Cheap flights may be in our name but we love a good bargain on any aspect of travel. When it comes to car rentals, we want the equivalent of a $63 roundtrip flight to Chile—we want only the best car rental deals.
Unfortunately, right now, car rental deals are hard to come by. In 2020, with travel virtually zeroed out, car rental agencies were facing a crisis: nobody was traveling. And while airlines were bailed out by taxpayers (multiple times), rental agencies were not. So what did rental agencies do to survive? They sold off hundreds of thousands of cars to horde cash and hunker down until travel rebounded.
Now, with rental agencies are finding themselves with far fewer cars available to rent. (To make matters worse, the current semiconductor chip shortage means it’s taking longer for agencies to find new cars to replenish their fleets.) That shortage means higher rental prices, particularly in busy spots.
Hope’s not all lost, though.
Here are some of the things you can do to help find the cheapest rental car—especially during the current carpocalypse—nearly anywhere you want to go.
Cheap car rental basics
1. Start with a car rental aggregator site
Begin your search with the aggregator site of your choice (such as AutoRentals). This gives you a chance to see several rental car company and OTA options at once. On OTAs like Kayak, Hopper, and Priceline, you can filter for companies that allow you to drop the car off in a different country from the one in which you rent it. Those of you who are under 25 can also filter for companies that allow car rentals for younger drivers, though keep in mind there is often an “underage driver fee” associated with these rentals.
2. Always compare rates booking direct
After getting an overview of your options on an aggregator site, don’t book anything until you’ve compared those rates with the rates on that rental car company’s site. In some cases, there may be a special discount or deal available on the official site that’s not available anywhere else.
3. Check car rental rates on Costco Travel
If you’re a Costco member, check rates on Costco Travel, which often has the cheapest rates. It’s an especially good value if you’re sharing driving duties, as Costco doesn’t charge to add a second driver.
4. Check out car sharing services like Turo and ZipCar
While the big-name companies might get all the limelight, smaller car rental agencies abound—some are even local to the place you’re visiting, so you won’t have heard of them before. Try searching at CRX to see if there are any cheaper car rental companies serving your destination.
Though not widely known, many car dealerships across the country have new cars they gladly rent out. Even better: the prices tend to be set-rate, rather than the inflated rates at rental agencies. For example, here’s the rental pages for Toyota and Subaru dealerships.
Uber/Lyft. In normal times, renting a car is cheaper than taking two or more carshare rides per day. But things are different during the Carpocalypse. If price is the main reason you preferred a car rental over rideshare (rather than, say, infant car seats), it’s worth using a site like Uber’s price estimator to see which would be cheaper for your trip.
Home improvement stores. Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other home repair stores often have pickup trucks available for rent. These trucks tend to have set day rates, rather than inflated dynamic prices like at car rental agencies. Prices vary by location, starting at $89/day.
Moving trucks. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the carpocalypse more than vacationers avoiding excessive car rental prices by renting U-Hauls (or other brands like Penske and Budget). Though of course seating is limited, for solo or couple travelers, it can be a cheaper (and memorable) option.
Also, depending on where you’re going, don’t overlook peer-to-peer and car-sharing options, too. With Turo, you can “rent” a car from a private owner—it’s a bit like Airbnb, only for cars instead of vacation rentals. And if you’re a ZipCar member, you can book cars in their fleet by the hour or the day.
There's even Imoova: When someone needs their RV relocated, they list it on Imoova. For instance, at time of writing, you can rent an RV in New York for $1/night, as long as you deliver it to Las Vegas within 4 weeks. Gas money included.
Car rental pricing and rates
5. Always book the cheapest economy car
Assuming you don’t need something bigger for a large family group (or a 4WD for a winter trip), you’ll get the best price if you book the cheapest car option available. You’ll be prompted many times to upgrade for a fee—don’t do it. In some cases, there won’t be any economy or subcompact cars available when you arrive at the rental counter to pick up your car, so you’ll end up with an upgrade anyway—and you won’t have to pay for it. The worst-case scenario is that you end up with an economy car, which really isn’t so bad (those cars cost less to refuel, after all).
>> Read our tips on renting a car without a credit card
6. Compare weekly vs. weekday vs. weekend car rental rates
There’s no rhyme or reason for the duration of time that’s cheapest for car rentals. Sometimes it’s cheapest to rent for only the days you need the car, sometimes it’s cheaper to rent for a week even if you only need a car for a few days. In other words, be sure to check both before you book—just make sure the rental car company won’t charge a fee if you return the car early.
Also keep in mind that because business travelers frequently rent cars, and business trips are predominantly over weekdays, weekend rentals are often less expensive than weekday rentals. If the timing of your trip is flexible, shifting your schedule so you’re renting a car over a weekend might save you some money.
7. Look at renting a car away from the airport
Sure, there’s no getting around the convenience of picking up a rental car before you even leave the airport—but there’s a price to be paid for that convenience. With very few exceptions (think big cities that aren’t ideal for driving in anyway), renting a car at the airport is nearly always more expensive than renting a car from another location of the same company’s rental offices. Compare the rental rates and associated fees (and don’t forget to factor in the cost and time involved with getting to the off-airport rental office) to see which is cheaper.
8. Skip the upgrades
In addition to the vehicle upgrades you’ll be tempted with during the booking process, there are a host of extras and add-ons you could choose—all of which will cost you money. Pay attention to what’s being offered and, when possible, just say no.
- GPS: You’ve got GPS on your phone, so don’t pay the additional fee for a GPS unit for the car. Just remember to bring a charger to keep your phone juiced up as you go, and a mounting device to make it easier to read the map while you’re driving. And, if you’re traveling overseas and don’t want to rack up all the data charges, go analog and get a good paper map.
- Toll Pass: Cars in areas with lots of highway tolls often have passes on the windshield that are automatically read at toll booths, saving drivers time. Rental cars have these passes, too, but the daily fees that come with them are usually more expensive than if you just paid the tolls with a credit card or in cash as you passed through. Not only that, sometimes rental car companies will charge a daily fee whether you use the pass or not.
- Car Seat: No, we’re not suggesting you leave your kiddo unsafe in a rental car—we’re just suggesting that if you can bring your own car seat, you’ll save the daily fee the agency would charge you.
- Frequent Flyer Miles: In many cases, car rentals can earn frequent flyer miles for the airline of your choice. What you may not realize is that sometimes the rental car company will charge you a daily fee for the privilege.
Advanced car rental tips
9. Decline insurance for your rental car
Before you check the box accepting the car rental company’s insurance coverage, do your homework. Many credit cards automatically include the required insurance coverage for a car rental when you use that card, so check your credit cards to see what they offer. If you’re traveling in your own country, any car insurance you carry on your personal car may extend to rental cars, too, so double-check that.
10. Look for membership discounts and coupons
Sometimes car rental discounts are in obvious places—if you’re a member of AAA, for instance, there are car rental deals available for members. You’d expect that, since AAA is all about cars.
Sometimes, though, car rental discounts are in places you might not think to look. Here are just a few, but this isn’t an exhaustive list. If you pay for membership to anything, ask whether they have a partnership with any car rental companies for exclusive deals.
- The company or organization where you work
- Hotel loyalty program
- Airline loyalty program
- Credit card
11. Stick to one driver
The cost of renting a car includes one driver (except, as noted above, when booking with Costco Travel). You can always add another driver (or more), but there’s usually a daily fee for each additional driver. As long as it makes sense and is safe to do so, leaving only one person in charge of all the driving saves money. (Deputize someone else to be in charge of navigation, finding parking, or counting out cash for tolls to divvy up transportation responsibilities.)
And remember, while most major car rental agencies will rent to anyone over the age of 20 in the US and Canada, many car rental agencies charge an additional or higher fee for drivers under 25 years old.
12. Get a manual transmission (if you can drive it)
In many parts of the world, automatic transmission rental cars are more rare—and more expensive. If you know how to drive a stickshift, you can save quite a bit, depending on the country. (But if you don’t know how to drive a stickshift, don’t try to learn on a rental car.)
13. Pay for your rental car up front
Some rental car companies offer a discount if you pay for the rental during the booking process rather than when you actually pick the car up. This isn’t always the case, but it’s worth checking, as the discount can be as much as a third off the total price.
14. Track prices and cancel and rebook when prices drop
In other cases, reserving a car without paying means you can keep checking rental rates (or use Autoslash, which tracks prices and notifies you if the price decreases for your dates), and if you find a better deal, you can cancel the original rental and book the cheaper one. Pay attention to any deadlines for canceling the original booking, however, or you may be stuck paying a cancellation fee.
You can even do it manually, as I did recently. When I booked a 2-day car rental in Boston, the rate was $165. But a week later, I saw that the rate had dropped to $156. So I canceled my initial reservation and booked the new, lower rate. I set myself a calendar reminder to quickly check for price drops every Monday morning for the next four months. By trip day, I’d rebooked five more times, and I wound up saving more than $50 in the process (plus got a roomier sedan).
Saving $50 may not sound like much, but this was a two-day rental. If it had been a week, I would've saved $175.
Like airfare, car rental rates are extraordinarily volatile. But unlike airfare, you don’t have to prepay for car rentals. What this means is that if you book and the rate next week gets cheaper, you can cancel, rebook, and save the difference. The best way to improve your odds of a price drop is to book your rental early—ideally as soon as you book your flight. Even if rental rates are high, you’re still in a win-win situation. If rates go up, you’ve already locked in a lower fare. If rates go down, you can cancel for free and rebook cheaper.
15. Pump your own gas
Most of the time, you need to either return rental cars with a full tank of gas or you’re stuck paying the exorbitant rates the companies charge for fuel. Getting gas yourself before you return the car is one of the easiest ways to avoid an insanely-high extra fee, but gas stations near the airport often have higher prices. Try the GasBuddy app (or site) to find the best deals on fuel near you.
Also note that depending on where you’re traveling, diesel may be cheaper than gasoline. Check GlobalPetrolPrices to compare the costs of different types of fuel so you can choose a rental car appropriately.