always compare rental agencies — including some less common ones.
Just about everyone knows the big brands — Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, and so on — but there are a lot of less obvious brands that may offer better rates. Budget, Sixt, Thrifty, and Fox are just a few of the available ones.
To cover all your bases, you can book through an online travel agency website — like Hotwire or Priceline— to compare a few different rentals.
2. Opt for an “opaque” booking.
Hotwire offers steep discounts through “opaque booking,” a practice where you make and prepay a booking without knowing exactly which agency you’re booking with — it will still be a major agency, though.
While it may sound risky, it’s actually perfectly fine — you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying, where you’ll be picking up and dropping off, what class of car it is (and sometimes the specific model), and any terms. Unless you’re dead set on a certain agency, this is a great way to save a fortune.
3. Decline the rental insurance — you may already be covered.
Chances are very good that your home auto insurance policy covers rentals that you drive. While the rental agent may try and pressure you into purchasing additional coverage, this is often unnecessary and redundant to your existing coverage. Just make sure to check your policy before assuming that you’re covered.
If you don’t own a car, or if your home policy doesn’t cover rentals, you may still have coverage.
A number of popular credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Sapphire Reserve, come with free primary auto rental insurance. “Primary” means that it kicks in before any other policy that you have. If you get into an accident and have primary coverage separate from your home policy, that means the accident won’t need to be reported to your personal insurance, so you won’t see a rate spike.
In order to activate the insurance that comes with a credit card, you’ll have to use that card to pay for the rental, and decline the general rental insurance, also called a “collision damage waiver (CDW)” or “loss damage waiver (LDW)” offered by the rental agency. If you don’t have your own car insurance, you may still want to consider adding liability insurance.
4. If you can, pick up your rental downtown instead of at the airport.
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but in general, rental rates at airports are more expensive than rates a little bit further away. Try looking for rates from pick-up spots closer to your hotel, or even in the city center.
Make sure to always compare those to rates from airport agencies, though — sometimes, the price difference will be negligible, or the airport might even be cheaper. Also remember that you’ll need to arrange transportation to the rental agency, whether you can take a hotel shuttle, or you have to pay for mass transit or a taxi into the city.
5. Skip the extras — your smartphone does it all.
GPS navigation. Satellite radio. Speaker phone. Car rental agencies might offer these features when you pick up your car, but beware — they all come with extra fees that can add up quickly.
These days, there’s no need to pay extra when you have a smartphone that can do all of that and more.
6. Check weekly rates — even if you only need the car for a few days.
It may seem paradoxical, but it can be cheaper to rent a car for longer.
That’s because the majority of people who rent a car for just a couple of days at a time are business travelers, who are less cost-conscious because their offices are paying or the trip is last minute and urgent.
Conversely, many week-long renters are trying to save, since they tend to be leisure travelers. Because of that, the weekly rate is often cheaper than the rate for just three or four days.
Always make sure to compare — you may be able to save by reserving the car for longer than you need.