Maine road trips
Credit: Aurora Photos / Alamy

It's not an issue of not knowing you should book a car in advance. You know. You know. Your calendar has pinged you with an alarm. You know it will take five minutes to rent online. You know the price is creeping up by the day.

But you didn't, and if you’re trying to book in a city where rental prices are steep (hello, New York), the rates may make you cringe—even if you’re booking well in advance. And you’ll be damned if you’re gonna spend $527 on an economy car for the long Columbus Day weekend. (Before taxes and insurance, that’s the going rate at an Enterprise in Park Slope, Brooklyn.)

What to do? Here’s one trick you may not have considered: public transportation.

It may not sound glamorous at first, but stay with me: I’m a New Yorker who drives home to see family in Massachusetts several times a year. I am not inclined to pay $110 a day to do so by renting here in Brooklyn. The going theory is that airports are much cheaper, but that’s not always true: The Enterprise at JFK is already up to $90 a day. And although it’s my closest airport, it’s a bear to get there.

So take a close look at the web of the public transportation options in the city where you’re renting, then book just outside of the metropolitan area—but en route to your destination, so you’re not backtracking. In NYC, we use Metro North, the LIRR, and PATH trains. Study those maps to see which of the web’s tentacles will help you, then cross-check train stations against your go-to car rental place. Many of the big ones will pick you up these days, including (depending on your location) Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, and Dollar.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s 10 to 15 minutes—and it saved me 500 clams on a recent weeklong rental to get to Maine—which I then spent on actual clams. And oysters. And lobster rolls. You get it.

Pack light so you can minimize the stress of the extra mini-trip, and you’re en route to crazy savings. The Enterprise in White Plains is a half hour from Manhattan’s gorgeous Grand Central Station, and the cars for Columbus Day weekend are renting for only $41 per day. The Metro North train that gets you there? A mere $17.50 roundtrip. With a Friday-Tuesday rental, that’s $316 saved on a weekend jaunt.

Even better for penny pinchers (and pizza lovers) is New Haven, a bit farther up the Metro North line, where a car rental rep will pick me up at the train station and rent me a car for $24.40 per day—79 percent less than what I’d pay in New York—and a full $381 saved to blow on pies at Pepe’s or Sally’s.

There are three minor disadvantages to this approach: 1) You’re dependent on those local train schedules, so check them closely, 2) You have to pack light, or you’ll be cranky, and 3) Sometimes you have to wait a few minutes for your pickup.

But the hidden bonus for those of us who loathe sitting in traffic on holiday weekends is that—if you’re traveling via rail—often you’ll get out of ahead of it. And by shaving hours off driving time, you have more hands-free time to spend obsessing over where you’re going to eat, drink, shop and play on your trip—not to mention the extra cash with which to do so.