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11 Car-Rental Cost-Cutting Secrets

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Photo: © Bill Bachmann / Alamy

With gas prices at $4 per gallon and climbing, even a weekend road trip can be an expensive proposition—especially when you throw in the cost of a rental car. And while cost is on everyone’s mind right now, it shouldn’t be the only factor in determining which car company and model to choose. A successful car-rental experience is one that brings together price, model, service, and timing—and it can prove frustratingly elusive, even for the savviest travelers.

“I almost never know what to expect when I rent a car,” says Stephen Bearden, a world-traveling auto-industry executive who rents an average of 75 times a year. “There are days it feels like a total crapshoot—everything varies so much from city to city, company to company, car to car.”

So how do you guarantee yourself a good price on your next car rental without going through a shady company?Actually, there’s plenty you can do to make the rental-car stars align and end up with a lower bill.

One reason that car-rental experiences have been inconsistent is the industry itself, which has been consolidating: Avis and Budget joined forces in 2002, and Enterprise snapped up National and Alamo in 2007, leaving fewer big players in the U.S. market. At the same time, drivers are facing rising taxes and fees, such as the local and state surcharges applied to airport rentals—which can increase the cost of an average rental by as much as 25 percent. And anyone who’s returned a car with less than a full tank (and without a prepaid plan) knows the result: exorbitant fuel charges.

And let’s not forget about those complicated insurance questions, which still bewilder travelers at home and abroad. Knowing your coverage—whether through a personal auto insurance policy or that of your preferred credit card—is the best way to ensure peace of mind and avoid overpaying at the counter.

But some industry changes are for the better, like increased competition from independent companies like rent-by-the-hour Zipcar, and a larger number of deal-finding tools online. International Web sites of U.S. rental agencies, for example, often have better rates for travel abroad than their U.S. counterparts. And aggregator Web sites Kayak.com and Sidestep.com allow travelers to easily search and compare many quotes at once, then bypass extra fees by linking directly to the rental agency.

But one of the most positive changes is coming from the rental-car companies themselves: they’re offering more hybrid vehicles, which not only minimize your carbon footprint but also save you money on fuel. A gas/electric vehicle can help you save as much as a day’s worth of rental fees on a weeklong trip, says David Morris, author of Driving Our Way to Energy Independence. The popular Toyota Prius, for instance, averages 46 miles per gallon—a 35 to 40 percent improvement over a comparably sized standard car.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car plans to double its inventory of 5,000 hybrids by 2009. For now, the company is concentrating its models in the most traffic-troubled areas. Four new “Green Branches” are located in the most densely populated parts of Atlanta. “We don’t yet have as many of these vehicles as we would like, so we’re starting to put them where the most customers are asking for them,” says Patrick Farrell, Enterprise’s vice president of corporate responsibility and communications.

Sixty-three percent of Avis Budget Group’s vehicles are certified by the EPA’s SmartWay Transport program, and 2,500 of them are hybrids. Major West Coast airport locations are your best bet for reserving one; the cars are also available in select cities including Chicago, Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C..

Hertz has more than 4,000 hybrids that can be reserved upon request in major cities and at many airports in the United States and Europe. The company’s Manhattan outposts have 100 Priuses.

Drivers in the western United States can also check out EV Rental Cars (evrental.com), the country’s only “all-environmental” rental company. The group’s 350-car fleet is available at six major California airports, as well as at locations in Phoenix and, new this summer, Seattle. If you can’t find a hybrid, Morris recommends passing up any attractive upgrades. “Stick with the most fuel-efficient subcompacts,” he says.

Ultimately, of course, renting a car is about enjoying the road trip, but it’s always nice to save a few bucks along the way.

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