Timing can be everything when looking for a rental car — you might find a low rate, but if you sit and wait for a lower price, you may miss out on a deal. But there are other secret ways to find the best prices. Use these insider strategies to do a thorough search for the cheapest rental car possible — and maybe even score an upgrade.
Search With Membership Sites
Memberships are required to access these deals, but the perk really pays off when you have many travel plans on the horizon. If you’re already a member of travel clubs, these should be the first places you look for a deal. Instead of providing their own rental cars, these companies leverage their size and customer base to negotiate sweeter deals. You’ll find Costco Travel consistently offers lower rates than the major online agencies and AAA has deals on Hertz rentals.
Check Your Airline Programs
You might be able to find some nice discounts through frequent flyer programs. However, these sometimes come with stipulations like renting exclusively from the airline partners or limiting your pick-up and drop-off locations to airports. Even if there aren’t any discounts, booking through the airline may give you a chance to earn more points. For example, in 2023 Delta announced a new SkyMiles partnership with Hertz, offering four miles for every $1 spent on a Hertz rental car — this is an even sweeter deal for Gold members who earn six miles per $1. and Diamond medallion members who earn eight miles per $1.
Search on Traditional Booking Sites
When the rental car provider doesn’t matter to you, you can check “opaque” sites like Priceline and Hotwire, both of which offer deep discounts, but don’t reveal the rental agency’s name until you’ve made a non-refundable purchase. You never know where the best deal is going to be, so it’s worth it to do a cursory search on these sites if you want to find the cheapest car rental price possible.
Try a Car Sharing Alternative
If you can put your house on Airbnb, why not your car? Today, there are many peer-to-peer car-sharing companies out there like Getaround and Turo that let you rent cars directly from their owners, who set the price and mileage limits. Once you book, you’ll meet your host personally to pick up the keys and the car, and you’re off. This kind of car rental has unique benefits, such as being able to read reviews for the exact car you’ll be driving and the chance that you’ll be able to pick up a car somewhere near your home. If the idea of driving someone else’s car makes you nervous, you could also check out options on Zipcar, a membership-based platform that lets you book cars instantly.
Check for Transfercars
With so many people picking up rental cars and dropping them off in different places, rental companies often struggle to keep up their inventory in their most popular destinations. For this, it’s necessary to hire drivers to get cars to where they’re needed most, but it also poses an opportunity for savvy travelers with open schedules. Transfercar is a platform where you can find cars with predesignated destinations for just the cost of insurance and gas. For example, you may find a station wagon that needs to be driven from Las Vegas to San Francisco in three days. That’s only a nine-hour drive, which means you can break it up and have plenty of time to make a stop at Yosemite National Park or go up to Lake Tahoe. If it’s the RV life you’re more interested in, imoova.com is a similar platform for RVs.
Try the Two Minute Trick
If you have patience and two minutes per week, this easy trick recommended by Scott Keyes, the founder of Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), can help you get a better deal. The first step is to book your car rental as soon as you need it at whatever rate. Then, you can set a calendar reminder for yourself once per week to check the rate on the same car and see if it drops. If it is lower than what you originally paid for, you can cancel your first booking and then rebook at a lower rate. Before doing so, just make sure you’re rental provider won’t impose a cancellation fee, which they typically won’t be as long as the cancellation isn’t within 24 hours of your booking. The earlier you book, the more chances you’ll have to claim a juicy price drop.
Compare With the Direct Booking Rate
Before you pay through a third-party website, always go straight to the rental company’s website and plug in your booking information. You may sometimes find that it is much cheaper to book directly and you can earn points directly with the company’s membership program. This way, you’ll know you’ll have all your bases covered.
Look for Coupons
You may be able to squeeze a few extra dollars out of your deal with a coupon from AutoSlash.com, a website that searches a database of coupons for the best price. Simply plug in the dates you need for your rental car, and you can customize the search based on the travel memberships, credit cards, and frequent flyer programs you have. Then, you’ll receive an e-mail with a potentially discounted rate. You can also see available coupons listed on the site sorted by company if you prefer to shop your options.
Get a Manual Transmission
If you’re going abroad, you’ll find that manual transmission cars are the norm in just about every other part of the world, where people prefer them because they use less fuel. That doesn’t mean you can’t find an automatic in Europe or anywhere else, but you may have to pay a much higher price for it due to there being less demand. If you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, taking the time to learn can help you save more down the road.
Avoid Insurance Potholes
Your credit card, personal car insurance, or travel insurance may cover your vehicle during your rental. Look it up before you rent, and read the fine print. It could save you $15 to $25 a day on the cost of your car. Don’t forget to bring proof of your insurance coverage; increasingly, car-rental companies have started to demand this before they hand you the keys. A site like Insuremyrentalcar.com can sell you a stand-alone insurance policy that costs a fraction of what the rental companies charge.
Don’t Rent at the Airport
Rental companies often price their vehicles in peculiar ways, too. For example, cars rented at the airport are almost always more expensive because of added taxes and fees. Typically, when you rent at an off-airport location, you can save 20 percent or more. You can take advantage of the airport’s public transportation options to get yourself to the city center to pick up your car or take a taxi to a nearby off-airport site.
Look Out for Junk Fees
If you plan on collecting frequent-flier miles with your car rental, be aware that you might be charged up to $1 per day for the privilege. Other junk fees include renting a toll transponder (about $5 a day), a GPS navigation system (use your smartphone instead), and satellite radio (sometimes as much as $8 per day). Try to bring your own car accessories from home, like your charger or smartphone holder if you want to avoid paying for marked-up products at the airport.
Compare Rates Throughout the Week
On occasion, you may find that it’s cheaper to book a car for a whole week rather than just the few days that you’ll need it. You can click around and compare the difference between returning the car on the day you actually need to leave and a few days later. If it works out to be cheaper to return the car later, you can book that time period and just bring it back whenever you need to leave. To pull this off though, you’ll need to confirm, and double-check, that the rental car company won’t impose any early return fees.
Book the Smallest Car Possible
Rental car companies are known for overbooking to counterbalance the number of people who reserve a car and never show up to pick it up. Although this backfires during times of high demand, you can use this knowledge to your advantage by booking the smallest and cheapest car possible and setting yourself up for an upgrade. Of course, it’s still a gamble so don’t book anything that wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate your entire party.
Set a Designated Driver
If you plan on driving in shifts with your travel companion, you may end up paying more in fees for each additional driver you add to the reservation. These fees typically start at $10 per day. If you do only put one driver on the reservation to save on fees, don’t let the other person drive or you could face very expensive consequences should you get into an accident or get caught speeding while they’re behind the wheel. Sometimes car rental companies offer deals or coupons that waive fees for additional driver fees — depending on your itinerary, this could be a big way to save money on your car rental.