Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the cheap.
Do you think finding the lowest airfares is difficult? Try to get the best deal on a rental car. Today, car rental rates change faster than television channels launch reality shows.
But there are ways to both save and be content without feeling like a participant on ‘Survivor’.
Here are some tips that should ensure a smooth and satisfying ride.
1. Go for the triple play
Try this before you book. Visit a travel consolidator such as Travelocity or Expedia and perform a car rental search within your specifications (city, dates, vehicle size). Record results for at least the top three prizes. Then visit the website or call the toll-free number of your top three finalists and ask for their best deal.
If they pressure you to book, reply that your plans are still finalizing. Be sure to ask for the direct phone number of each company’s local office. Then call the local office of the cheapest company (such as ABC Rental at Dulles Airport) and ask again for the best available price. This approach usually results in cheap, cheaper, and then the cheapest price.
2. Forget Labels
Many low-cost, high-quality brands such as Advantage, Fox Rent A Car, and Midway may not be household names. View websites like CarRentalExpress.com or CarRentals.com to find some of these independent agencies.
3. Ask for discounts
Always ask if the rental company offers discounts for membership to AAA, AARP, or a department store club such as Costco or Sam’s Club. Most do. Look out for coupons or offers in travel magazines or at warehouse club checkouts. You can often link a nice discount to a free day’s rental or upgrade.
4. Go Off Site
It is often cheaper to rent from a location outside the airport. In an off-site location, you’ll still pay taxes and some fees, but they’ll likely cost less than at the airport (although more and more cities are finding ways to charge airport fees, even off-site).
Ask your hotel if there is a car rental company nearby. Or get the hotel’s address and connect it to the rental company’s website. Some companies, such as Enterprise, will pick you up for free or drop you off within a specified mileage range.
5. Book small, think big
Always book the smallest car you can tolerate. Chances are you’ll get a larger model for free, as most rental companies have larger fleets of medium and large vehicles. Don’t let the broker persuade you to pay extra. If your tiny Geo isn’t available on time, enjoy that roomy Lincoln Continental for the same price.
6. To insure or not to insure?
Ah yes, that is the question. Whether it’s more noble to risk that some boob won’t sweep you sideways in the hotel parking garage, or take out extra insurance. My advice: Know before you go.
Research your personal vehicle liability and collision policy. Most cover rental cars as long as you’re behind the wheel. Some credit card companies also pay for damages as a premium cardholder benefit. Call to confirm and, if coverage is provided, make sure to use that specific card when you rent.
However, it may be worth paying for the rental company’s insurance if your personal insurance policy has a high deductible. If you have an accident and the rental car needs to be repaired, your personal policy will probably not cover the rental costs during the days the rental car is being repaired. Those costs can add up quickly.
Also, buying insurance from the car rental company can keep your premiums from increasing in the event of an accident.
7. Behave like a CSI
Carefully inspect the vehicle before departure. Make a note of any dent, scratch, or dent on your rental agreement and make sure the rental representative sees them too. Otherwise, you may be held liable upon your return.
8. Tax and Expenses
Local and state governments have come up with a way to fund stadiums, convention centers and other special projects without a peep from voters: add a fee to every car rental. Not only do renters have nothing to say, but these government-imposed fees and taxes can drive your bill 30% or more above the base rate.
Other fees to note: airport concession (the rent or royalty paid to the airport), excise duties (costs associated with registering a vehicle), and of course sales tax. Before making your reservation, you should get a clear quote that includes all taxes and fees.
9. Beware of Hidden Costs
For example, companies are becoming stricter on late fees. A 24-hour clock runs from the moment the agent hands over the keys. Show up after your agreed return time and you can pay for a full extra day. And, sorry, that one or two hour grace period is now often just 30 minutes.
One-off costs can also add up. While a few routes may not penalize a day’s driving and drop-off, most do. Avoid paying for bells and whistles, such as GPS devices or a satellite radio, that you don’t need.
10. Fuel Fool
Repeat after me… “I will never let the rental company fill my gas tank on my return.” Otherwise you pay dearly – two to three times more than filling up at a nearby gas station. One trick: As you drive away from the rental car parking lot, note any nearby gas stations and note their locations. This way you have a specific place in mind to refuel just before returning the vehicle.
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