Start Booking Your Trips Backward: Get Your Rental Car First

The increase in rental car prices has far outpaced the rate of inflation. Don't be caught off guard when planning a roadtrip.
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Written by Sally French
Lead Writer/Spokesperson
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Edited by Kevin Berry
Lead Assigning Editor
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Most travelers start their vacation planning by scouring the internet for a great flight deal. Then, it’s time to scout out hotels. Booking the rental car is often a boring afterthought.

But nowadays, you need to completely flip the order of operations in which you book your next trip. Otherwise, you may be caught off guard by high rental car prices in your destination.

We've all experienced how much inflation has hit pretty much every aspect of the economy. In fact, average prices in May 2024 are 22.7% higher than what they were in May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index data. But whereas airfares have barely budged in price, rental car prices have far outpaced the rate of inflation.

Given that, consider booking your trip backwards. These days, you may need to book your rental car before — or at least in tandem with — booking your flight.

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Why a car rental should be one of the first things you book

An insanely cheap flight deal is meaningless when rental car prices are massively inflated, or worse, sold out completely.

“Don’t do what you did in the past, which is plan a trip, book your airfare and hotel, and then book a rental car,” CEO and founder of car rental site AutoSlash Jonathan Weinberg tells NerdWallet. “Turn that strategy on its head this year. Check that the rental car is available and affordable first.”

There’s typically no deposit required for a car rental

Unlike most airfares, theater tickets and tour bookings, rental cars are one of the few aspects of travel that typically don’t require an upfront payment. Most rental car companies require you to pay only when you pick up the car.

“You don’t really need to have any skin in the game,” Weinberg says. “There’s almost no reason not to reserve a car rental.”

You can sometimes book — and then rebook for a lower price

In that same vein, you might as well reserve a car that there's at least a chance you'd actually want to rent. But if prices drop, you can just cancel that reservation and rebook.

Just check the terms of your car rental and ensure there's no cancellation fee. While most traditional car rental companies don't charge cancellation fees, some still may charge such a fee (so do your homework).

And for what it's worth, rebooking closer to your trip date likely will save you. A June 2024 NerdWallet analysis of more than 480 rental car prices found that rental cars do, in fact, tend to be cheaper when booked last-minute.

NerdWallet's study found that rental cars tend to be, on average, 13% cheaper when booked seven days out versus the same car from the same place but booked three months out.

What to do when rental cars are sold out

Though if you do procrastinate and rental cars are sold out before you book, you'll need a backup plan assuming your trip necessitates a vehicle.

Play with reservations

A rental car might be booked for the first week of July, but could be available the next. If airfare is the same price for either week, then that’s a pretty clear indicator of what week you should opt to travel.

Weinberg also recommends another hack: Reserving a rental car for longer than you actually need it.

“Why would rental car companies rent to someone who only wants it for three days when they can rent to someone else willing to rent it for six days?” he says. Rental car companies might not show cars as available to people trying to book short trips, even if there are cars on the lot.

If you’re desperate and don’t mind paying extra for days you don’t need a car, then paying for a longer rental could be better than having no wheels at all. And sometimes, rental companies will even give you a credit for returning the car early, Weinberg says.

Check rental car locations beyond just the airport

Rental car companies are commonly attached to airports, but don’t overlook rental locations attached to hotels or elsewhere in the city. The airport location could be sold out, but other nearby locations may have cars available. In that case, you might be able to take the free hotel shuttle or a taxi from the airport to the offsite location.

And yes, these offsite locations tend to be cheaper. That same NerdWallet analysis of rental car prices in June 2024 found that car rental prices are, on average, 13.4% less when reserved at the downtown location versus the same company but at the nearest airport. Even with the cab fare to the offsite outpost, you might save money.

Look to rental car alternatives like Turo, Kyte and Getaround

Traditional car rental companies might be sold out, but check out your options at peer-to-peer car rental platforms like Turo, Kyte or Getaround. These services tend to operate like short-term vacation rentals for cars, where local owners post their own cars up for rent.

The bottom line

Given the high prices of rental cars, invert the way you plan your trip to account for increased rental car demand. You don’t want to procrastinate on booking a rental car only to find out that cars are sold out after you’ve already booked the flight.

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
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


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.


Intro offer


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℠.

Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


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.


Intro offer


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℠.

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


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.


Intro offer


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.

See more cards for rental cars
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