Cheap Car Rentals: Finding The Most You Should Pay With Hotwire & Costco Travel

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[Disclosure:  The link to Hotwire earns Emily and I a small commission, but these posts will show you how to get a better rate than Hotwire.  The link to Costco Travel does not earn a referral.  As always, thanks for using our links!]

Having Big Travel with Small Money and getting almost free flights and hotel stays is great, but sometimes you’d like an almost free car rental.  Or learn where to find the lowest priced car rental.

So I’ll share my tips & tricks on saving money with car rentals over the next few weeks!

Hotwire & Costco Travel

There are lots of sites to check for rental cars, but I find that Hotwire and Costco Travel are useful to see the most which a savvy rental car shopper should pay.  So I start off by checking those two sites for car rental rates and then see if I can find cheaper rates elsewhere.  However, Hotwire bookings can’t be cancelled or refunded, so I almost never make a booking via Hotwire since I can usually get a refundable rate elsewhere.

Thanks to Rapid Travel Chai for steering me to Costco Travel!

The table below compares the price of three separate rental car reservations made on the same day.

  • ~6 days in Tampa, Florida
  • ~1 day during the week in New York (LaGuardia)
  • ~7 days in Mauii, Hawaii
 
~6 Days Rental in Tampa
~1 Day Rental in New York (La Guardia)
~7 Days Rental in Maui
Cancellation Policy
Hotwire$286$131-$362 Economy Sedan
-$487 SUV
VERY Restrictive. No refunds, cancellations or modifications after booking.
Costco Travel$330$117- $401 Sedan
- $386 SUV
Can cancel, change, or no-show with no penalty
WinnerHotwireCostco TravelTie

1.   Hotwire

I’ve rented a car from Hotwire only once because I’ve always been able to get it for less.  But Hotwire is a great way to get a quick sense of the MOST amount of money you should pay for a car rental.

However, Hotwire does NOT tell you the name of the car rental agency and the exact car model until you pay for the rental.  And the amount you pay cannot be refunded and you cannot cancel or modify your reservation.  All these are pretty significant restrictions, so don’t book a Hotwire car rental unless you are absolutely sure that you will use the reservation.

A)   1 Week in Tampa - Hotwire’s lowest price for a rental in Tampa is $286 compared to $330 from Costco Travel.  Hotwire is cheaper.

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

B)   1 Week Day in New York - Hotwire’s lowest price for a rental from New York (La Guardia) is $131 in an economy car and $111 in a mid-size SUV compared to $117 & $98 from Costco Travel.  Costco Travel is cheaper.

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

C)   ~1 Week in Maui - Hotwire’s lowest price for a sedan rental in Maui is $362 in an economy car or $487 in a SUV compared to $401 for a sedan or $386 for a standard SUV from Costco Travel.   Hotwire and Costco Travel Tie depending on whether you want a SUV or regular car.

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

2.   COSTCO TRAVEL

Costco Travel usually gets me a lower rate than Hotwire, but I sometimes book the higher rate just for the extra flexibility of Costco Travel.  The big advantage of using Costco Travel is that the reservations CAN be cancelled for NO charge, there is NO penalty for not picking up your rental car, and that you can see the rental car company when booking the rental.

In my observation, Costco Travel is usually cheaper than Hotwire for larger vehicles such as SUVs and mini-vans.

Costco Travel has discounted prices for Alamo, Avis, Budget, and Enterprise.  You can add your car rental loyalty number to the reservation for all car rentals except those with Alamo.  This means that if you take part in a car rental loyalty program, you can go directly to the car and not wait in line at the airport, since they already have your information.

Anyone can search for car rentals on Costco Travel, but you need a Costco membership to actually book car rentals.  The cheapest personal Costco membership is for $55.  I’ve saved more than $55 using my Costco membership for car rentals!  Costco Travel car rentals may also include an additional driver for free (usually spouse), but check the terms of your car rental.

However, I’ve never been asked for my Costco membership card when I’ve rented cars, so you may be able to rent a car at the discounted rate by including the Costco discount code in your bookings.  However, I wouldn’t do this personally because if I got into an accident with the rental car, I would want to be able to prove that I was legitimately entitled to the discount for the car which I’m driving. But, as always, do what you’re comfortable with.

A)   1 Week in Tampa – Costco Travel wants $330 for a ~6 day rental in Tampa compared to $286 from Hotwire.  Hotwire is cheaper.

Hotwire Rental Cars 6

Hotwire Rental Cars 6

B)   1 Week Day in New York (LaGuardia) - Costco Travel wants $117 for an economy car and $98 for a mid-size SUV for a ~1 day rental in New York compared to $131 & $111 from Hotwire.  Costco Travel is cheaper.

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

C)   ~1 Week in Maui - Costco Travel wants $401 for a ~7 day (sedan) rental in Maui & $386 for a SUV compared to $362 for a sedan or $487 for a SUV from Hotwire.  Hotwire and Costco Travel Tie depending on whether you want an SUV or sedan.

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Hotwire Rental Cars 1

Costco Travel Quirks:

1.  Best Rate.   The biggest quirk about using Costco Travel is that it doesn’t always highlight the lowest priced car rental!  For example, the cheapest (sedan) rate for a ~7 day rental in Maui is $401 for an economy car from Budget, but Costco Travel highlights the intermediate car for $421.

Hotwire Rental Cars 7

The Cheapest Rate is Not Always Highlighted!

But a standard SUV is even cheaper at $386 (see picture below) and is not highlighted as the cheapest option!

2.   Higher Car Category for Just a Little More.   An economy car in Maui for ~7 days costs $401, but for $16 more you can get a luxury car for the entire week!  So it pays to scroll down the list.

 Rental Cars 8

$16 More For a Luxury Car!

Bottom Line:

I start my car rental searches at Hotwire and Costco Travel to find out the most which I should pay for a car rental.  However, Hotwire has NO flexibility after you make a booking, so it could be worth paying a little more just for the added flexibility of a reservation which you can cancel.

And often times, Costco Travel will have a lower priced rental than Hotwire.

Stay tuned for ways to get a car rental for much less than either Hotwire or Costco Travel!

* If you liked this post, why don’t you join the 8,500+ readers who have signed-up to receive free blog posts via email (only 1 email per day!) or in a RSS reader …because then you’ll never miss another update!

 

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

65 Responses to Cheap Car Rentals: Finding The Most You Should Pay With Hotwire & Costco Travel

  1. Flexibility can become an aspect of import when there is a possibility of getting the dates changed. Otherwise, most prefer getting the cheapest deal available.

  2. …..OR you could just book the car from the Chase UR portal, which is cheaper than both of these sites.

  3. @Kyle – I use Hotwire and Costco Travel to find out the MOST which I should pay for a rental (not the cheapest price). Stay tuned for more!

  4. @MMS My bad, was skimming the page early, before my coffee.

  5. A few thoughts about renting cars:
    – I haven’t used Hotwire to rent cars because I thought you are required to stand in line at the rental counter, which can sometimes take up to an hour. I hate this. If you sign up online with each agency’s online club and enter your info, you can usually bypass the slow line. I’m not sure if this is possible with a Hotwire reservation.
    – When renting at an airport, you will often pay as much or more in taxes than the fare the rental car company collects. However, you usually won’t have to pay the fees if you rent at a neighborhood location and return to the airport.
    – They also often charge a fee for what is a ridiculously small frequent flier mile benefit so it may not be worth getting miles credits if you are paying for the car with your own money.
    – Some rental car companies inflate the car category. Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise seem to call what any normal person would consider a compact car an intermediate. Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty don’t do this. I don’t know how Hotwire resolves this.

  6. I have a tutorial on bidding strategies for Priceline rental cars that people might find helpful. I love using Priceline for last minute bids, I think it works really well.

  7. If you are under 25, you can join USAA (for free) and there are codes that help waive the under age fees which can amount to hundreds of $$ for longer rentals (at least for enterprise and budget, which I used a couple of month back).

  8. Colleen Miller

    Your posts are always so timely for me! I was planning to begin the search for a rental car for our trip to Maui! Love your site! Thank you for helping people like my family travel to places I never dreamed we could afford!

  9. Not many people knew about costco travel and it is a good site. Actually a very good site to get familiarized with. Me being a costco fan, just ran into the costco travel site and it was absolutely a breeze to book the rental car and making modifications as well. Here is something I learnt when I booked my car to CES in Vegas.

    When I checked for the Car rental during Chrismas for the very first time for a 5 day rental, I saw a $120 for Intermediate, I was plesanty surprised and I didn’t book with a happy smile. However when I went to book the next day the price was short up to $240 or so… Then started monitoring the site daily and the price started to go down daily and after few days it got back to my happy price of $120.

    In the process, what I did is, I booked the price and the next day do another booking with lower price and delete the one with higher price. Repeated the process till I got my PRICE!

    To summarize, the website is very user friendly and you have multiple reserversation and delete the ones you don’t need very easily.

    Travel reservations don’t count against the 2% reward… its a bummber, but oh well, can’t win on all counts.

    Cheers!

  10. Just used Costco to book a SUV for a trip to Boston and it was cheaper then my prior reservation for a full size car that I had booked with Enterprise – THANKS!

  11. Good article. Costco is a good weapon in the research war. I would suggest that you should still take a look at what Kayak shows you because Costco and PriceLine only work with certain companies. For example, for a three day rental next week in Seattle, Kayak pointed out Payless and Fox and they had better rates than you could get on Costco or PriceLine. If you find the company you want to use, check out their web site. Payless, for example, has a free club you can join to get an additional 5% off. I am not suggesting Payless is always the best choice. They just happened to be in this example. My point, is to look around. The more research you do, the better and Kayak is a handy tool to look at a lot of companies. Get a baseline there and check Costco.

  12. @Joe, Payless and Fox are often much cheaper, but are sometimes are located at remote off-airport offices and may add considerable time and hassle in renting a car.

  13. I’ve rented cars in Florida for the past few years vacations. Other than getting one lucky break on Priceline, the best rates I’ve found were through Citibank Thankyou points and Chase Ultimate rewards points.

    Before yelling at me for redeeming points – I used the pay cash option. So you can have a zero points balance, just log onto your account and search through their reward portal.

    To better illustrate – you can get an economy car out of Tampa for $156.16 (Thrifty airport location) for those dates and times listed above. Much better deal than Hotwire. And you can cancel as long as its two days out. I found the same deal with with Citibank TYP and Chase UR. I didn’t search Maui

  14. @MMS – Are you going to cover one-way rentals at all in the series? It’s tough to find a decent rate in California, but I’m definitely a rookie…

  15. One more advantage on renting from Costco in destinations where an additional driver isn’t free (eg. Hawaii), it can be $10/day or more after adding all those fees and taxes.

  16. you can also try auto slash and carrental.com

  17. I also check Cap. One for rentals. They are quite often the lowest. You must have a Cap. One card but you can pay with a CC if you don’t have enough pts. I’ve paid <$380 for my last two 2 week rentals (SUV and a Standard size) in Hawaii. They beat everyone.

  18. @Daraius — Wow, great timing. I am new at this points and miles thing. My wife and I are just about finished with our minimum spend on the two Citi AAdvantage cards for each of us. And I was just wondering how I could also get the best deal possible for rental cars. Thanks for sharing all you learn!

  19. I second Phil’s comment about Capital One. Just recently, I priced a minivan 1 week rental in Miami using Expedia. Then went to Capital One, and the price for the same vehicle and same car rental (Alamo) came out almost 1/2 that price, plus I was able to use points for the rental. It had me questioning the validity since it was that much cheaper, but I have a confirmation and also went to Alamo’s site to confirm the reservation is there. Also priced it with Chase Ultimate and not as good as Capital One for this particular reservation.

  20. Read about a website Zalyn.com on NYTimes yesterday that helps you figure out the best coupon for your rental car. I have a AAA, Costco, USAA membership and a bunch of miles programs. Signed up for Zalyn and I was also able to specify my memberships/affiliations to see their coupons as well.

    I found great deals for my upcoming rentals and the best part is that you don’t pay upfront and can cancel anytime. Definitely worth checking out.

    Just to see how it compares with Hotwire/CostcoTravel, I searched for the location/dates you used to see what it comes up with and the results are impressive.

    Tampa (1 week)
    Zalyn: $279 at Dollar and $240 at Payless. $302 at budget with my USAA discount and with the $35 off coupon, it would come out to be $267. Remember, you don’t see the coupon discount on Budget.com, but it is applied at the rental counter.
    Hotwire: $286
    CostcoTravel: $330

    New York(LGA) weekday
    Zalyn: $63.93 at Dollar (this is literally half off the retail price)
    CostcoTravel: $117
    Hotwire: $131

    Maui(OGG) weekly
    Zalyn: $210 @Thrifty
    Hotwire: $362
    CostcoTravel: $401

    As with everything, YMMV depending on where and when you’re renting. Check as many sites as you can and never pay retail!

  21. @Bottom-Feeding the High Life (Doug) – Hotwire and most prepaid rentals require you to stand in line. But some prepaid rentals could save 100s of dollars which could make it worth while. Sometimes renting outside the airport saves money, but you have to factor in the extra time and money to get there.

    @Scott - Thanks! Using Priceline for last minute rentals is a great way to save money.

    @Nam – USAA is perhaps the best place for folks under 25 to get lower priced rentals.

    @Colleen Miller
    - Thanks for reading and safe travels to Maui!

    @Sree – The Costco Travel website is very easy to use, but it always wasn’t this easy to use.

    @Jonathan @Tim
    :)

    @Joe U
    – I prefer Hotwire as the baseline and I’ll show a way to actually book a refundable rental at approximately the Hotwire rate later on! It really is a research war, but at some point you face diminishing returns.

    @John @Judy J @Phil @Robert H – Coming up later in the series!

    @Maulermark - I wasn’t planning to, but can add that in. For one way rentals, the best value is actually redeeming car rental points for one-ways, but it is hard to earn car-rental points.

    @sandy - Thanks for reminding me of this. I’ve actually used this benefit many times with Emily, but forgot to add it in the post!

    @Matt - Thanks! I’ll check it out. Amen to never paying retail.

  22. Another nice thing about Costco Travel is that they provided a few additional benefits, such as a free additional driver when booking with Alamo.

  23. Looking forward to your always thorough, always helpful tips for booking a rental car, as it’s the one area of travel hacking that I am the least familiar with. Thanks for tackling this subject.

  24. One major point needs to be added. I always book months ahead to be sure I have a car but always recheck starting at one week out and looking every day. You cannot imagine the money I’v e saved over the years watching the rate go down day by day.

    Best was an SUV in Scottsdale that started at $750 and by the time I was done booking and rebooking, went down to $280. But again, that’s one more reason not to book non-cancellable.

  25. Not only do Costco Travel car rental rates fluctuate day by day, they also vary at different times of the day. I have often seen lower prices when checking rates about 11 p.m. Eastern time, only to see them rise the next morning before going down again that evening. Through diligent checking, I have gotten some amazing rates such as an Alamo full size car at PHX for 14 days for $325 this month.

  26. Use Priceline name your own price. I’ve gotten 5 days in Kauai for under 200 including taxes.

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  28. You should add carrentals.com to your list. No penalty for no-shows, quick changes, and everytime I search other websites, I always go back to them. But I do like Costco’s 2nd driver not costing extra.

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  30. One thing not mentioned (and probably not the purpose of this article…) is the Damage/loss waivers, etc that are optional. Is there a Credit Card that adds this protection automatically? Chase Sapphire Preferred? Starwood Amex?

  31. @thomas – Some cards like the United Explorer and United Club card offer primary rental car insurance, but it still doesn’t protect you from liability to others.

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  34. “USAA is perhaps the best place for folks under 25 to get lower priced rentals.”

    I’m (more than) a bit disturbed to read this. USAA is (well, WAS!) the *Navy and Marine Corps officers* insurance company. It was created BY Navy and Marine Corps officers to help military folks who were spending part of their young lives to defend the country. Now I’m reading: “hey, anyone who wants to? Sign up and take advantage of a deal that was specifically designed for the folks serving their country.”

    I am also writing to USAA to see if this is actually a service they are now providing to anyone who wishes to hop on-board! Really dismaying.

  35. @Elenor – USAA membership is available for a small donation to folks not associated with the military.

  36. Daraius–in your RSS feed, you have an entry in this series called “5 Ways to Add an Additional Driver for Free” but I don’t see it in the series index on the website posts. Maybe an oversight?

  37. Also, I am sure you are busy, but it would be nice if you linked the chapter entries in preceding posts in the series live as your series progressed so people could know by looking at any post how far the series has progressed as well as provide easy navigation between sections. Just a suggestion.

  38. Gaurav - Thanks! I’ll get them linked soon.

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  42. teacher Jayne

    Thanks for the great advice about Costco car rentals. My teenage daughter is on a volleyball team that competes all over the country. As a single mom & special ed teacher, money is really tight. Your website & tips have been really helpful! We’ve managed to fly for the last two years using miles from credit card deals you’ve suggested, but now the “well is dry.” We’re going to a tournament in Orlando in a few weeks, and thanks to your advice, I’ve managed to rent a car at the price I had in mind. Of course, I’m still shopping for a better deal. I have a question for you about the car rental companies Loyalty Programs. Do you put your credit card number & expiration date on your online applications? If so, does that mean no standing in line when you arrive at an airport rental desk?

  43. @teacher Jayne – Thanks for sharing your success. There are always new offers coming and going, so just keep an eye out of them. If you join the car rental programs loyalty program, you usually can go straight to the car (and bypass the rental desk). However, some agencies don’t always let you do this.

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  46. Raghu Narayanan

    Actually I find priceline to be the best for car rentals and you can actually book them and also cancel them. They do not take a credit card number when making a reservation. This has been my experience

    I enjoy reading your site. Thanks!
    Raghu

  47. @Raghu Narayanan – Thanks for sharing. Priceline’s name your own price has low rates, but you can’t cancel them. But the regular Priceline sites has higher prices, though you can cancel that reservation.

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  50. If booking thru costco (I’m a member) which card would be best in the context of free insurance ? I have CSP, Freedom , Fidelity Amex and some other cards.

  51. Grammar Nazi

    @MMS “The link to Hotwire earns Emily and I a small commission…”
    It should be “Emily and me…” Common mistake because as kids, we were taught by uninformed English teachers.

  52. Does anyone know if Costco Travel qualifies for the travel “purchase eraser” for Capital One Venture?

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  54. Thanks for steering me to Costco travel! Told boyfriend we could take a week long vacation in South Florida only if we could do it on the cheap. After booking plane tix using miles, gift cards and southwest credits, we were initially looking at only getting a economy car for 4 days at a cost of $160 (our searches for a weekly rate were closer to $250), but after a search using your suggested sites and diligently following up on a daily basis, we were able to nab an Altima from Budget for under $145 for the week! Compact was $10 less.

  55. @KCatty – That’s a heck of a deal! Safe travels.

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  57. Mexico requires personal liability, which is usually more than the car rental.
    I used HotWire one time in Mexico City and wasn’t charged the liability insurance, which was included.
    Usually, I get a great rate and then slammed on the personal liability.

    Any suggestions to get the included or reduced in Mexico?

    J R

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