Q: My girlfriend and I are planning to drive up the California coast later this year. We'll need to rent a car for a week. Can we do that without breaking the bank and land a car that's a little more exciting than your basic midsize sedan?—Mark Pepper, Chicago, Ill.
A: Mark, you're a brave man to consider a driving vacation with gas prices hovering above $3 a gallon. The answer to both your questions is yes—it's possible. Unusual and luxurious cars now represent a greater, and growing, segment of the market. But rental prices are up by about 8 percent over last year at airports and 20 percent at off-airport locations. Which means to get the car you want at the price you want, you'll need to do some research. Here's what I recommend:
Decide what sort of car you'd like. Your choices at brand-name rental-car outfits like Hertz and Avis, as well as at discounters like Payless Car Rental and Thrifty, run from subcompacts to SUV's and minivans. Many offer convertibles as well. But if you'd rather drive a Ferrari or a Prius, they're out there: Fox Rent A Car (foxrentacar.com) has 400 hybrid Honda Civics, Toyota Priuses, and Highlanders in its fleet. Prices at LAX ranged from about $35 a day to twice that, at press time. And Beverly Hills Rent A Car (bhrentacar.com), which has locations throughout southern California, has everything from Chrysler PT Cruisers ($59 a day) to Mercedes Convertible SLK 280's ($199) to a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado ($399). There's also a 2006 Ferrari F430 Coupe, which goes for $2,500 a day.
Use the Web to find the best prices. If you're renting the kind of car—sedan, convertible, SUV—that's widely available, it will pay to shop around. Web sites such as Hotwire, Kayak, Mobissimo, and Priceline allow you to search many rental companies simultaneously to find the best prices. Note: as with airline tickets, Priceline offers its best deals using a bid system, which forces you to commit if your price is met. What's the smartest way to play the sites against each other?Find your best price, then take it to Priceline and see if you can do better. Either way, you wind up knowing you got a great deal.
Consider renting off-airport. According to rental-car expert Neil Abrams of Abrams Consulting Group in Purchase, New York, you'll save about $8 a day on average by renting the same car at an off-airport location. That's just the tip of the iceberg: there are taxes and fees assessed at airports that aren't assessed elsewhere. "It's worth a $12 cab ride to get to an off-airport location," says Abrams, "particularly if you're renting for several days or a week." And, he notes, if you're willing to go to an "off-brand, off-airport" location—renting from a company that doesn't have the cachet of a Hertz or an Avis—you can save as much as $30 a day. Check out Fox, E-Z (e-zrentacar.com), and Ace (acerentacar.com), Abrams says.
Know what insurance you do—and don't—need. About one-quarter of people who buy rental-car insurance do so because they don't know if they're already covered or not, according to a survey by the Ohio-based Progressive Group. That can add $15 to $20 (sometimes more) to the cost of each day's rental. To figure out whether you need coverage, call your own auto insurer and your credit card company (the one you'll be using to rent the car) to find out what insurance you already have.
Finally, about those gas prices. It can pay (in a big way) to shop around for gas as well. Use Web sites such as gaspricewatch.com and gasbuddy.com to search by ZIP code for the filling stations that are offering the best prices. And make sure you not only fill up the tank before you turn in the car, but also keep your receipt for that refill. At least one rental-car company is now checking to see that you topped off the tank, because the needle can read full even though you've used up to three gallons. If prices stay in the stratosphere, others may well follow suit.
E-mail Jean! T+L's personal finance columnist, Jean Chatzky, answers your questions about money and value-related travel matters. Send queries to AskJean@aexp.com. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.