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Of all the things that have experienced massive price swings during the COVID-19 pandemic, rental cars saw one of the biggest — and that swing was directly up. Renters in summer 2021 got hit especially hard when rental car prices reached an all-time high that July. While prices have slightly dipped from those highs, they’re still higher every month so far in 2022 than before the pandemic.
But not all rental car prices are created equal, even if the rental car is otherwise the same. Depending on the company or city you’re renting from, you might pay significantly more or less than the average. Even renting from an airport versus a downtown location in the same city might have a drastically different cost.
NerdWallet conducted an analysis of 360 rental car prices (including taxes and fees) to better understand rental car pricing trends. The analysis looked at the price of a weeklong rental across eight major rental car companies based on the company’s lowest-priced available car (typically a small sedan). Data was gathered for 20 regions, and it covered both the cost to rent from an airport location versus the same company’s nearby downtown counterparts.
Here are the results of our car rental pricing data collection.
The cities with the cheapest rental cars
NerdWallet’s analysis looked at areas of the U.S. with the 10 largest airports based on enplanements using 2020 Federal Aviation Administration data. Enplanements are paying passengers who board an aircraft, including those boarding another as part of a layover.
Then, those 10 areas were ranked by lowest to highest rental car prices to give us a better sense of the cheapest metro areas for renting cars.
Nearest major airport
Average weekly rental price
Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
Orlando International Airport.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Denver International Airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Los Angeles International Airport.
Las Vegas Valley
Harry Reid International Airport.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
Charlotte, North Carolina, was the only city in our data set to fall below $500 for an average weekly rental price. Meanwhile, Chicago was the only city with an average weekly rental price above $600.
When looking specifically at airport rental locations, results were mostly similar to the overall averages, with some slight deviations. Here are the largest U.S. airports, ranked by average weekly car rental price, from cheapest to most expensive:
Average weekly rental price
Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport.
Los Angeles Airport.
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
Harry Reid Airport.
Chicago O'Hare Airport.
The main airports servicing Orlando, Florida; Charlotte/Douglas; and Dallas-Fort Worth all had the lowest average rental car prices and were the only three airports with average weekly rental prices below $600. On the other end, Chicago O'Hare Airport had the highest average prices — $743 for a weekly rental.
The cheapest rental car company
Within each city, NerdWallet also looked at prices broken down by eight major rental car brands: Enterprise, Budget, Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, Alamo and National.
In this analysis, National almost always had the highest rental car prices, with average weekly rental car prices of nearly $700. The cheapest car rental company, Enterprise, offered car rentals at an average weekly price of just $480.
The best time to book a rental car
The best time to book a rental car isn't in advance. Rental cars tend to be cheaper when booked last-minute.
The average weekly rental price for cars booked 91 days in advance was $589. For cars booked seven days in advance, it was $513. That amounts to a 13% discount, on average, for those who roll the dice and risk availability to book a car closer to their travel dates.
Here’s the percentage difference in costs broken down by rental car company:
Rental car company
Percent more you’ll pay to reserve three months in advance vs. one week out
At Dollar, the cost savings for booking early versus procrastinating was minimal. But it was, on average, nearly 40% more expensive to book 91 days in advance from Enterprise.
The best place to book a rental car
To save on car rentals, you should almost always book at an offsite rental car location versus the airport outpost.
NerdWallet found that weekly car rentals for downtown locations were, on average, $126 cheaper than airport locations. That means you’ll spend on average about 26% more for an airport rental compared with a downtown rental.
The price difference is usually (though not always) due to fees charged by the airport. Exact amounts vary, but they’re typically charged by the airports to the car rental car company (which then passes the cost on to customers) to cover services like an airport-provided shuttle, cleaning, security, and sometimes simply the right to do business.
Easy ways to save money on rental cars
Use travel credit cards: The best credit cards for rental cars tend to offer both bonus points and miles from your spending, as well as the other (potentially more lucrative) benefit of rental car insurance coverage, which can sometimes save you hundreds of dollars if you decline the rental car company’s coverage at the counter.
Join rental car loyalty programs: These programs are generally free to join. In exchange for signing up, they offer perks like member-exclusive rates, or the ability to skip the line (which won’t save money, but can save you time). For loyal customers with elite status, expect complimentary upgrades, free rental days and more.
Book now, then rebook: Most rental car companies don’t require payment upfront. Given the unpredictability of travel, it can make sense to reserve a car rental as soon as you’re able to. Then, periodically check in with your rental car company’s booking tool to see if prices drop. As long as that company doesn’t charge a cancellation fee (most rental car companies don’t), then cancel and rebook the same rental.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card