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One of the biggest travel trends since the COVID-19 pandemic is the comeback of the road trip. But high demand means that rental car supply may be lower. Unsurprisingly, car rental prices hit sky-high levels during the pandemic.
While car rental prices seem to have reached their top and continue to drop, rental cars are far from cheap (and they're far higher than pre-COVID rates). In March 2023, average U.S. rental car prices were up an incredible 53% versus March 2019, the same month pre-pandemic.
The good news is you don’t have to spend your entire vacation budget on rental cars.
These 10 tricks will help you score a cheap rental car for your next road trip, whether it’s a quick weekend getaway or a cross-country odyssey.
1. Skip the airport
Renting at the airport is convenient when you’re flying into a new city. But that convenience can come at a premium, thanks to general price increases around demand, and other costs like airport surcharges.
These surcharges often come as fixed dollar figures, typically presented as a “Customer Facility Charge.” You might also find them as a percentage of your overall rental amount — and sometimes, you’ll owe both. These charges are typically several dollars a day, but can amount to a three-figure charge depending on the length of your trip.
A 2022 NerdWallet study of 360 rental car prices taken from cities that host America's 20 largest airports compared the price of a weeklong rental at eight major car rental companies from airport outposts versus the cost to rent at their nearby downtown counterparts.
NerdWallet found that weekly car rentals for downtown locations were, on average, $126 cheaper than airport locations. That is, you can expect to spend about 26% more to rent a car at the airport compared to a downtown rental.
Price out rental locations in the city and compare to what you can get at the airport. Make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or rideshare to and from your rental location if you rent at a location away from the airport.
2. Shop around online
Look at sites like Kayak, Priceline and Cheapcarrental.com to compare your options and narrow in on the best deal.
Then go directly to the car rental company’s site. You might find an even steeper discount that way, particularly with “Pay Now” options. Just keep in mind that rentals paid in advance are typically nonrefundable.
Even after you book, keep shopping. If you didn’t book a nonrefundable rental, you can cancel your reservation if you find a better price.
3. Comparison shop between brands (the discount ones aren't always cheapest)
Despite names like Dollar and Thrifty, those stereotypically-discount bands aren't necessarily the cheapest.
NerdWallet's 2022 rental car study found that Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Budget, Hertz and Dollar ranked among the cheapest rental car companies. Whereas the average price for a weeklong rental from the most expensive brand, National, was $695, it was just $480 with Enterprise.
Do your own comparison shopping, but don't assume the discount brands like Advantage, Payless, Thrifty and Dollar Rental offer a lower rate than big-name rental companies.
4. Leverage memberships
Have a Costco membership? Use it to save money on your next rental car.
“I find that Costco consistently beats full-price car rentals on online travel agencies,” says Clem Bason, CEO of the travel website goSEEK.com and formerly of Hotwire.com.
An added bonus: You can often add a driver for free.
Frequent-flyer programs also offer discounts on rental cars. American Airlines, for example, offers AAdvantage members 35% off Budget and Avis — but you need to rent from an airport.
5. Opt for economy cars
Economy cars are typically the cheapest, and therefore the most likely to be booked. You can use this to your advantage, says Brett Graff, a family finance expert and author of a syndicated column called The Home Economist.
“When renting a car, I reserve the smallest, most affordable vehicle possible, knowing there's a chance it won't be on the lot and I'll get an upgrade,” Graff says.
Just don’t book something that’s too small for your party, or you could be stuck cramming five people plus luggage into a two-door coupe. Not exactly the cozy vacation you had in mind, is it?
6. Stick to one driver
Most rental car companies will charge you a daily fee to add an extra driver. That fee is typically $12 per day with Enterprise and National Car Rental and $13 per day with Budget and Avis, but can vary by location.
There are ways to dodge the fee, though. Some companies, such as Enterprise, waive the additional driver fee for a spouse or domestic partner, but you both need to have the same address on your driver’s licenses. Others, including National, will waive the fee for spouses, partners and immediate family members if you enroll in their membership program.
You can also leverage other memberships, such as USAA, AARP, AAA or Costco to get a free additional driver with select rental car companies.
7. Use your own insurance
If you have a car, your primary insurance likely covers you when you rent a car. Carless millennials: Have your parents add you as a driver to their insurance. If you have a good driving record, it likely won’t cost any extra.
Many credit cards also include basic insurance coverage if you use the card to pay for your rental. So you can skip it and save as much as $30 a day on your rental. Some cards even offer more comprehensive coverage.
Renting overseas? You might be required to purchase insurance, even if you have coverage via your primary car insurance and/or your credit card. Build this into your budget.
8. Forgo the extras
Rental agents make more money if they sell you on the benefits of extras like roadside assistance, satellite radio and GPS navigation. You’ll save money if you resist their spiel.
9. Price out prepaid gas
Use a site like GasBuddy to scope out nearby gas stations and current fuel prices so you can compare against the prepaid price offered by the rental car company.
Factor in how likely it is you will have a near-empty tank upon your return. On a short day or weekend trip, you may just need to top off your tank before returning the car. Longer trips may allow you to roll in on fumes and save a few dollars as you do so.
10. Walk or ride
While these tips will help you get a cheap rental car, there is one other surefire way to save: Skip the rental altogether.
Most major cities have walkable downtowns and extensive public transportation networks, not to mention taxis and ridesharing apps galore. So save yourself the hassle of traffic and often costly parking rates, if you can, and buy yourself a weekend metro pass.
You might also consider a nontraditional rental car company like Turo or Getaround. Some operate like the Airbnb of cars, where people rent out their personal cars. Others are operated by related players in the automobile space, like car dealerships. But many of them turn out cheaper than your standard rental car, and many let you book by the hour, which can allow you to avoid paying for hours you’re not actually driving.
And you might even be open-minded to alternative wheels. Don’t overlook rideshares for short trips. Finally, it sounds lavish, but if you won’t actually be driving for the majority of your trip, sometimes even a limo might be cheaper.