Five Ways To Save Money (And Headaches!) When Renting A Car

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Summer travel can be pricey in many regards, and renting a car is no exception. While I often rent a car for a couple of days at a time, I’m getting ready to leave for my annual three-week trip to the Bay Area (the site of last year’s car disaster trifecta), and yikes, prices are expensive!

Like, not quite buy-a-car-instead expensive, but definitely more than my first car was worth at the end of its life:

Thankfully for me (and for my friend whose company is contracting me for the month), there are plenty of ways to work around the add-ons, and in some ways, even the base price. So I thought it might be useful to round up some of my favorite strategies for saving cash when I rent a car.

Just a quick warning – a few of these tips link back to material that I’ve already written, so if you’re a regular here, feel free to skip around this post.

Then again, I still have to remind my husband to decline the collision coverage whenever he rents a car in Europe. And he helped me edit my first post on credit cards that offer collision coverage. So, I guess a refresher never hurts. šŸ˜‰

Speaking of things that I’ve told my husband (and my best friend, and my hairdresser, and the person standing next to me in the elevator) to do…

Sign up for the car company’s loyalty program

If there is one single way to pretty much ensure a better car and a less stressful time at the counter, my gosh is this it. For years, I went with the cheapest option that I could find, rolling the dice on off-airport locations and not really caring about earning points.

All that changed when I signed up for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards last summer.

Because, with many of the rental car loyalty programs in place, you get access to better cars and expedited service just by signing up. BothĀ AvisĀ andĀ BudgetĀ offer programs where you can skip the line and go straight to your car, whileĀ National and Hertz offer the option to choose your car – often from a more premium line – simply by signing up for their program.

I drive a Prius, so this is perhaps a little excessive, but it sure beats a Nissan Versa.

And while Alamo Insiders doesn’t quite get you the swanky check-in experience, you can still save 5% on every rental in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Furthermore, your airline loyalty can turbocharge your rental car status. United MileagePlus Platinum and 1K members, Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallions, and United MileagePlus Club cardholders receive Hertz President’s Circle status, while United MileagePlus Gold and Silver Members and Delta Gold Medallions get Hertz Five Star status.

To their end, American AAdvantage has a partnership with National, although it doesn’t look like it buys you quite as much as the corresponding United/Delta/Hertz partnerships.

You can also receive various rental car status levels with different credit cards – perhaps most notably the Amex Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserve – but that probably warrants an entirely separate post. šŸ˜‰

So, what does rental car status get me?

First off, skipping the line can mean the difference between a great day, and this:

Stay strong, SFO Avis and Budget customers!

I actually know people who have gone so far as to sign up for the loyalty programĀ while they’ve been waiting in a line like that, waltzed over to the priority area, and were out the door in fifteen minutes.

Furthermore, if you are signed up for a program with Hertz or National that allows you to choose your vehicle, you can often walk out with something much better than you signed up for. I get carsick just looking at an economy-sized rental car, so having the option to book a cheaper vehicle, and then choosing something nicer, is a great perk and a huge cost savings when I need a minivan (or a Mustang).

Just keep in mind theĀ huge caveat that the quality of vehicles and availability of upgraded cars can vary by airport. For example, here is Infiniti City at the Hertz President’s Circle lane at SFO:

Whereas Houston’s IAH President’s Circle area is practical, but decidedly less glamorous:

And I was lucky just toĀ get a car at Dallas’s DFW:

Your mileage will vary, so if you’re off to a new airport, be sure to research the rental car facility and its corresponding loyalty privileges.

Lock in a price – and then keep checking prices

This has been one of my favorite tricks for years. Unless they specify otherwise, rental car companies typically don’t require you to throw down a credit card until you are at the desk, and prices can often drop dramatically.

So I’ll typically jump on an existing rate, and then keep researching and booking new reservations whenever a better price comes up.

If I’m searching for rentals through Kayak, I can simply book a new reservation, and then cancel my previous reservation by scrolling to the bottom of the email and looking for the cancellation area. As long as the car is not prepaid, there is no cost to cancel.

If I’m renting through Hertz and I see cheaper rates show up, I can modify my reservation by clicking here:

Follow the prompts, and then make sure to uncheck the “I want the Rate Plan I originally reserved” box:

Just make sure you double-check the ratesĀ before clicking “submit,” so that you don’t accidentally “modify” yourself into a more expensive reservation!

I’ve already saved ~ $400 on my upcoming reservation this way, but I’m not giving up yet! Usually, if I’m within a week of the trip, I’ll look at the prepaid rates as well, which can save a huge chunk of change (although once you prepay, you are locked into the rate):

Remarkably, sometimes I can get a better rate simply by switching browsers. As I write this, I’m currently logged into my Hertz Gold Plus Rewards account on both Safari and Chrome. The above rate was quoted on my Chrome browser, but here is the best I can do on Safari, using the exact same search criteria:

Hmm…

If I do make a new reservation, I’ll make sure to cancel the old reservation, just to keep things clean (and because I don’t want that kind of karma following my rental car around).

That said, I have shown up to the counter with multiple reservations before. They’ll know what to do.

Pay with a credit card that offers collision coverage

While I’ve covered the topic of credit cards that offer primary collision coverage before, it’s a pretty complicated subject (and is probably designed to be as such), so here is a quick recap on the best cards for this:

It’s generally a good idea to have a copy of your guide to benefits with you, especially if you are traveling overseas. While it feelsĀ great to decline the coverage at the desk and to tell the rep that I’m “double-covered” through my credit card and through my auto insurance, it feels less great to have that same conversation over Google Translate.

Avoid cashless tolls (or at least have a plan for how to pay them)

As more and more toll roads move toward cashless tolls that are billed based on your license plate, rental car companies have found a way to charge “convenience fees” for processing said tolls. These range from nominal at best to borderline extortion, and you can read our complete roundup of rental car cashless toll policies here.

(And if you don’t feel like reading the whole article, I’ll boil it down for you. Silvercar is the best in this regard, Hertz, Alamo, National, Payless, and Enterprise are halfway decent, and most of the low-budget operators areĀ really shady).

While there aren’t anyĀ greatĀ workarounds for this, you can avoid the bulk of these charges with a little bit of strategy and creative thinking. Start by:

  • Buying your own transponder (Florida and the Northeast are prime contenders here)
  • Registering your rental car and make the toll payment online (Southern California and the Bay Area have options for this)
  • Carrying cash (which doesn’t do much for cashless tolls, but helps in places like Florida, where there are often several toll lanes)
  • Selecting the “avoid tolls” option on your navigation app

And speaking of navigation apps…

Use navigation apps to avoid hefty refuel fees

One final way to lose money on rental cars is in your way back to the airport. While some airports have readily available refuel options on site (see: Denver, Pittsburgh), they’re often overpriced. At other airports, you would think that they don’t evenĀ offer rental cars, given how sparse the nearby gas stations are.

And don’t even get me started on Orlando’s MCO:

Friends don’t let friends fill up at Suncoast Energys

Fortunately, I was recently reminded of a feature on Google Maps that allows you to “search along route” for things like coffee shops, restaurants, and yes, gas stations. To use this feature, plug in your destination, and click on this lower area:

Then select the “search along route” option:

Click on (you guessed it) gas stations:

And you’ll be prompted with a variety of options that include prices and time needed for the detour:

Finally, when you click on the gas station of choice the “add stop” option will appear, which allows you to simply add the stop to your route:

I’m not sure why I would return a rental car to my home airport, but you get the idea.

While I’m not as familiar with Apple Maps or Waze, they offer a similar navigation option as well, and in the little bit of toggling that I’ve done, I believe they’re actually even more intuitive.

Regardless of which app you use, it sure beats driving in circles around the rental car center looking for a place to fill up – or worse, paying the hefty refuel fees.

Bottom line

Whether you want to zip off in a Mustang or simply avoid the upsells, hopefully some of these tricks help you to avoid overpaying on your next rental car.

And whatever you do, don’t fill up at MCO’s Suncoast Energys gas station!

What are your favorite ways to save money on rental cars? Do you stick with loyalty programs or go for the cheapest option possible?

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Comments

  1. National is the only way to go for business travelers. Walk straight to the lot, pick what you want and your off.

    However, “point-earning” potential kinda sucks. Better off earning rental credits for free days.

  2. I never pick up rental cars at airports for personal travel. It’s easier to just go to the hotel and/or a rental office away from the airport to avoid some heft airport charges. On top of that, there is almost no waiting at off-airport sites. One still has to wait for the gate attendant to check the car even if you avoid the reservation check-in queue. For many companies, valet services are included (such as for Hertz Presidential Circle), which avoid all queues above.

  3. Regarding the fuel question: if you have a little time, GasBuddy is great to look for cheap gas. Additionally the taxation of gas seems to differ in some states -> it might be cheaper to fill up in another state if you happen to be close to a border.

  4. Important way to save money and headaches. Do a walk around of your car before you take it off the lot and document/photograph any dings, dents, or scratches. Avoid the dropoff attendant try and bill you for someone else’s damage.

  5. Steph:

    Excellent article and timely for me. SFO and MCO are both terrible as far as rental cars go.

    On multistop vacation right now.

    First stop: SFO. One day. Literally booked a vehicle from Enterprise in Burlingame as we were on approach. Had to pay for an Uber to get there since it was last minute, but avoiding the train ride and potential bs and 40% in fees was worth it. In and out in 5 minutes.

    Stop 2: Maui. You know itā€™s going to be bad when the employee where you go to get on the rental car bus tells the line is really long that youā€™re Screwed. When we got off the bus, there were at least 50 people standing around outside with one employee taking names for a waitlist that allowed you to stand in the rental car line inside. I tell employee I have a Fastbreak reservation and she sends my inside where Iā€™m in and out in 3 minutes. Probably saved a good 45 minutes and my sanity.

    Next stop is LAX next week. Have another Fastbreak reservation but also did a Turo valet lot reservation on a big Mercedes SUV for $100 per day all in with their insurance. Anyone have experience with Turo at LAX?

  6. It also pays to play around with the various CDP and PC codes etc. Flyertalk usually has links. 30 mins of playing around with this recently saved me $175 on a weekly rental with Hertz. They donā€™t seem to check the codes either (eg if you use an Amex code they donā€™t say ā€œshow me your Amexā€ but YMMV.

    Also be aware that Hertz requires you to go to the counter on your first gold rental (you may be able to go to the separate gold counter) on your first rental to validate your CC. At least thatā€™s what happened to me. Going forward having a car waiting for you is well worth the effort of signing up. Also if you dislike the car they assigned to you, in my experience they will usually switch for you if they have other options available.

    Also are hertz gold desk usually has plentiful bottled water. Good place to stock up before heading out of the airport.

  7. I think one major money saving tip that could be added here is costco travel. In the last 3 years, I’ve comparison shopped with kayak and hotwire and . . . and probably 95% of the time costco travel had the best price for rental cars for my personal travel. And I end up getting all the perks –bypass the desk type perks.

    Not everyone has a costco membership, but I bet almost anyone has a friend who has one.

  8. Airport locations have tons of extra taxes and fees. If flying into SFO, take the Bart to San Bruno. There is an Avis location at the sears auto repair center there. Doing a quick spot check on Avis.com, it seems a one day rental (no rate codes) for a compact is 111.14 with taxes. The same car type for the same day at the San Bruno location is 51.17 with taxes. Key is to always rent off airport.

  9. In the US for business trips I either rent from National or I use Uber. Having National’s highest elite status makes them the only way to go. As for outside the US, good luck!!!! I tried Hertz, Enterprise and Avis and they are all terrible. It gets to a point where the word “guaranteed” means nothing. You have a reservation for a luxury SUV and you are lucky to get an economy car. And the store manager could not care less.

  10. Second @Thomas Rā€™s tip re Costco. I aways start there for a good baseline. Might just be lucky, but I get zero upsell when I pick up a Costco rental car and the numbers are always exactly as quoted on the Costco reservation. Would like to see Stephā€™s post on CSR rental car benefits. Iā€™ve never figured out how to get any value out of that.

  11. Keep your gas receipt and with Thrifty and make SURE you offer a copy to the person checking the car in. Taking photos around the car is a good one before you leave the facility. This is super important in countries like Israel, Mexico, Ireland, etc. Check the gas tank to make sure it’s full before you leave the rental facility. Don’t rent from Europcar as they will likely rip you off on the currency conversion even if you specifically pick the local currency to pay and they will NOT refund this ever even if you complain. Be careful what ARCO stations you fill up at as many don’t take credit cards (I think the one at Sacramento may have changed this in recent years however). Rent from Dooley in Ireland, Silvercar if you get a decent rate. Rent a manual transmission in most countries to save the up-charge for an automatic (it’s time you learned how and why do it in your own car). Don’t speed in Delaware or anywhere that has speed cameras.

  12. Saying ā€˜noā€™ to the gas option and returning full is a must. I learned the hard way about 10 years ago that all the bs taxes and fees that apply to your base rental – also apply to the fuel purchase.

    The offsite location is key. Last year ago we flew to PSP for 5 days. All onsite agencies seemed abnormally high. I checked offsite rates, and guess what? I saved about $150 by using a Hertz located 3 mi from PSP. Yes, it cost $15 in Uber plus 30 min ( my wife and son retrieved our bags and waited for me at arrivals), but to me the cost savings were well worth it.

    Anyone still using Auto Europe? We used them maybe 8 years ago for a 1-way weekly rental in northern Spain and they were great. Lowest cost, quality car (A3), and through a real agency (Avis).

  13. @SEAguy: Just to be aware, most of Cotco’s car reservations include CDW at no extra cost. That may conflict with the primary insurance from a credit card as Chase says very clear you are supposed to deny those coverage if you want to be covered by the car. Since it comes automatically not sure how that would work in case you need to make a claim.

  14. Does anyone know if booking via 3rd party give you status recognition with Hertz? I used expedia to reserve a car with Hertz. I’m PC for Hertz, so wondering if i can “pick my car” once i arrive at the airport?

  15. Favorite “trick” for rental car refueling is for “FlexFuel” vehicles. Use an app like Gas Buddy to see if E85 is available close to the airport. If it is, fill up with that, as it is both a “legal” fuel and is usually many tens of cents cheaper per gallon.

    Of course, don’t use E85 in a non-FlexFuel vehicle, because even though you’re unlikely to get caught, it both sucks and could net you a hefty damage penalty if you’re caught.

  16. @Santastico – if CDW is included, you would not need to file a claim with the credit card company at all, since the coverage would cover damages to the rental car due to a collusion, effectively replacing the coverage provided by the credit card.

  17. I have a question for the experts. I’m going to rent a car in Vienna, Austria for a couple of weeks in September. I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book the rental, the points are going to cover the entire cost of the rental. So technically I’m not going to pay any cash. In this case will my CSR still act as primary rental car coverage? I’ll be renting through Alamo. I also understand that there’s some insurance already built into all rentals anyway.
    Any advice on how I should go about getting insurance will be greatly appreciated.

  18. So why bloggers seems to like Hertz over National when reply (of normal users) actually the opposite.

    @Steph
    Now I know why those crazy priced station can survive. ALWAYS look at the pump before filling up. I’ve (rarely but do) seen different sign and pump price.
    FYI, I was in FL around that time too. I’m pretty sure the prices was around 2.00-2.20/gal, normal airport markup is 1.5x-2x but yours is badass bad 3x. Sorry to hear about it.

    Anyway, SFO with bunch of Infiniti is sad. No matter which one I rented out I never enjoyed driving any of them. Same goes with Nissan. IMHO, American cars are great for rentals because they are very decent in all areas and you don’t have to worry much about the major downside of American cars, the nasty maintenance issues.

  19. It would be great to get reliable advice on renting cars in Europe. Iā€™ve been doing it now for 13 years and I havenā€™t found any bargains.

  20. Not sure why Autoslash isn’t mentioned but why keep checking those reservations for a lower price yourself when they’ll do it for you? Also great customer service in my experience (despite them only making a referral commission); they’ve refunded me $100s in Uber rides and extra charges when Priceline has messed up a reservation (they send you to Priceline to book the car/get their commission).

  21. Also, use the Hertz Amex Platinum CDP code to save lots of money and get 4 extra hours of rental time.

  22. Thanks for a great post as always, Steph. I recently (in May) started renting cars for my vacations – before, I’d been in places where I didn’t really need them – and so there’s been a hefty learning curve. Your posts are great for that! A couple things I’ve learned to maximize time and savings, with the caveat that I”m still a bit of a newbie:

    – a lot of car rental locations will pick you up and drop you off, at least with Enterprise, so instead of using an airport location I take a Lyft to my hotel and have them pick me up. Saves me the hassle of an airport location.
    -you can book car rentals through cashback portals to get some cash or miles
    -this one’s pretty obvious, but pay for the gas with a credit card that earns double or triple points on gas. Gas stations also have their own rewards programs, and since google lets you search for gas stations along a route, you can pick the one whose points you’d like to earn.
    -Amex often has offers for X amount off a car rental, though sometimes that requires prepaying so you use the offer before it expires.

  23. Costco also usually works well for me, it’s rare I can beat the price I find there (the advice of checking multiple times as you get closer still applies).

    One thing that I’ve found hugely useful with Alamo – always use the kiosks. Since Alamo doesn’t assign you a car in advance anyways, the whole process can be completed at the kiosks, and while it asks you the normal insurance/etc questions, you just hit no on each and it moves on (unlike the people at the counter). I’ve usually found the people at the counter to be frustrating, but the people outside (after you use the kiosk) are just there to get you in a car, and they have always been pleasant to deal with.

  24. Sitting on the plane about to leave the US -38 day rental split into 2hires, went through 2 tolls, yep one in each contract -so tolls charge x 2.
    Then there is Avis Alaska- where do start- never heard of president circle, downgraded for a one way hire, lied to about availability of upgrade ( one had a flat tire one was booked – both still available on their web site though)
    Returned 24 hours early – got a 60 cent refund ( the full value of the hire was swiped at pickup) when I went back to query, I was told about weekly rates, but when I did a web search the identical car was cheaper for a hire ( one day less) I was told that if I wanted they would charge me $500 more based on the day rate. I said I would take the car back again, canā€™t do the hire was closed. 7 (6 actually) days cost $1500 – the new cost of the car I had – $22,000, be very careful with Avis AK

  25. When planning to rent a car say in Europe and doing the frequent price check that STEPH mentions in this article, remember to check what the cost is in the local currency not the converted currency rate.

    Also there are some really dodgy rental car consolidators out there and should be avoided at all cost. Do a search on Tripadvisor for AUTOEUROPE and you’ll see what I mean. I always rent directly from the car company itself.

  26. I almost got ripped off by that station north of MCO once, also. There is a Wawa with normal gas prices about 1/4 mi further north (away from the airport).

    I’ve successfully signed up for frequent renter programs from the back of a long line, then just skipped to the (empty) frequent renter line.

  27. I would like some information on how to avoid paying for a second driver (spouse) when renting a car. Even if just for safety reasons, the rental agencies should allow it – for free!

  28. that one gas station has been fighting the law for years I always here about it living here in Orlando they have always been 2$ above market pricing im not even sure how they get around it but its ridiculous

  29. Avis has gotten ridiculous. The only way to get a good price is to “pre-pay”, but if you pre-pay then even if you are at a high membership level (even President level) you still have to stand in line to check in.

  30. At SFO we always prefer SILVERCAR. Reserve on the app for less than most of the national chains… and it’s an AUDI…. Click PICK ME UP and the van picks you up at Island 2 and there is no wait when you arrive. AND its an Audi for less than a midsize with most other chains.

    I had to rent with a chain because my flight arrived too late. It took FOREVER to return the car. The lines going into the rental car facility on a TUESDAY night at 8pm were crazy. No so with Silvercar.

  31. @Liz Walsh – Avis, Budget, and Enterprise all allow you to add a spouse at no additional cost. Some of the other ones do too, in specific circumstances, but those three are probably your best go-to bet.

  32. Yes, there are about a half-dozen normally priced gas stations within 1 mile of MCO, on both sides of the same road. Just don’t stop at the first one.

    I once filled up in Cocoa Beach and did not have to re-fill at MCO because the gauge still said “full”.

  33. +1 for autoslash.com ! And use always US sites (compared to EU sites) as prices are usually lower!

  34. I recently had a few minor scratches from some scraping on the rear and front bumper from my rental car in Canada. Hertz charged me administration charges ($100 CAD) and loss of use. I have good personal auto insurance that pay for the entire cost of repair but my Mastercard (which provides secondary coverage) is willing to pay loss of use and not the administration charge. Is there anyway to get the administration charge waive with Hertz? The cost of repair already seemed really high and on the top of that, they are charging me $100 for administration.

  35. We pick up cars away from the airport – and you almost always can return to the airport with out the extra fees. We use Costco – best prices generally.

  36. @Donna don’t know if there’s any special techniques for renting it n Europe. I always use Hertz. Just book and check prices again as we get closer to pickup date then if the prepaid rate is cheapish I lock it in. Just doing a 10-day rental from Manchester UK one way to London Heathrow for $265 prepaid with CSR. This is for a Group C type car. Often we get much better upgrades in the UK – earlier this year we got a Mercedes S350 AMG for about 50 GBP per day.

  37. For US rentals, I always do:
    1. Search for a car from off airport location to avoid all those nasty local taxes and fees BUT return it to an airport location
    2. Use Autoslash.com to help me find better rates. Sometimes they might even find you airport location that rents for less than off airport one!!
    3. Decline all optionals
    4. Pay with the United Explorer Card for primary insurance coverage

  38. @T
    This is something many people don’t know. AVIS Alaska is a franchise location (I think other major agencies are too). Hence, their car is literally “their car” so one way most of the time isn’t even bookable especially in/outside of AK.

    Anyway President’s Circle is from “HERTZ”. No surprise AVIS don’t recognize or honor it.
    Rental Contract should say Day/Week/Month so your rate is accordingly. If 1 week (7 day rental) = 6 days rate then you wouldn’t get a refund if you reduce from 7 to 6.

    Then the toll part makes me believe you are just trying to complain over mistakes you made from your ignorance to understand the rules. So I don’t even think they downgraded you, you just misunderstood the rental agency’s car class. i.e. Intermediate = “normal people” compact.

    @T Learn from your mistakes.

  39. My company has a contract code with National/Enterprise that is typically 1/2 off the normal rate…I’ll never book anywhere else

  40. @eskimo

    My bad -Presidents Club ( and PC lady was on the phone to Avis AK

    Re tolls – seperate hire in US, same car rented over 30 days = 2 contracts – tolls in same month, need to investigate further

    PS been learning from my mistakes for over 60 years

  41. I never knew that a lot of credit card companies will already give you collision insurance for your car. My wife and I have been thinking of going to the coast this weekend, and we want to get a rental car. I will be sure to tell my wife that we should try and check our credit card to see if we already get collision insurance!

  42. I appreciate your tip about paying with a credit card that offers primary collision coverage. I would say that renting a car is a cost-effective mode of transportation in a new area. My wife is going on a trip with her sister, so I’ll be sure to help them locate a car rental service in order to make the trip stress-free.

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