We devote thousands of hours of research to help you get Big Travel with Small Money. You support us by signing-up for credit cards through partner links which earn us a commission. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Jason: I like to use my hard earned miles & points for flights and hotels. So when it comes to other expenses, like rental cars, I want to get the best deal possible.
There are lots of small things you can do to ensure you’re not overpaying. And recently, I stumbled on a trick that saved me ~55% on a car rental!
Here are the tips I use to book cheap rental cars.
How to Save On Rental Cars
When you’re renting a car, you’ll want to make sure you’re paying attention to the extra fees and “services” you might be charged for. I’ve found that these fees can easily exceed the price of the rental if you’re not careful! Plus, the fees vary depending on the company and even the state you’re renting in.
But if you do a little research, have the right insurance in place, and know the rules, you’ll be in a position where the rental car companies will have a tougher time taking advantage of you!
1. Be Flexible With Your Time, Date, or Destination
I never realized how frequently rental car prices can fluctuate. And there isn’t an easy way to know exactly what factors will swing the price of a car rental one way or the other.
One-way rentals are usually more expensive than round-trip bookings. But in the past, team member Jesse has booked 2 separate one-way rentals for less than the price of a round-trip! You just never know. And reader Mark saved $100+ in taxes by picking up his Boston rental at an off airport site and returning it to the airport because the taxes were only charged for the origin not the destination!
For example, I tried to find a rental car for a 5-day trip from Baltimore to Pennsylvania. I started off looking for round-trip deals. But I also considered doing 2 one-way, 1-day rentals, because I only needed the car for the trips to and from the airport.
I usually check Hotwire or the Chase Travel Portal for cheap prices. But other folks, like Million Mile Secrets reader Walker, like to search Costco Travel as well. The cheapest round-trip rental I found was ~$220 for 5 days (~$44 a day) including taxes & fees.
When I looked into one-way prices, it was only ~$20 less to book 2 one-way rentals as opposed to a single 5-day rental. As a last ditch effort, I figured I could return the car earlier on the day of my flight and just work from the airport lounge.
I thought doing that would save me one day of charges (~$44) because even though I was only returning the rental 4 hours earlier, those 4 hours were the 5th day of the rental. But you won’t believe what happened instead!
I was shocked to see the daily rate drop from ~$44 to ~$20 (both rates include taxes & fees)! That’s a ~55% savings, which made a 4-day round-trip rental actually cheaper than even a single one-way trip!
What’s the catch? I had to book a Hot Rate deal to get the price. And Hotwire Hot Rate bookings can’t be canceled or changed. I thought it was a great deal and my plans were set, so I wasn’t worried about needing to change it.
If your travel plans are flexible, it can pay to search different dates, times, and locations. Reader Anthony saves on car rentals by booking at non-airport locations and then taking an Uber there. And reader Marc was able to save on a rental in Portugal when the Avis agent pointed out that he could get better rates by booking through the Avis Portugal site. So before you book an international rental, check the local countries website to see if you can save!
2. Save Time & Money With AutoSlash
AutoSlash is an amazing service that will track the price of your rental car reservation and email you if the price drops! This is where booking a non-refundable rate can hurt you, because you won’t be able to use AutoSlash.
In my case I thought it was a good enough deal to book even though it was non-refundable. But in most cases, using AutoSlash is going to be the quickest way to save money. Because you can set it and forget it.
That said, AutoSlash won’t search for better rates on different dates, times, pick-up, or drop-off locations.
AutoSlash would have missed the deal I found! So if your travel plans are flexible, it can be worth spending a few extra minutes to check the prices on different days and times.
Note: You used to be able to directly book rental cars through AutoSlash and they would automatically cancel and re-book your rental when the price dropped. But unfortunately, they were so good at saving you money that rental car companies stopped letting them book reservations directly. 🙁
3. Don’t Make This Mistake With Extra Rental Car “Services”
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would like to add hidden fees to that list.
Rental car fees can be tricky, so it’s important to always pay attention to the details. Because the rules will vary not just between companies, but also depending on what state you’re in!
For example, in California, you won’t have to pay extra to add additional drivers to your rental. In most other states, whether or not you pay a fee for additional drivers varies by company.
I like to think of myself as a savvy traveler. And I pride myself on avoiding ridiculous fees. But on a recent road trip, the rental company got the best of me because I didn’t read the fine print.
I wanted to save on tolls by using National Car Rental’s TollPass (similar to EZ-Pass). The service costs~$4 a day (to up ~$20 for the rental period). I assumed this service would allow me to take advantage of the lower toll prices offered to EZ-Pass users. I did the math for a 2-day road trip and thought I could save ~$15+ in tolls (even after paying the extra ~$4 per day).
I found out after taking the trip that I was wrong. It turns out the TollPass service (and most other similar “services” offered by rental companies) charges you for tolls at the cash rate, NOT the discounted rate.
The extra fee wasn’t horrendous, and it did save me time at the tollbooths. But in the future, I will be getting my own EZ-Pass (if I’m going through a state that accepts it) because you can use it for “any vehicle of the same class,” including rental cars!
4. Don’t Overpay for Rental Car Insurance
The collision damage waivers that rental car companies offer can cost up to $20 per day. That can be as much as the rental car! So I almost always book with my Chase Sapphire Preferred, which provides primary rental car insurance for car rentals of 31 consecutive days or less.
Just remember, this primary rental car insurance only covers damage due to collision or theft to your vehicle, NOT the liability for damage to other vehicles, property, or for injuries. For most folks this isn’t an issue, because your personal liability auto insurance is likely to cover your rental car. But you should double check to make sure!
Because I live in a city with great public transportation, I don’t own a car. I could purchase supplemental liability insurance through the rental company. But that can cost $20 to $40 a day!
Instead, I have a non-owner auto insurance policy which is ~$33 a month for my wife and me. It gives us liability coverage for almost any car we are driving, including rentals or just borrowing a family member’s car.
Readers R Johnson & GR8FUL both recommend Allianz as a good company for getting a cheap ($8 to $12 per day) collision damage waiver. And reader Marc says that USAA members can get non-owner auto insurance for only ~$25 a year!
Flights and hotels aren’t the only big expense when it comes to travel. Rental car rates and hidden fees can quickly add up! But with very little extra effort you should be able to save a lot of cash using these 4 tips:
How to Book a Cheap Rental Car
- Be flexible with your travel dates, times, and rental locations
- Use AutoSlash
- Avoid tricky fees
- Don’t overpay for rental car insurance
I was able to save ~55% on a car rental by adjusting my return time by only 4 hours! And team member Jesse saved on a recent rental by making 2 one-way reservations instead of making a round-trip booking.
If your travel plans are flexible, it’s a good idea to see if you can save money by adjusting the date, time, or location of your rental.
The rules for renting a car vary widely by company and by the state you’re renting in. So it’s always important to read the fine print so you don’t end up getting stuck paying more than you expected!
What are your favorite ways to save on rental cars? And what are the most outrageous fees you’ve ever been charged? Let me know in the comments!