The Cheapest Way to Rent a Car: 10 Tips To Save

Rental car prices have far outpaced inflation. Still, there are tricks to save money on your next rental car.
Sally French
Kelsey Sheehy
By Kelsey Sheehy and  Sally French 
Updated
rental car

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Car rental prices hit sky-high levels in July 2021. Luckily, car rental prices seem to have reached their top and continue to drop.

But even today, rental cars are far from cheap (and they're far higher than pre-COVID rates). Inflation has been hitting almost every aspect of the economy, but it's hit car rental prices even harder. Whereas average prices across all items are up about 23% since before the pandemic, rental car prices in 2024 are up a much sharper 35%.

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 June 2024 NerdWallet study of more than 480 rental car prices taken from cities that host America's 15 largest airports compared the price of a seven-night rental at eight major car rental companies from airport outposts versus the cost to rent at their nearby downtown counterparts.

NerdWallet found that seven-night car rentals for downtown locations were, on average, $86 cheaper than airport locations. That is, you can expect to spend about 18.4% 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 Budget, those stereotypically-discount bands aren't necessarily the cheapest.

NerdWallet's 2024 rental car study found that Thrifty, Hertz and Enterprise Rent-A-Car ranked among the cheapest rental car companies. Whereas the average price for a seven-night rental from the most expensive brand, National, was $601, it was just $414 with Thrifty.

Do your own comparison shopping, but don't assume the discount brands like Advantage, Payless 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.

AAA memberships are another great money-saving tool by providing discounts for Hertz rentals as well as no underage driver fees for AAA members ages 20 to 24.

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 fee to add an extra driver, which can often be more than $10 per day.

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, 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.

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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 what often amounts to about $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.

A Garmin device or similar GPS navigation unit can typically cost about $15 per day or more. Use the navigation system you carry around in your pocket and save your money for gas.

“Why rent a GPS when you can use Waze or Google Maps on your phone?” says Michael Goldman, president of AutoRentals.com

If you’re overseas, map out your route ahead of time and download directions when connected to Wi-Fi. Or go old school and pick up a paper map.

Rental car companies charge a per-day fee for the transponder, which you pay in addition to any tolls. While tolls are unavoidable, there are cheaper ways to go about it.

“In the popular vacation destination of South Florida, car rental companies often charge $25 per day for the SunPass, whether you use it or not,” says Goldman of AutoRentals.com. “Instead, purchase Florida’s SunPass for $19.99 at CVS Pharmacy stores, Walgreens and Publix Super Markets throughout South Florida and pay for only what you use.”

This one may be unavoidable. After all, the safety of your child is more important than saving a few dollars.

But if you have friends where you’re traveling, leverage their network to find a car seat to use during your trip. This will save you $10 or more per day.

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.

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You might also consider a nontraditional rental car company like Turo, Kyte 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.

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