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.

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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Posted in Travel Tips

Member Comments (18)  Post a Comment

  • Mikinina on Jul 26, 14 at 12:52 PM

    I'm renting a car through the application https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=hotels.car.rentals.flights.ukasoft and pay off only when the car is picked up. Sometimes even cash.

  • JaxonSmith on Jun 5, 14 at 07:19 AM

    Yes, airport car rentals are more expensive. Airport food is more expensive, and foreign exchange rates are worse.

    car hire Singapore
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  • JaxonSmith on Jun 2, 14 at 01:44 AM

    Thank you for posting the great content…I was looking for something like this…I found it quiet interesting,hopefully you will keep posting such blogs….Keep sharing…

  • sdc on Nov 15, 13 at 05:03 PM

    Priceline has lots of hidden fees and prohibitions. They are very inflexible. No changes, no cancellations. I will never use Priceline again.

  • diesl on Jun 12, 12 at 06:59 AM

    Have to STRONGLY disagree with you that "Priceline is the best thing going" in rental cars. My recent experience in Italy:

    Prior to departure, I contracted with Priceline for an economy car like a VW Polo. When we arrived in Florence, I instead was offered a Fiat 500 mini-car.

    I was told that the tiny Fiat was the only car they had in service, unless I wanted to DOUBLE the price of my rental and wait hours for another vehicle to be cleaned.) No thanks!

    To add insult to injury, the car we received had a permanently open sunroof and no air-conditioning. This was in Tuscany, Italy in the early summer (hot!) We baked every time we drove it during the day.

    I subsequently contacted Priceline customer service 3 times by E-mail (twice ignored), and once by phone. I was finally told to just accept it: Priceline does NOT guarantee what kind of car you get regardless of what class or features you request. I asked if I requested a top-end Mercedes I might get stuck with a low-end Fiat, and was told that Priceline does NOT stand behind its reservation program. The final "negotiation" is always between the customer and the rental agency. I then contacted the rental company (Sixt), and was told to go fish.

    I will NEVER deal with Priceline again for a rental car. Instead, I'l contract with other companies that actually uphold their end of an agreement and provide the product promised. Buyer beware!

  • jointsoldier on Sep 4, 11 at 09:50 AM

    Cost of a <a href="http://www.bmcoaches.co.uk/car-hire.htm">Car Hire</a> is less than half what it would be at LGA. Cost of the CT Limo shuttle is reasonable and you don't have to deal with the NY traffic.

  • DebitNM on Sep 29, 09 at 10:12 AM

    Another tip for airport rentals and returns: as you are leaving the car rental lot, make note of a gas station that is close by so that you know exactly where you can gas up before you return the car! Also, be sure to leave enough time to gas up and return the car, get the shuttle so you can make your flight. There is nothing worse than having to drive around, looking for a gas station with the clock ticking! SFO is particularly tricky!

  • 5alive on Sep 20, 09 at 06:47 PM

    Good advice, Doug. I would only add that when renting a car, keep all paperwork for sometime after the rental. we got a surprise a month after being home: a photo radar ticket for a date after we had left the state. The car company had punched in the wrong date, ie Nov. 9 instead of Nov. 19 and sent the LAPD our info instead of the renters after us. Glad we had proof to clear it all up; the car company wasn't real supportive in helping us.

  • yk on Sep 18, 09 at 04:51 PM

    Regarding the fine print, a few months ago when renting a car in CA, I remember one of the big rental companies have a policy like this:

    If you choose to fill-your-own-gas, AND IF you drive under 75 miles total in the rental period, you have to show a gas receipt to prove that you have refilled the gas tank. And I think the gas station has to be within X miles of the rental location. This policy is to prevent renters from not refilling the gas tank and getting away with it (since sometimes the gas indicator isn't that exact).

    And besides Priceline, I have used Hotwire in the past for rental cars as well. The best deal I ever got was $3.95/day for Kansas City airport via Hotwire. Unfortunately, Priceline and Hotwire do not allow one-way rentals.

  • JerryS on Sep 17, 09 at 05:13 PM

    Platemark, Where did you get a GPS with maps of Europe for $100?

  • joshmeans on Sep 17, 09 at 01:22 PM

    If you travel enough, I'd consider buying one of the smaller units. The display is not as large as the nicer Garmin/Tom Tom units, but it will travel much easier and can even be used for walking trips.

  • Katie_H Fodor's editor on Sep 17, 09 at 12:27 PM

    I'm not a big GPS fan either, but I have to say of all of the cities I've been to---it's definitely good to have one in L.A. I managed without but wasted a lot of time trying to find "shortcuts" around all the traffic and managed to get very lost on several occasions resulting in me seeing some sights I wouldn't have seen otherwise but I did waste a fair amount of time in the process.

  • jkbritt on Sep 17, 09 at 11:25 AM

    I use Streets and Trips GPS on my laptop in US and the equivalent program in Europe. Costs about 100.00 each. Screen is way bigger and easier to read.

  • platemark on Sep 17, 09 at 09:47 AM

    A GPS can be a great asset. You can buy one for around $100.00. I used mine in Europe last year and although it did make a couple "mistakes", it took me to the home of some one I met in Palermo that would have been near impossible to find even with directions! It's a great investment!

  • Coniglietto on Sep 17, 09 at 09:16 AM

    I occasionally make trips to CT and have found I can rent a car for significantly less in CT. I will take CT Limo to Stamford. The stop in Stamford is less than a mile from the Hertz office. Cost of a car rental is less than half what it would be at LGA. Cost of the CT Limo shuttle is reasonable and you don't have to deal with the NY traffic.

  • Peter2 on Sep 17, 09 at 08:42 AM

    Concur with above. Less is better when renting a car. Also, the major car rentals seem to have bounced their rates up to attract the business folks. Smaller companies offer some great rates e.g. Dollar, Enterprise, etc.

  • Doug_Stallings Fodor's editor on Sep 16, 09 at 05:04 PM

    Donatella, I'm glad the GPS worked for you. I have mixed feelings about them, but I know that my parents really fell in love with theirs and think it's one of the best investments they've ever made (and they had a similar issue with a detour around St. Louis). I think $13.99 per day is pretty steep, so it's usually a better deal to buy your own. The independent ones are relatively small units, so you could pack it in a checked bag. I'm not sure I'd want to carry one on (you could), but then I don't own one and don't know how heavy it is.

  • donatella on Sep 16, 09 at 04:22 PM

    Doug Stallings -I wish I had read the 'How to rent a car cheaply' article before I went to L.A. and rented a car! But of course it wasn't posted yet. Extras do cost but one that saved my life and mental state was renting a GPS. I'd arrived late at night in a suburb of L.A. not knowing one street from the next. I was alone and reading a map and driving was out of the question. The GPS talked me safely to my destination which included side streets, freeway and even a detour. The GPS didn't "know" about the detour, but when I made some guesses around it, it corrected itself and I arrived at my destination. At $13.99 a day...I thought it was worth every dollar AFTER I used it...beforehand I was skeptical. Now, should I buy my own GPS and put it in my carry on!?

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