Here are some tips for finding a good rental car deal. Travel itineraries and rental car companies are all different, so some of these suggestions may not work for you on every trip.
Don’t wait until the last minute to think about your ground transportation. It will take time to contact customer service representatives or do online research. Begin as soon as you know your travel dates. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to lock in a good rate and still look for last-minute deals.
Take notes or create a spreadsheet to track your findings. If you can’t find information easily, call the rental car company and ask. Rental car companies are notoriously slow to answer email inquiries. Note the name of the customer service representative, the date and the time of your call. You may need this information if you have questions about your final bill. (Tip: If you need to dispute any charges, do so in writing or by email, never by phone.)
If you plan to travel to several different countries, be sure to give itinerary information to the customer service representative. Some companies will not allow you to take rental cars out of the country, or will only allow certain makes and models of cars to cross international borders. Planning ahead will prevent you from being disappointed by border guards.
Make Multiple Reservations
If you find a good rate, make a reservation and keep researching. Many rental car companies allow you to make a reservation without paying a deposit or even providing credit card information. If you find a better deal later on, you can always go back and cancel your first reservation. (Tip: Read the "Terms and Conditions" carefully for every reservation you make. Some rental car companies now charge for no-shows. If you make multiple reservations, take the time to cancel the ones you don't plan to use.)
Some rental car companies allow their employees to make reservations at “family and friends” rates. If you know someone who works for a rental car firm and you feel comfortable requesting a favor, ask about employee rates.
Look for Discounts
If you are a member of AAA, CAA, AARP or another large organization, ask about rental car discounts. AARP, for example, offers rental car discounts ranging from 5 - 30 percent. Costco gives its members a 20 percent discount on Budget and Avis weekly rentals.
Your auto insurance company may also give discounts on rental car rates. You’ll need to telephone them to ask about rental car insurance options; why not ask about discounts at the same time?
Read the Fine Print
Don’t skip this step. Facility fees, taxes and dropoff charges can really add up. Carefully read the “terms and conditions” section if you’re researching rates online, or ask the customer service representative to provide you with a list of fees and taxes. You will find that each rental location has a different fee and tax schedule. You may also discover that you’ll need to show an airline ticket at certain rental car offices, or that there’s a hefty dropoff fee at your preferred location. (Tip: If you are driving with someone else, get the rental car company's policy on fees for additional drivers in writing before you pick up the car. These charges, which typically start at $10 per day, can add up quickly.)
Add all of this information to your list. Then, take some time to decide where to pick up and drop off your car. This is especially important if you’re renting a car in Europe, as many rental car companies add large dropoff fees to rentals originating or ending at airports. If you feel comfortable taking a taxi or public transportation to a downtown rental car office, you could save quite a bit of money.
Be sure to ask whether you’ll need an International Driving Permit (IDP) if you’re renting a car in another country. In many European countries, US drivers must show an IDP if a law enforcement officer asks to see it, even if no traffic violation has been committed.
Learn About Insurance Coverage
The dreaded Collision Damage Waiver question – “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” is best answered through research. Rental car companies typically attempt to persuade customers to add collision and liability insurance coverage to their rental car contracts, often at amazingly high rates. If you don’t have any other automobile insurance coverage and you are paying cash, you’ll probably want to accept this coverage. Most renters, however, have an auto insurance policy or plan to pay by credit card.
If you fall into either of these categories, call your insurance and credit card companies to find out if they cover you when you rent a car. You may find that you can decline all of the rental car company’s offers, or that you need only accept the liability insurance supplement. It’s always best to ask, because your coverage will vary depending on where you plan to drive the rental car.
Investigate Special Offers
Rental car companies routinely offer weekend packages and last-minute deals. Take a few minutes to scan the company’s website for bargains. If you’re reserving by telephone, ask about special offers for your destination. You may be able to save some money or add to your frequent flyer miles with one of these travel deals. (Tip: Ask whether you'll have to pay a fee to add your rental car transaction to your frequent flyer account. Many rental car companies now charge a daily fee for this "privilege." )
Check With Aggregators
Once you’ve completed your research and made your final reservation, you can relax and plan the rest of your trip.