Here's how you save money when renting a car
Having spent so many of my traveling years relying on public transit and my own two feet, the idea of renting a car still seems a bit counter-intuitive. Surely it would be cheaper to buy a weekly transit pass for the city I’m visiting?
A bad experience renting a car for a weekend in university seems to back me up. I grabbed a car from the first agency at the airport, was promptly scared into taking extra insurance, and wasn’t well-informed about the max miles for the weekend (yep, not everyone is unlimited).
Combined with a Sunday evening return when NO gas stations were open, my final bill for 48 hours for the car was nearly $350. And all this so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi for a big grocery order and so I could show a visiting friend the countryside! That experience burned me, and served as confirmation of my mother’s fears that car rental agencies were shady swindlers to be avoided at all costs. Since then, I've learned a few tricks of the trade to help me save money and make the most of my car rental experience.
1.) Rental cars are cleaner than your car at home. We practically live in our car and it bears the burden of sports gear, multiple jobs, courses of study, gardening, camping, an enthusiastic black lab. We try to keep things clean and tidy, but it’s a never-ending battle. Rental cars are not like that. Empty. Spotless. New. You and your carry on bag (because by now you won’t be dragging along checked baggage) will fit just fine in a tiny car.
2.) Fuel efficiency matters. Before booking a car, I do a quick search about the fuel efficiency of different models. If given the choice at a rental agency, I will quickly check my smart phone to get more information. The tiny size of the car will help you, but every category can see a wide range of efficiencies and it’s good to be informed.
3.) If you need or want a larger car, search the internet for upgrade coupons to present at the agency. You probably won’t find free jeeps or SUVs, but you may just find an upgrade from micro to tiny or tiny to small. Feel free to mention special occasions or favourite cars at the rental agency, but beware any special deals on how they can upgrade you to a (fill in the blank) for just (fill in what sounds like a reasonable amount) because they have some overstock. Maybe it’s a good deal - but more likely the amount you are quoted is without taxes and additional fees and what was just a few extra dollars a day is now a few hundred extra dollars at the end of your trip.
4.) Research, research, research. Use internet aggregators and visit individual sites. You’ll get a good idea about the average per diem after just a few visits. Do everything you can to beat it. There are online coupon codes for sites like Orbitz and Expedia to help you save. You can call the rental agency directly (not the 800 number, but the local office), and ask them to match a price. Unless you are very particular, a car is just a car. Don’t pay a penny more for it than you need to. And since many cars are not paid for until you pick them up, you can continue to search for a better deal after you book and make a last-minute switch if you like. Auto Slash is a great resource and will alert you when prices drop on your rental bookings.
5.) Be careful where you rent from. Airports charge rental agencies high rents and these charges come back to you as an "airport fee." In Las Vegas, you pay a $3 per day “facility charge”, a 4% reimbursement of registration and license fee, a 6% Nevada rental service fee, a 7.5% state sales tax, and a 10% airport concession recovery fee. You can avoid the 10% concession recovery fee and $3 per diem facility charge by renting away from the airport. Renting for 7 days at $20 a day base price would cost $35 more at the airport based on these two additional fees than if you went elsewhere.
6.) Be well-informed about your existing automotive and credit card insurance policies to know what insurance coverage you already have and determine if you require or desire basic or extra insurance at the car rental agencies. They can give you a persuasive sell and the price per day can be reasonable. But keep in mind there is tax on insurance and that small costs add up. While you’re at it, determine if your auto club membership will offer any rental car coverages or services. Because rental agencies offer roadside assistance coverage as well! Bring a copy of all your policies, slip it in the bottom of your suitcase, and odds are you will never need it. And if you are in an unfortunate situation, your relief on having these documents on hand will be immeasurable.
7.) Always, always, always refill the gas tank before returning the car. Rental agencies will offer you many options for refilling the tank and, no matter how they spin it, it is always cheaper to refill it yourself. Look across the road from the airport. Yep, there is a local gas station right there, making brisk business on rental car refills. Taking care of this minor task will not cause any confusion or inconvenience for you and will save you a bundle.
8.) Get creative with your rental times. Per diem rates are not always the cheapest. A long weekend deal can be considerably cheaper than 3 days mid-week. A full week rental can cost less than a 5 day rental. Be flexible in your own travel plans to accommodate these rates. And while they are not for everyone, joining a guided tour bus for a day excursion can offer great financial and travel value. I traveled from Derry to Belfast with a company that targeted the hostel crowd for multi-day tours of Ireland. They had space to add me for the day and I spent less than it would cost for a standard student bus ticket (let alone a car rental), and was taken to many off the track locations to see amazing historical sites that I normally wouldn't get to easily.
9.) Do a careful pre-inspection of your car before driving away. You don’t want to incur charges for damages someone else caused. As a coffee can financier, chances are you just had a long flight. Take photos of the exterior and interior in case you aren’t feeling very sharp. And feel free to speak up if your car is not as expected. You do not have to settle for a substandard car just because you managed to find a bargain basement price, plus coupon codes. Your car should be clean, inside and out, free of damage, and drive smoothly. We had a bad car rental experience with a major rental agency in the US Southwest. Among other things, the inside was very dirty. We ended up calling the national hotline when we were not getting any local success. They took great care of us and we exchanged the lemon for a brand new sedan.
10) Along this same chain of thought -ask for what you want. Ask for the better car. Ask for the better price. The travel industry has been hurting in North America. There are many, many rental agencies in every city. They should want your business. All reasonable requests should be entertained. If you have membership in an auto club, alumni association, or well-known charitable organization, ask for a discount. Most discounts are not advertised. Most discounts don’t formally exist. But if you are well spoken, polite, friendly, and can give the impression of responsibility, you may just find yourself getting a much nicer car than the screaming horror-tourist with their whines and complaints. So ask. All they can say is no.
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Do you have any great tips to save money on trains, planes, or automobiles?
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