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Ten Ways to Save on Car Rental

Updated on December 30, 2010

Simple Tips to Cheap Car Rental

A car rental is not just a run of the mill travel purchase. The process required to rent a car can be complicated, confusing, and frustrating for anyone, but it does not have to be. These tips for simpler, cheaper car rental can save you your hard earned cash and unwanted headaches.

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Tip 1: Start Planning Early

The issue that often arises with car rental is that most people don't decide that they will rent a car until they are sure that they can afford it. The more paramount costs of airfare, hotels, food, etc. must be covered before we can rent a car, right? Yes, no doubt. However, if you think you might rent a car, you should start planning for it, even if you haven't got the details worked out just yet. Failing to make a car rental reservation in advance can cost you significantly. Once you have the dates of your travel nailed down, find your car rental company and make a reservation.

Tip 2: Be Realistic

Many people will travel to the airport in a large SUV and then arrive at their destination with a reservation for a mid-size rent a car. Before you make a car rental reservation, be sure to consider everything that you will have with you, the number of people traveling, etc. If it took a large SUV to get you, your party, and your entire luggage to the airport, it is likely that a mid-size car is not going to fit your needs. If you have a reservation for a vehicle that won't work, you don't really have a reservation at all. You will now have to upgrade to a bigger car class (if possible), or go to another rent a car vendor completely. The added on demand costs of upgrades or getting a vehicle elsewhere can be astronomical. Moreover, there can be added costs of canceling reservations at the last minute (no show fees) or you can find that all of the vehicles that would work for you are already taken by people who arrived earlier or properly planned for their needs. So, if you like the economy car price but really need a Mini-Van, booking the cheaper car will likely not save you any money. Consider your needs, and plan appropriately.

You also need to consider where the company is located at your destination. Often, companies which are located off-airport are cheaper. However, these companies will usually require you to take a shuttle to their location. Consider if you are traveling in a large group, with children, or by yourself. Is coordinating a shuttle ride to and from the rental company's location is something you want to deal with? If you are traveling alone, maybe a shuttle ride is not so bad. In a group, a shuttle ride can be a nightmare to coordinate and can cost you valuable time, especially when you are trying to catch a flight at the end of your trip. An on-airport rent a car company may provide the necessary convenience that can make or break your trip. Determine for yourself: Is it worth the hassle of going off-airport to get your rent a car?

Tip 3: Compare Prices

Now you are planning to rent the appropriate sized vehicle, understand where you want to rent (on or off airport) and need to find a car rental company. Start comparing prices. Use a multiple vendor search site such as,, or These sites will easily allow you to view the costs of multiple car rental companies all in one convenient package.

Important: Compare apples to apples . . . On-Airport to On-Airport, Full Size to Full Size, etc.

Tip 4: Make Reservations

Car Rental Rates are subject to change at any time. However, you can lock in your rental rate by making a reservation. We suggest that you pick at least 2 or 3 companies with which to make a reservation. You can choose to reserve through the multiple vendor search site or go directly to the company's website for added coupons and discount offers.

Related Squidoo Lens: Car Rental Coupons

Why? I'm Glad you asked.

Tip 5 recommends that you read the policies of the car rental company. This process can take a while. In order to make sure that the rates don't change while you are reading them, we suggest that you go ahead and make reservations with the companies that have the prices, locations, and vehicles for which you are looking. After you have read the policies for the companies that you chose, you can cancel your unwanted reservations as is suggested in Tip 7.

Bottom line, making a reservation in advance is the simplest way to save on car rental. Having a reservation does not stop you from looking for a better rate, but it does guarantee that you won't pay more for your rent a car than what you have reserved. If the rates go down, you can simply make a new reservation at the lower rate and then cancel any unwanted reservations. If the rates go up, you can be happy that you booked in advance and are locked in at a good, low rate.

Tip 5: Read the Policies

Reading the rent a car company's policies is an important step to saving you unwanted, avoidable stress as well as money. First, you need to know that not all car rental companies have the same policies. Some companies accept debit cards, some don't. Some companies rent to those under age 25, some don't. Prices will vary for baby seats, additional drivers, rental insurance, etc. To avoid a frustrating situation at your destination, read the policies of the car rental companies with which you have made the reservations and choose the best fit for you.

Tip 6: Keep Looking

Remember, car rental rates are subject to change at any time. If the rates go down, you want to take advantage of the savings. Add a simple rate check to your morning or evening routine.

I once took a trip to Nashville, TN. I made a reservation with Thrifty Car Rental and enrolled in their Blue Chip Program to avoid any unnecessary lines at the rental location. I was traveling with my mother for a four day trip to visit family. Understanding that it would be a short trip (limited luggage), with only one other person, I chose to reserve the "Wild Car" option which guaranteed me a vehicle with 4 doors and 5 seat belts between the Mid-Size Car and Mini Van vehicle classes. The rate was discounted from that of the Mid-Size Car (approximately $1 per day). I reserved approximately 2 months early for a four day estimated total of about $176. I thought this was a fair deal compared to the rates offered by other companies in the area for that time frame.

Over the next two months, I checked back once or twice a week. I canceled and remade new reservations 6 or 7 times. I ultimately paid $123.75 for my rental. The process probably took me an additional 60 to 90 minutes and I saved more than $50 from my original cost. That was worth it.

Tip 7: Cancel Unwanted Reservations

If you have multiple reservations with the same or different companies, cancel you unwanted reservations. Do this as soon as you know you don't need your reservation, but no less than at least 48 hours in advance. The car rental companies usually don't charge if you cancel your reservations, but you may be subject to a "No Show" fee if you have a reservation and don't pick up the car.

Understand that the rent car company will accept reservations and adjust their rental rates based on the number of vehicles that they will or won't have available. They want to sell their entire inventory on every day. Canceling reservations not only helps you, but it can help others in getting vehicles and good rates.

Tip 8: Find Out About Your Coverage

Do you need rental coverage? This is a tough question that only you and your insurance agent can answer. The car rental agent can't tell you if you covered unless you buy the coverage offered by the company. Car Rental coverage can cost as much as $35.00 or more per rental day. If you need or want it, the value that this provides is fantastic. If you don't need it, you could be wasting money. If you decide to take the coverage offered, there are no refunds if you find out later that you didn't need it. Waiting until you arrive at the rental counter to find out if you are covered will cause unimaginable stress and/or unwanted cost.

When you rent a vehicle, you are accepting responsibility for that vehicle. It must be returned in the same condition as it was rented to you less "normal wear and tear." If the car is damaged and you are not covered, you are responsible for all costs associated with the repair of the vehicle. The car rental company will pursue you to recoup their costs. Find out if you need or want the coverage before you arrive at the rental location.

Tip 9: Understand Your Rental Agreement

When you pick up the rental vehicle, you will sign a rental agreement (unless you have provided an electronic signature through a frequent renter program). Be sure to understand that agreement before you sign. Ask questions; get answers. There may be additional charges for later returns or fuel. Know what you have to do to keep the final cost of your rental the same as the estimated total of your agreement. If you choose not to read all of the fine print of the agreement at the rental counter, be sure to read it as some point during your rental.

Tip 10: Return with Time to Spare

At the end of your rental, you need to return the vehicle with enough time to check the vehicle in to the rental company and personally inspect the car.

Check the car for all personal belongings. The car rental company is not responsible for items left in the vehicle. You will see this when you read the rental agreement.

Return the keys to the company, complete any final paperwork, and get a finalized receipt. If you have any questions about the charges, get those answered before you leave. You will find that getting any billing issues corrected will be infinitely easier at the rental location.

Bonus Tip: Book Direct

Go directly to the car rental company's web site to make reservations.

Next to simply making a reservation in advance, making that reservation directly with the car rental company is the easiest way to save on your rent a car purchase as it will allow you to take advantage of discount coupons and memberships offered by the company. This issue is explored more completely in this "Car Rental Coupons" lens.

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