How to Rent a Car Cheaply

Posted by Doug Stallings on September 16, 2009 at 1:23:12 PM EDT | Post a Comment

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If you've rented a car recently, you've seen the heights that quoted rates hit this summer. Now that the summer vacation season is over, the rates are coming closer to normal. For example, when I was considering a last-minute rental over Labor Day weekend, the rate I was quoted was an eye-popping $109 per day (before taxes!!!). Now that rate has dropped back to a more reasonable $45 per day. (This rental is in the New York City area, so that's why the rate is so expensive … still, I happily spent my Labor Day weekend in the city rather than pay this exorbitant rate.) And that's not counting the cost of insurance (if you need to buy it) or gas.

I rented a lot of cars this summer, so this particular topic has been on my mind for the past few months, and I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned as well as some time-worn tips that should be helpful if you want to your costs down.

5 Simple Ways to Lower Your Car Rental Bill

1. Priceline is the best thing going if you want to get a cheap rental car in the U.S.

Priceline claims you can save up to 40% savings, but I've always found this to be an understatement in most markets (I saved over 60% over my initial quotes for most of my rentals this summer, when rates were particularly ridiculous). But you can usually forget the advice that Priceline gives about bids; I was often told I could pay nothing less than $40 per day. But I usually made an initial bid of $14 and got a car for $18. I'm not going to say this will always be the case, but you definitely have to learn about bidding strategies on a site like biddingfortravel.com.

There are two important things to remember about Priceline. While prices are great, everything is completely non-changeable and non-refundable if something goes wrong. So be absolutely certain about your dates and times. I had to change a flight one time but couldn't change my car-rental times, so I had to make an 80-mile round-trip to the airport to change cars in the middle of one trip. Also, remember that you have to bid low enough to save money on your car but high enough that your bid will be accepted. Still, I've been using Priceline for car rentals for years and have never found a better source for well-priced rentals in the U.S.

2. Know how much insurance you need (or don't need).

Most of the time, the CDW you get from your car-rental company can be 40% of the entire cost of a car rental in a cheaper market, though 25% to 30% is more likely. That's a lot of cash. Know in advance if your own car insurance or credit card gives you sufficient coverage. If you don't own a car, then you probably will want to buy some kind of CDW coverage, but your credit card's offering might be sufficient for that.

Many car-rental companies are now trying to scare people into buying excess liability coverage; it's usually not needed. Your auto or homeowner's policy usually offers sufficient liability coverage (ask your insurance agent). But most states (except for California) require car-rental companies to carry about the same kind of liability coverage you'd have if you bought the state's minimum liability policy. If you don't feel comfortable with this level of protection, then you really should ask about excess liability coverage from the car-rental company.

3. Watch out for the cost of extras.

While it can be a nice luxury to rent a toll-pass from the car-rental company, particularly in areas where tolls are frequent, it will cost you. While this cost can be reasonable (it's often less than $3 per day and is probably worth it for the convenience), a GPS system might cost a much less reasonable $9 to $15 per day. That kind of cost can add up quickly, and you can buy a paper map for less than $10.

4. Airport rentals are usually more expensive.

Especially these days, as states and municipalities add extra taxes to fill their coffers off the backs of visitors, there can be a huge surcharge on an airport rental as opposed to a city-center rental. While the opposite is true in New York City (rates are much more expensive in Manhattan than at any of the airports), you still can't escape the state and city's 19.875% tax on car rentals regardless of where you get your car. But in Boston, you'll pay 5% sales tax and over $16 in surcharges per rental downtown; at the airport, however, where the tax is only nominally higher, you pay over $30 more per rental in additional surcharges. If you take the "T" into the city, you can certainly save money by picking your car up in town.

5. Pay attention to the fine print.

I made one very costly mistake this summer. When I made a reservation, I didn't notice that the return time had re-set to AM from PM, so I thought my car-return time as 12:30 PM; it was actually 12:30 AM. When I returned the car 12 hours late, I ended up paying a penalty that was almost equal to the price of my entire car rental. Needless to say, you need to pay attention to those details when you book. Make sure the dates match, the times match, and the car-rental office is where you plan to rent.

But also watch out for hidden surprises. The cost of gas can be a significant one, even more so if you don't remember or don't have time to fill up your tank; you might pay double or triple the cost of a gallon of gas for that top-off. You should also be aware that some companies don't offer unlimited mileage; Enterprise, for example, doesn't always offer unlimited mileage, especially if you are driving outside of a proscribed area. You may not realize that you almost always pay a fee now if you want to get frequent-flier miles from your rental. And you may not realize that there are sometimes hefty penalties for returning your car too late (as I discovered) or even too early, especially if you have been quoted a cheaper weekly rental rate and don't keep the car for the entire week.

Posted in Travel Tips

Doug Stallings

Senior Editor, Cruises and Resorts

A native Kansan, I moved to NYC after college, found a job through the Village Voice, and realized I'm a city person. I live on the Upper East Side and love Central Park, though not as much as my dog.

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