Occasionally, I manage to impress myself still. I’ve been doing a lot of road trips this summer which means I’ve gotten really snazzy at perfecting a great car deal (no Maserati for free, though).
Besides, if I can't hack it, then I really shouldn't be in this line of work.
There was definitely a time and place, though, where I could have been hailed as a car noob but it's much simpler to get a great deal than most people realize. It just requires knowing where to look and using all the available tools at your disposal.
Searching for the best deal
There seems to be a lot of disagreement about the cheapest place to book car rentals. Like with flights, there’s no magic sauce. Fly.com and Kayak are probably some of the best places to start with but that doesn’t mean sites like Chase Ultimate Reward Portal or even Costco should be discounted. (Literally.)
For instance, an acquaintance recently booked a two-week one-way car rental for $30/day from Boston to Austin on a Costco membership, adding up to ~$400 total for the entire rental. It seems expensive but it's actually a great deal because one-way rentals can rent for over $100/day.
Just like with airfare, many factors can determine pricing as well. Rates can vary depending on whether the pickup is happening at the airport location, neighborhood location and the time of week (all in conjunction with the type of car selected). For instance, I've personally found weekend pickups at the local rental agency often yield the best deal but it doesn't hold true in every instance.
Scott Mackenzie from Travel Codex points out the importance of weekend rates and makes interesting observations:
Tourist destinations will charge you more for weekend rates than on weekdays and business destinations are the reverse… How do you get (or avoid) a weekend rate? Generally this runs from noon on Thursday to noon on Monday but it can vary by company and location. Feel free to call up and ask. You also will need to keep it over Saturday night.
Avoid renting from the airport.
The airport has a captive audience, and when you have a captive audience, you can always charge more for it. This also applies to car rental agencies based at airports: Most of them tack on the extra surcharges because they know that they can. And these can add up.
It is cheaper a lot of the time to book at a neighborhood location (or a location near the airport) instead of directly at the airport. It is even sometimes cheaper to book at a neighborhood location and then take a taxi to the booked location.
Head to the car rental company. site
Generally, I can get an even lower price than Kayak quote or whatever search engine used. The Kayak price shown is usually the price before discounts, and you better believe, there are tons of discount codes floating around on the Internet.
In fact, a lot of the best discount codes are pretty much sitting right on the car rental homepage. A good example is Hertz, which has given me some of the cheapest coupons around. It simply takes the extra five minutes to actually look through the homepage slider and featured promotions. Many of them don’t require any type of affiliation.
Quick note: AAA members often get better rates than other affiliations. Hertz will even quote you the AAA rate direct on the website, whether you’re a member or not. (I’ve also never gotten asked for AAA proof of membership.)
An important thing to remember is that it’s possible to apply both an affiliated rate and coupon code to a reservation to get double the fun. Even if you think you may not be affiliated with anyone, most airline frequent flyer programs have discounted rates they provide to their general members. Even United does, and it is listed quite openly on the airline website. This generally applies across the board. But not every car company is so forthcoming. That means you’ll have to hunt for them.
Search the Internet (and FlyerTalk) for coupons.
I always search RetailMeNot by default until I remember it’s pretty useless for travel deals. It totally is.
Instead there are three very specific searches that will yield the best car rental discount codes. The top three are “xx discount codes,” “XX discount codes boardingarea.com” and “XX discount codes flyertalk.com.” The first one is a generic search because principle; the second one searches the main collective of frequent flyer blogs and the third one will look at what’s probably the biggest community forum of frequent flyers out there. Ever stick 600,000 travel geeks in one place? That’s what FlyerTalk is.
For instance, the Avis discount code thread on FlyerTalk is over 249 pages long (and counting). There’s bound to be something in there. It's worth noting that the only issue with FlyerTalk is that these codes tend to yield corporate codes.
There’s a whole ethics debate about using them here but for the intents and purposes of this article, I’m not going to get into it. Be aware that you should probably read this post if you plan on using them.
Skip the prepaid car rental (for now).
Unsurprisingly, prepaid car rentals are usually much cheaper than a normal car reservation. But they also require payment upfront and are completely inflexible in case plans change.
Most car rental reservations are fully refundable by default so a great tactic for saving some money is just re-searching for a better deal and rebooking at lower rates if it changes at another point in time. (There is no need to cancel the first one before booking the second reservation most of the time.)
Even if the prepaid rate is the cheapest rate I see, sometimes I opt for the normal reservation and then see if Autoslash can beat it, which it usually does. In some instances, it can even beat the prepaid rate.
Track the reservation on Autoslash.
It takes a really, really good travel service for me to change my booking habits. But if you don’t know about Autoslash, put it on the list. On the surface, Autoslash is another car rental search engine. Beneath that, it’s a huge money saver.
Because most agencies let people cancel without penalty, that means it's possible to search again later for a better deal and rebook. It also takes work and time.
This is where Autoslash steps in and will automatically track a booked car rental from any agency. To track it, they need several key pieces of information: date, time, confirmation number and total price. About 8 out of 10 times, Autoslash has managed to beat my price.
Put the rental on the right credit card.
Insurance is not a thing most renters should pay for. I think this is common knowledge these days but most travel credit cards offer car rental insurance if you don't have car insurance that covers it.
The most important thing to keep in mind when putting a car rental on a credit card is that most credit cards require the renter to decline all possible forms of insurance—including what gets offered at the counter—in order for it to kick in as primary car rental insurance. The reservation also must be booked on that specific card.
The cards that offer it typically include well-known travel cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Freedom and specific Amex cards. The Points Guy offers up a good list of credit cards (though certainly not exhaustive) that offer it but always double check the policy with the card issuer.
The potential savings are substantial when it actually works. Sometimes, the cost of adding on insurance can easily double the price of the rental.