The Cheapest Way to Rent a Car: 9 Tips

Money Saving Tips, Personal Finance
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Sometimes you just need a set of wheels. But who wants to pay $45 a day or more on a rental car?

The good news: You don’t have to. These nine tricks will help you score a cheap rental car and save money on your next road trip, whether it’s a quick weekend getaway or a cross-country odyssey.

1. Skip the airport

Sure, renting at the airport is convenient when you’re flying into a new city. But that convenience can come at a premium, thanks to airport surcharges.

We checked rates in March for a Memorial Day visit to Portland, Oregon. An economy rental from Enterprise is $15 per day if you pick it up downtown. The same car is more than $38 per day if you pick it up at the airport. Plus you’ll pay a $6 per day “Customer Facility Charge” and 10% “Concession Recovery Fee” for renting at the airport.

All told, you’d save roughly $110 over your three-day weekend in Portland just by renting from somewhere other than the airport. This isn’t the case in every city, though. You’ll pay nearly the same price renting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as you would at an off-airport location.

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 Lyft to and from your rental location if you rent at a location away from the airport. And take into account time lost to traffic in a city like Chicago.

2. Shop around

Look at sites like Kayak, Priceline, Cheapcarrentals.com and even Costco or AAA 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. Consider budget rentals

Enterprise, Hertz and Budget aren’t the only outfits in town. Discount brands like Advantage, Payless, Thrifty and Dollar Rental are also vying for your business, often at a lower rate than big-name rental companies.

On a given day, our research showed that the lowest-priced rental from Advantage, Dollar and the like was at least $5 cheaper than the cheapest premium brand rental, depending on the city. That savings multiplies over longer trips.

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.

“They offer 8% and 10% savings on Dollar and Thrifty respectively,” says Bason, noting that these carriers often offer the most affordable rentals anyhow.  “Getting an extra 8 or 10% off the cheapest options out there can make the difference and cause AAA to sometimes beat Costco on price.”

Frequent-flier 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

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.

Budget will also waive the fee for co-workers who are traveling together, so long as they rent under their employers’ corporate account.

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. Forgo the extras

Rental agents make more money if they sell you on the benefits of extras like insurance, roadside assistance, satellite radio and GPS navigation. You’ll save money if you resist their spiel.

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. Example: Costa Rica. Build this into your budget.

Navigation

A Garmin device or similar GPS navigation unit will run you $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.

Toll transponder

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.”

Car seat

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.

8. Price out prepaid gas

It’s typically best to skip the fuel-service option, but occasionally rental companies offer competitive fuel rates. You won’t know what the rental car company is charging until you arrive, so do your research ahead of time.

Use a site like GasBuddy to scope out nearby gas stations and current fuel prices so you can compare against the price offered by the rental car company. Also factor in how likely it is you will have a near-empty tank on 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.

9. 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.

Need a car for a few hours? Check out Zipcar or Enterprise CarShare. Both operate in more than 20 cities and offer rates as low as $5 per hour — and they pay for the gas. Plan in advance, though, since both require a membership. Otherwise, save yourself the hassle of traffic and often costly parking rates, if you can, and buy yourself a weekend metro pass.

Kelsey Sheehy is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:ksheehy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.

Updated March 9, 2017.