Which Is Cheaper: Booking Rental Cars in Advance or Last Minute?

Our analysis found you could save 13.4% on average by booking last minute. But should you really procrastinate?
Sam Kemmis
Sally French
By Sally French and  Sam Kemmis 
Updated
Edited by Meg Lee

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you book travel reservations in advance to nab the best deal. But when it comes to rental cars, this might surprise you: The best time to rent a car is last minute, when they tend to be cheaper.

That’s according to a NerdWallet analysis conducted in June 2024 of more than 480 rental car prices from eight major car rental companies in the United States. The prices chosen for this analysis were the cheapest possible option (typically a small sedan) that allowed you to pay at the counter (as opposed to in advance) and included taxes and fees. The analysis compared the cost to book a car for seven nights, reserved three months in advance versus seven days in advance.

NerdWallet found that customers pay on average $74 more to book a weeklong rental car three months in advance compared with booking the same rental just a week in advance. That translates to an extra cost of 13.4%, on average, simply for booking early.

The best time to book rental cars

Do car rental prices go up closer to the date? Actually, not always — and not often.

The NerdWallet analysis — accounting for the booking time frame across multiple destinations and car rental brands — discovered that renting a car even three days before your reservation start date can yield significant savings.

Rental car companies Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National and Thrifty were all included in the analysis.

The savings materialized for every rental car company in the analysis. The difference was starkest at Thrifty. There, you could save on average 28.02% by booking seven days out versus three months in advance. Even at Enterprise, which had the slightest difference, it was still more costly to book three months in advance.

Here’s the percentage difference in costs by rental car company:

Rental car company

Average percent savings if you reserve one week out vs. three months out

Alamo

4.17%.

Avis

15.01%.

Budget

9.64%.

Dollar

19.22%.

Enterprise

2.72%.

Hertz

23.60%.

National

5.09%.

Thrifty

28.02%.

You don’t save money by reserving a rental car in advance, no matter how you slice it. Procrastinators might consider this an opportunity to rejoice.

Why you might still book rental cars in advance

Even though last-minute rental cars tend to be cheaper, it might not be a good idea to procrastinate on booking — whether intentionally or not.

You don't want to risk sold-out cars

If you wait too long, you take the gamble that last-minute inquiries will yield no availability. If you absolutely need a rental car, that's risky.

You especially don’t want to find yourself stuck in a city with no public transportation and limited availability of rideshare services only to realize rental cars are sold out. The bright side of booking now: You can lock in a rate that you’re at least OK with, as it’s better than sold-out cars.

And while the data suggests that renting last minute is generally cheaper, that’s not always the case. Especially in popular vacation destinations like Hawaii, there are horror stories of renters making last-minute bookings (or changes to existing bookings) only to incur extra costs of over a thousand dollars.

You might be able to reserve a car now — and rebook the same one later at a discount

Here’s a strategy that might get you the best of both worlds: the guarantee of a reservation and the possibility of a cheaper reservation. Reserve your rental car as soon as possible, and select the option that allows you to lock in your rate but pay at the counter.

Traditional rental car companies typically let you do this — though the option is less common for car rental alternatives such as Turo, Kyte or Getaround.

Ahead of your trip, periodically check your booked rental price. If the price dips lower than what you initially paid, cancel and rebook. If you didn’t prepay for your reservation, most rental car companies won't charge you a cancellation fee.

Other ways to save on rental cars

There are other, smarter ways to save on rental cars besides relying on procrastination.

Consider non-traditional rental cars: Don't overlook those aforementioned rental car alternatives. They're sometimes (though not always) cheaper.

Leverage memberships: Paid membership programs such as Costco or AAA, as well as memberships tight to affiliations such as corporate discounts, can offer additional savings.

Commit to one driver: Many car rental companies charge an extra fee to allow multiple drivers to use one car. Though, there are ways around the fee. In fact, some of those membership programs named above allow you to add more drivers without the extra fee.

Use the right credit card: Great travel credit cards are about so much more than earning bonus points on rental cars. Some travel credit cards also offer rental car insurance as a benefit for paying with that credit card.

Cards with auto rental benefits
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
United℠ Explorer Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

The Platinum Card® from American Express
The Platinum Card® from American Express
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Annual fee

$95.

$0 intro for the first year, then $95.

$695.

$550.

Rental car benefits

• Primary rental car coverage with reimbursement up to the cash value of most rental vehicles.

• Booking a car rental through Chase Ultimate Rewards® earns 5 points per dollar spent.

• Redeeming points to book travel through Chase — including renting cars — gives you 25% more value per point.

• Primary rental car coverage that reimburses up to the cash value of most rental cars.

• Other day-of-travel benefits for United flyers include a free checked bag, priority boarding and lounge passes.

• Complimentary elite status with Avis, Hertz and National, which entitles the member to upgrades and discounts.

• Secondary rental car coverage.

• Other benefits include expansive airport lounge access and hundreds of dollars' worth of travel credits.

• Terms apply.

• Primary rental car coverage with reimbursement up to $75,000.

• Booking a car rental through Chase Ultimate Rewards® earns 10 points per dollar spent.

• Redeeming points to book travel through Chase — including renting cars — gives you 50% more value per point.

• Cardholders eligible for special benefits from Avis, National and Silvercar.

Horizontal scroll

To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Cards for Rental Cars from our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-10x

Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Travel℠ immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
4.9
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-10x

Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel, Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more cards for rental cars
Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.