11 Car-Rental Cost-Cutting Secrets
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..
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.
If you thought driving on the left was the biggest challenge out there, consider these unusual foreign traffic laws when renting overseas.
Denmark If you are the last car in stopped traffic on a highway, you must turn on your hazard lights.
France Drivers are required to keep a reflective safety vest on the passenger side of the car and a triangular reflector in the trunk (both are provided with rentals). If the vehicle breaks down, the reflector must be placed 100 meters (328 feet) behind the car.
Germany A child under age 13 can sit in the front seat (in a child seat) only if the air bag has been deactivated.
South Korea Don’t try to grease any palms if you get pulled over here. Traffic police are required to report all bribes offered by motorists.
Heed kangaroo crossings and give way to penguins. —Bree Sposato
Go Opaque for Deep Discounts
William Shatner is right about one thing: booking through opaque travel websites like Hotwire and Priceline—where you pay upfront without knowing the specific hotel or car- rental agency you’re booking with—can ensure significant discounts. “As far as I’m concerned, one car rental is like another; it’s very much of an interchangeable commodity,” explains Ed Perkins, a contributing editor to SmarterTravel.
Another alternative is to turn to smaller players like CarRentalExpress, which offers discounted car rentals from lesser-known firms. (A sample search in Fort Lauderdale turned up All American Car Rentals, Orlicar, and Quality Car and Van Rental.) The company says its average daily rates are 25 percent lower than those offered by the megabrands; average weekly rates are 15 percent lower. CarRentals, a New Jersey–based website recently purchased by Expedia, Inc., also has discounted rentals through independent agencies.
Try an Aggregator
If you prefer not to use an opaque site, don’t bounce around from one company website to another; go to an aggregator site like Kayak or SideStep instead. Once you’re ready to book, these sites link you directly to the rental agency’s own website. Earlier this year, Kayak added a new option that allows travelers to search for hybrid vehicles.
Avoid Renting at the Airport (If You Can)
Airport locations are often required by law to add local and state surcharges. Neil Abrams, an industry consultant, estimates that airport fees can hike the cost of renting a car by 25 to 45 percent. To make sure you don’t pay more than you have to, Perkins advises reserving from a city center or suburban location. “Most airports try to capture fees from any rental office, even those running shuttles from airport terminals to nearby offices that are not directly on the premises,” he says.
Rent Locally When Abroad
Search Foreign Sites for Lower Rates
When planning to rent abroad, also check out the international websites of U.S. companies, like Hertz’s Italian operation (hertz.it), or those of online travel agencies, such as Expedia’s British counterpart (expedia.co.uk), to see if their rates are lower than those offered at U.S.-based sites. Bear in mind, though, that some foreign websites may require customers to have a credit card billing address in the country where the sites operate. They may also charge nonresidents more for insurance.
Do Top Off the Tank
Be aware of more strictly enforced fuel policies. “Some companies are being very sticky about them,” Perkins says. “They will hit you with a top-off fee unless you show them a receipt from a service station near the rental office.” Pass on the option of returning the car with less than a full tank unless you want to pay a steep premium over gas-station prices.
Watch Out for Conversion Fees
If you’re renting in another country, find out if you can choose between prepaying in U.S. dollars or paying in the local currency, and then compare the two rates. Remember that if you opt for the local currency rate and pay with a U.S. credit card, you may be charged a conversion fee.
Beware of Restrictions
Check insurance coverage and age requirements before reserving a car abroad. Some credit cards do not offer insurance for rentals in select countries—Jamaica and Italy, for example—while international rental-car companies sometimes impose restrictions on older drivers. Also, some options common in the United States, such as unlimited mileage, are not always available.
Avoid Hidden Fees
Car-rental companies often impose various fees after an accident—for administrative services, towing, and storage. According to Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City, you should check with your insurance company to see if your personal auto policy covers these fees; if it doesn’t, find out if you can add a rider to your policy for protection. If you can’t, Worters says, “look at all your options for buying coverage, whether it be a collision-damage waiver (which generally covers these fees) from your rental company, or additional insurance through your credit card.”
Know Your Coverage
Your personal auto-insurance policy might cover liability and collision, and most homeowner’s policies cover the loss of personal effects from rented vehicles (make sure yours has an off-premises theft rider). Keep in mind, however, that whatever liability limits you have on your auto insurance will also apply to rentals, and that some personal policies don’t include collision coverage. Some credit cards, including most issued by American Express (the parent company of Travel + Leisure), provide secondary coverage that kicks in only after a renter’s primary insurance, such as a personal auto policy, has been exhausted. Frequent renters may want to consider a credit card that provides primary collision coverage, such as Diners Club and select Visa cards. The premium car-rental protection plan from American Express, priced at $19.95 per rental, gives cardholders one-time primary damage-and-theft coverage (up to $75,000), as well as coverage for accidental death and dismemberment, medical expenses, and loss of personal property. (If you pay $24.95 per rental, coverage increases to $100,000.)
Get an International ID
Although you don’t always need an international driving permit to rent a car abroad, it does provide a familiar and recognizable form of identification if you are stopped by the police. The permits are available for $15 from the American Automobile Association (AAA).