It’s no secret that traveling expenses can add up fast. Flights, hotels, and dozens of other costs can put unnecessary stress on your vacation.
Rental cars are among some of the larger travel expenses, especially as they’re harder to come by post-pandemic.
According to Bankrate, the average cost of a rental vehicle in 2022 lies around $81 per day. If you’re traveling for any extended period of time, this can add up fast. And, with higher gas prices, it’s important to save wherever you can.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to save on rental cars so you can have more money to enjoy your trip. Let’s take a closer look at a few easy ways to find cheap rental cars and keep your travel costs low.
1. Timing is Everything
When it comes to saving money on rental cars, timing is everything.
Consider what time of year you’ll be traveling, what part of the week you’ll need a rental car for, and how far in advance you can book your car.
The Cheapest Time of Year
If you have some flexibility with your travel plans, try to avoid booking a car during the busy season, like the holidays. Why?
Demand for rental cars goes up during the busy season as more people are traveling. And if you remember anything from Econ 101, it’s that cost tends to follow demand.
If you can’t avoid traveling during the holidays, don’t panic. Booking your rental 4-6 months in advance can often ensure you get a cheaper price.
Note: a recent study showed you can potentially save even more by waiting until just a few days before you need the rental car to book it. But doing so runs the risk that there will be no cars available at all, which could put you in quite a bind. Our suggestion is to book well ahead of time for peace of mind.
Weekend vs. Weekday Bookings
In addition to factoring in the time of year you’ll be renting a car, it’s also important to consider the time of the week.
Renting a car during the workweek can be significantly cheaper than on the weekend. If you’re able to plan your travels around this, you could save big time.
Consider the duration of time you’re booking your vehicle as well.
It may come as a surprise, but sometimes booking a week is cheaper than booking a few days, depending on the time.
So enter a few different dates to make sure you’re getting the cheapest deal possible, even if it means having the rental car a few extra days than you need it. Just make sure your rental car company won’t charge you a fee for returning early.
How Far In Advance Should You Book A Rental Car?
Booking a few months in advance can make a big difference. Plus, many rental agencies offer free cancellations with reasonable notice, so you can keep shopping for better deals, and if you find one, cancel the original reservation.
Keep in mind that if you do cancel your rental less than 24-48 hours before pickup, you may have to pay a cancellation fee, but this often depends on whether or not you’ve prepaid for your reservation. Sometimes you can walk away no questions asked without any fee at all.
2. The Best Place To Rent Your Rental Car
Once you figure out the cheapest time to rent a car, it’s time to figure out the best location to rent a car. Here’s what you need to know:
Rental Agencies and Car Rental Aggregators
To start, use an aggregator site that compares different car rental agencies and locations so you can weigh your options all in one place.
AutoRentals.com, CarRentals.com, Kayak, Hopper, and Priceline are great places to start. Pretty much all of the major online travel agencies now offer rental car booking, and you can often bundle this with your hotel booking to unlock additional savings.
Once you find a deal you like on the aggregator site, go to the rental company website (e.g. Enterprise, Hertz, etc.) and compare the price, as they could have discounts and deals not advertised on the aggregator sites.
Note: many rentals are refundable, so you can keep shopping even after you book in case a better deal pops up!
Rent a Privately Owned Car
There are plenty of benefits to renting a car through a rental agency, but this isn’t your only option.
You can even rent a private RV, which covers transportation and housing.
This person-to-person car-sharing concept is an excellent way to save money on your trip. Plus, some rental agencies have a minimum amount of time you have to rent a car for, while privately owned vehicles may not.
You’ll Pay For The Convenience Of The Airport (most of the time)
First, let’s talk about airport rentals. You might be thinking, if they raise the price of a water bottle to $7, surely their rental cars are outrageously high, too?
And you’d be right. In general, the rental cars available at the airport tend to be more expensive as airports stack on a number of different fees, some of which are assessed specifically because the rental agency is located on airport property.
So always be sure to compare prices at other branch locations within the same city. It could end up being cheaper to take a taxi from the airport to the other rental car location if you don’t mind the slight inconvenience.
3. What About Insurance?
Having insurance on your rental car is absolutely critical, even if you’re just taking it for a day trip. On the off chance that something happens to the vehicle, you’ll be held responsible for all damages, and if you own your own car, you know how quickly these can pile up.
While insurance is essential, it can also be one of the largest expenses that contribute to the cost of your rental car. Here are a few tips to get the best deal possible.
Use your own insurance: Many car insurance policies have rental insurance built in (at least for domestic rentals). If you’re not sure whether a rental car is covered by your policy, talk to your insurance provider. If your policy already covers you in rentals, this could be one less expense you need to shoulder yourself.
Check your credit card company: If you’re paying for your rental car with a credit card, your credit card company might have insurance already built in. So be sure to call and check before adding rental insurance. If you do use your credit card company’s rental insurance policy, you’ll likely need to pay the entire rental cost up-front. Keep in mind this also means you won’t be able to get a refund if you have to cancel.
Use a rental car insurance agency: Another option is to use an insurance agency that specializes in rental insurance, like RentalCover. This insurance costs a few dollars a day, while insurance from a rental agency can be anywhere from $30 to $60 a day.
Use your parent’s insurance: If you plan to travel frequently but don’t own a car or have insurance, ask your parents to add you to their plan. As long as your driving record is relatively clean, it shouldn’t cost them any extra.
4. Think Twice About Rental Car Add-Ons
Rental agencies can make add-ons seem tempting. But, in most cases, these upgrades aren’t necessary.
Here are a few common upsells you should think twice about, and the alternatives you can use to save money:
Adding a built-in GPS: One of the most common upgrades in the rental car market is the built-in GPS. While having a GPS can take the stress off traveling in a new area, most people have a GPS on their phone. If you or someone in your party has a smartphone, download a GPS app and forego this add-on!
Car Seat: While it’s critical to protect any children in your vehicle with the proper car seat, adding this to your rental car can be costly. Instead, consider bringing your own car seat on your trip. Not only will you save money, but you’ll already be familiar with how the car seat works.
Toll Pass: Be sure to double-check with your rental agency before signing up for the toll pass add-on. Some agencies will charge a fee per day for using a toll pass. In this case, it’d be cheaper to wait through the toll!
5. Pay in Full: Balancing Savings vs Cancelation
Some rental agencies will let you save 15-20% by paying for your rental car upfront. But there’s a catch: if you prepay upfront and then need to cancel your reservation, you’ll often be hit with a fee.
Whereas if you choose the “reserve now, pay at pickup” option, you can often walk away no questions asked, with no charge.
So be sure to check different agencies’ cancelation policies and balance that against the potential discount from paying in full and how likely it is you may need to cancel your trip.
6. Look For Discounts Before and After You Book
Even if you’ve already booked a rental vehicle, search online for discounts.
Unless you pre-paid in full, chances are, you can cancel your rental for free and book a cheaper car. There are plenty of discounts you can find for your rental car.
Websites like Advantage, Dollar Direct, Kayak, Budget Car Rentals, and Hotwire are excellent places to look for discount vehicles. Some agencies offer bundle deals along with hotels or flights that include the rental car and mileage fees for free. Other packages offer bundle discount deals for rental vehicles.
7. Memberships Are Your Friend
One of the most surprising ways to save on your rental car is memberships. Corporations like Costco, BJs Wholesale, AAA, and AARP partner with some of the most popular rental car agencies and offer perks accordingly.
AAA has plenty of deals for travelers, including discounts for rental cars. AARP offers discounts for rental vehicles and can help waive some of the fees, too.
Sometimes hotel loyalty programs, Groupon, or even the company you work for will offer similar discounts and exclusive deals.
Most airlines offer the option to redeem flight and travel points toward the cost of your rental vehicle. So if you’re part of an airline’s rewards program, you can likely get an airport rental for cheap.
8. Hope For a Free Upgrade
If you book your rental car in advance, you may find that the rental agency no longer has it in stock. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you’re out of a car. It simply means you get a free upgrade!
An excellent way to save money on your rental vehicle is to opt for the cheapest economy car and hope for a free upgrade. Just make sure the car you book will fit everyone in your party in case you don’t get an upgrade. Book older models, manual transmission rental cars, or smaller cars to save money.
9. Assign One Driver
An easy way to save is to restrict the drivers for your rental vehicle to one. There’s typically a daily fee for each additional driver you add. If you can manage using a singular driver for your travels, it can save you in the long run.
It’s important to note here that you could save even more if the driver you assign is over 25. Some agencies charge higher fees for drivers under the age of 25. These young driver fees can be anywhere from $40 to $60 per day. While most drivers over 20 years old are legally allowed to drive rental vehicles, the price may be higher.
10. Use Extra Caution
It may seem obvious, but if you damage the interior or exterior of a rental vehicle, you’ll be held responsible for all repairs. Use extra caution when driving to ensure you return your rental vehicle in a similar condition to how you found it. Avoid having food or drinks in the vehicle, and pay special attention to your driving and parking to ensure it doesn’t get scratched.
5 Bonus Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Rental Experience
1. Use a Credit Card
In addition to being able to use your credit card company’s rental insurance to cover your vehicle, you can also earn credit card points while you travel. While you’re busy enjoying your vacation, your credit card will be hard at work building your credit.
To be clear, we’re not advocating you spend money you don’t have. But if you’re confident you can pay off your balance in full when due, then there’s no reason not to get the free rewards points.
2. Don’t Forget Gas Money
Gas prices have skyrocketed to nearly 65 cents per gallon higher than last year. Not only are gas prices sky-high, but the cost can add up fast if you’re taking a road trip. Luckily, there are a few easy ways to save money on gas.
First, consider using a prepaid gas card or gas rewards card to help you save on gas. Many pre-paid gas cards offer rewards and discounts when you spend money at the pump. Plus, you don’t need a bank account or credit score to qualify for a prepaid card.
You may also consider using an app like GasBuddy, Fuel Finder, or Gas Guru to help you find the cheapest gas near you. You can also use Google Maps or Waze to search for gas price information. Tip: the closer to the airport, the higher the gas.
Some gas stations even offer cheaper gas prices for paying in cash rather than a credit card. Look for signs posted on the outside of each station to find the best way to pay. And remember, every cent counts!
Rental agencies can charge fees for returning cars with an empty tank, so make sure you fill your own tank up before you drop it off, too.
3. Lowes, Home Depot, UHAUL
This might sound somewhat unconventional, but hardware stores and moving companies like Home Depot, Lowes, and UHAUL rent trucks and vans by the hour or day.
These are often overlooked options if you only need a vehicle for a few hours, or need to move anything large during your trip.
4. Don’t Forget Public Transport
Even if you’ve rented a vehicle for a road trip, public transportation is still an option for traveling within your location. Use your rental car for the bulk of your travel and consider public transport for shorter trips into the city, to dinner, or to events. Most major cities are walkable, too, so you can enjoy a nice walk while you save on gas.
5. Check Your Car Before You Leave the Lot
Before you leave with your rental car, take a good look at the exterior and interior of the vehicle.
If you see any kind of damage, including dents, scratches, peeled paint, or stains, be sure to snap a picture and notify someone of the damage before driving off.
Make sure each photo you take includes a time and date stamp. Once you leave the lot, you may be held responsible for damages, even if they weren’t incurred by you.
Similarly, make sure you pay close attention to how the car runs when you start it. If any service lights come on, it may be a good idea to snap a photo and notify the rental agency before driving off.
There’s a lot to consider when renting a vehicle. Whether you’re on a work trip or a family vacation, it’s important to know how to save as much as possible on your rental.
If you shop around for the best deals, compare discounts, look for hidden fees, and refrain from using agency upgrades or add-ons, you’re likely to get more bang for your buck.
Keep this guide handy for your next trip so you can find the cheapest rental deals possible and have more money to enjoy your trip.