As much as I’d love to use public transportation everywhere we go, having a car rental while traveling the US with kids is pretty much essential.
Which means finding cheap car rentals is pretty essential too!
We’ve tried to rely solely on public transporation before. And while it is possible in big cities like San Francisco and New York, we also have found that we burn a lot of time in the process. Waiting for the bus. Waiting for a missing muni. Waiting while stopping every 3 minutes on a 5 mile journey…
When you’re traveling with 2 small kids with very little patience, every single second is precious. And so if we find we can get across town twice as fast and give us more flexibility when we need it, it’s one added convenience we have to invest in right now.
All that to say, yeah…we book a lot of rental cars.
Here’s 5 ways to get cheap car rentals, no matter where you are in the world.
1. Book Early
Unlike flights where you might want to time the market to get the best price, there’s really no advantage to waiting out rental cars for a cheap price.
Why? Because rental car rates don’t really fluctuate all that much. But the one thing you will get by booking early? More selection.
Waiting too long runs you the risk of those highly desired intermediate size cars being sold out, forcing you to either squeeze into the cheap little compact to save a buck, or shell out for the big SUV.
Avoid the headache and lock in something as soon as you know your travel plans. You can always make changes if prices go down in the future. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Don’t Prepay
Rental car companies will often give you a little discount if you prepay at the time of booking. So what’s the catch? No free cancellation. This might sound like a good idea if you know you won’t be changing your travel plans, but more often than not, skipping the prepay can be used later to your advantage. Instead…
Book your rental car well in advance to lock in the cheapest price for the best car available at the time. Then, check rates again 3 months before you go, followed by a few more times as your trip nears. You’re guaranteed either 1 of 2 things will happen:
- There are less cars available, so prices have gone up. No worries! You already locked in a cheap price, or…
- There are still lots of cars available, so prices have gone down. Now you can cancel your original reservation and book the cheaper one!
Either way, you are happy. 🙂
We almost always book with RentalCars.com for this very reason. It’s the easiest place to find the lowest rental car rates all in one place, PLUS almost all of their bookings come with free cancellation. Win win!
3. Beware of Added Airport Fees
Don’t you love when you find a cheap car rental that’s only $100/week, but when you go to the confirm the reservation and it’s suddenly $400?!
Yeah, me neither.
When you see that great of a disparity between the rental price and the final total, it’s due to all those dreaded extra fees and taxes. Most of these are placed by the city, so there’s really no getting around them. But one of the worst offenders that you can control? Airport fees.
Some cities are worse than others, but in general, it will almost always cost you more to book a car from an on-airport rental location. So instead of searching by airport, search by city. See if there are any locations close to the airport or your accommodations that you could Uber to for a cheaper price instead.
You might find that a little extra work is worth it for a big savings! On a recent trip to New Orleans we saved $200 on a one-week car rental simply by renting from an off-airport rental dealer (only 6 miles down the road)!
4. Just Say No to Add Ons
Collision Damage Waiver, Loss Damage Waiver, liability insurance, GPS navigation, prepaid gas, car seat rentals…the list goes on and on!
While some of these extras can be a convenience, there’s almost always a better, more cost-effective solution. Trust me, these rental companies aren’t out to do you any favors.
All those extra insurances are rarely necessary. In most cases, either your standard insurance or a travel rewards credit card will cover you for damages, so be sure to check beforehand and know what your coverage is. GPS is better left to your phone (you can even use a global wi-fi hotspot if you’re traveling internationally and don’t have service!) And prepaid gas, well…there are very few instances where we’ve found it to be worth the convenience (like that rental car in Mexico), so you’re almost always better off filling up yourself.
When it comes to car seats, we bring our own. I’ve heard too many stories of overpriced, dirty, or even completely missing “pre-booked” car seats, so for us, it’s not worth the risk. Remember, you can check your car seats with the airline for free!
5. Sign Up for the Loyalty Program
Unlike airlines, there’s not a whole lot of benefit to being loyal to one particular car rental company. Sure some will allow you to accrue points towards free rentals, but when you consider the typical rental cost (especially if you’re getting those cheap rates!), the savings just isn’t that grand.
Once you’ve booked the cheapest car rental available, THEN you should go ahead and sign up for that company’s loyalty program. There are two benefits to this that we’ve experienced:
- Except in certain states where “extra driver fees” are prohibited or restricted, you’ll still find the extra fee with many rental companies. That means if you and the hubs both want to drive, it’s going to cost you. However, if you are a member of the rental company’s loyalty program, these extra driver fees are almost always waived!
- And in my book the even better reason to sign up for the loyalty program, saved time!
True story: we once turned what could have been a 2-3 hour wait at a packed, tiny Avis dealer in central Florence into a 30 minute visit, all just by signing up for Avis Preferred before we arrived!
Being in those loyalty programs will almost always push you to the front of the line come check-in time. Considering they’re free to join, there’s really no reason not to!
Do you have any hacks for finding cheap car rentals? Let us hear them below!
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