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Renting a vehicle for vacation is expensive! Typical rental car rates can easily cost as much as your accommodations – which can put a huge dent in your travel budget.
Travel disruptions and global supply chain constraints are expected to make renting a car in 2023 challenging. To help you save that hard earned money on your vacation, we are sharing our top tips for renting cars to ensure you get the best deal!
Car Rental Tips: How To Get a Cheap Car Rental
When we became full-time travelers in 2014, we sold everything we owned…including our cars. While we prefer not to drive when traveling, anytime we are visiting our home country, the United States, renting a car is an unfortunate necessity. As budget-conscious travelers, we have learned more than a few car rental tricks and have discovered the best way to rent a car at an affordable price.
Our tips for renting a car are actual methods we use to secure the best rates – so we know they work!
How Much to Rent a Car?
If you are asking the question, ‘How much does it cost to rent a car?’ there isn’t a simple answer. The actual cost to rent a car depends on so many different variables.
Where are you renting a car? How long are you renting a car? What kind of car are your renting? Do you need insurance for the rental car? What extra fees are being charged?
How much a rental car costs depends on all of these factors – some of which are completely out of your control.
Rather than generalize car rental costs in an attempt to answer the question ‘How much does a rental car cost?’, we are going to share our top tips and car rental secrets on the factors you can control, which will help you save money on your next car rental!
22 Tips For Renting Cars This Year
As budget travelers, there is nothing we loathe more than overpaying on trip expenses. Our car rental tips and tricks are tried and true car rental strategies that we actually use when searching for the best deal when renting a car.
#1 Compare Prices on Car Rental Websites
The best car rental pricing strategy for how to choose a rental car within your budget is to compare prices online using a robust search engine. We think Expedia is the best car rental website because, in our experience, they offer the best rates on a consistent basis.
In addition to entering destination and dates, with Expedia you can also select characteristics – like type of car, company, car specifications and fellow customer recommendations – in order to tailor the list to your specific needs.
Other top features that make Expedia the best car rental search engine is the ability to see the discounted AARP rate (more on this car rental hack in tip #12) and the map search feature (which we talk more about in a minute).
Bonus Car Rental Tips: Another reason we love Expedia is that you can gain rewards points for every booking (cars, hotels, and more). Becoming an Expedia Member to earn points is one of the rental car tips that cover in more detail later.
#2 Check Multiple Sites for Best Rental Car Deals
Although we think Expedia is the best car hire search engine, it is always a good idea to check a second (or third) source before making your booking.
Our backup source for finding cheap car rentals online is Priceline. Similar to Expedia, on Priceline you can easily make comparisons of rental car rates – and, in a few cases, we have uncovered the best car rental deals on Priceline (even if it was only by a couple of dollars).
Tips to Rent a Car: While search engines are great, it is always a good idea to check the actual car rental company website. They sometimes offer online rental car deals on their site only!
#3 Look Beyond Price Per Day
When looking for car rentals online, never price compare using the displayed Per Day Price. Instead, search by Total Price. Seriously, it is one of the easiest car rental savings tips.
The listed Per Day Price is usually offered by the rental car company at an attractive low rate in order to lure you in – but it does not include taxes, fees and other charges that are included with the rental.
Moreover, the pesky charges are not the same for all rental cars; they differ between companies, pick up locations and other tricky factors. So, in many cases, an appealingly low Per Day Price can easily equate to a larger Total Price sum.
Bonus Car Rental Tip: Online car rental sites, like the Expedia search engine for car rental, let you search by Total Price rather Per Day rates.
#4 Be Aware of the Extra Fees
If you want to know how to get the best deal on a rental car, then you have to read the fine print to find all the extra fees. It often happens that the cheapest rental cars have the most outrageous extra fees – so you will want to dig into the details before making your reservation. Rental car companies know you’re unlikely to read through those 17 pages of T&C’s on a tablet at the counter with a line behind you!
One of the most important details to check before renting a car is whether or not it has Unlimited Mileage. Often, fixed mile rental cars are offered at a lower rate, which can be enticing. However, car rental companies can charge hefty fees for exceeding the Mileage Limit (so, if you do opt for fixed mileage, make certain you don’t go over!).
Another extra fee that can significantly add to the cost of your rental is a car seat. Prices vary by company, but most charge about $10 to $15 per day for the use of a car seat.
Bonus Car Renting Tips: When renting a car, it is also incredibly important to note the time of pick up and drop off – as attempting to pick up the car early or drop it off after the drop off time can result in huge fees. We once tried to pick up a car a few hours before our scheduled timeslot and were faced with paying a huge sum of money to do so.
#5 Look at All Rental Car Types
Car rental agencies have a method to their madness for pricing out their car rentals. High demand – or high demand of a particular type of car – can drive up the cost of your rental.
For example, convertibles are highly coveted cars on the California Coast, but not so appealing for winter visitors to Cleveland. SUVs are great for Montana Road Trips and Glacier National Park, but are less desirable in big cities, like Chicago or New York City. Therefore, travelers who are open to driving any type of car can find the best deals on car rentals.
Car Renting Tip: If you do book a cheap rental car that is not ideal for your trip (like the massive van we reserved for our Oregon Trip), you can always ask at the car rental agency counter if you can swap it out without a fare difference. It’s a gamble; sometimes it will work…other times you will be stuck driving a convertible in the snow!
#6 Book a Weekly Car Rental for a Better Rate
One of the best tips for cheap car rental is to make a weekly booking. This, of course, only works if it fits within your travel plans – but weekly car rental deals can save you bundles. If you are going on vacation and are only planning on renting a car for a few days of sightseeing, we recommend checking rental rates for seven days. In our experience, this is one of the car rental hacks that really pays off. We often pay less for a full weekly auto rental than we would for four or five days.
If you have an extended month-long trip, it might seem unthinkable to rent a car for the entire time – however, just like weekly rentals, monthly car rentals are deeply discounted. In fact, it’s one of the absolute best tips when renting a car. We have seen instances where the monthly car rental rate is the same as it would cost for two weeks.
Long Term Renting a Car Tips: When booking weekly or monthly rates, there is one thing to be cautious of: Early Return Fees. Some rental car companies will charge a fee for early returns, which could negate any savings from a weekly rental rate.
#7 Avoid Renting Car at Airport
If you are looking for the best car tips for how to rent a car cheap, then this is it: Do Not Rent a Car at the Airport! Why this is one of the best tips for car rentals is that huge fees are buried in the price when you pick up from car rental companies at the airport.
Instead, book a car from an off-site location near the airport – and take an inexpensive Uber or Lyft from the airport. It might be a bit of a hassle when arriving to a new destination, but this is one of our favorite car rental hacks that has saved us hundreds of dollars.
Pro Tips for Renting Cars: To find the best priced car rental away from the airport, search by city name rather than airport code. On car rental websites, like Expedia, you can also use the Map feature to search for the locations that are closest to your arrival airport.
Interested in tips for finding the best flight deals? Use our Guide to Booking the Best Flights!
#8 Start Your Search as Early as Possible
Perhaps the cheapest way to rent a car is to start searching for a rental vehicle far in advance of your trip. Seriously: the earlier, the better.
Just like finding the best hotels at the best rates by starting your search as early as possible, you will find the best prices on car rentals the earlier you book.
Rental Car Tips and Tricks: Many travelers claim that the best time to rent a car is 3 to 6 months prior to your trip. However, we start searching for a car as soon as we begin planning our trip – even if it is a year away…and we explain why this is one of the best rental car tricks next on our list!
#9 Keep Searching…Even After You Make a Reservations
We highly recommended checking back to search engines and agency sites as your car rental dates get closer to see if prices have gone down – or if there is a special deal on rental cars that week.
As long as you make car rental reservations that are free to cancel, you can continue searching for better prices and last minute deals. If nothing is cheaper, no problem – just stick with your original car rental booking!
Pro Car Booking Tip: If you do find a better deal on a car, just remember to cancel your first reservation so there’s no confusion.
#10 Use a Credit Card to Cover Rental Car Insurance
When searching for the best car rental deals, one of the things they will try to get you to buy is the Collision Damage Waiver (also known as CDW or a Loss Damage Waiver). This provides insurance for the rental car in the case of an accident or other damage (like dinged doors and chipped windshields) – which is fine, because accidents happen.
What isn’t fine is that car rental insurance through the rental company is wildly expensive. However, in many cases you already have your own CDW – either through your personal car insurance or credit card.
Not all car insurance policies will cover a rental car (and some will only cover a rental car if your primary car is out of service…not a vacation rental). It is important to check with your insurance company before accepting or denying the rental car coverage.
On the other hand, one of the best car rental tips is to use a credit card for the rental car that also includes CDW.
There are several credit cards that provide the coverage – from Chase Sapphire Reserve to American Express (as long as you’re enrolled in the Premium Car Rental Protection program).
When we rent cars, we us our Chase Sapphire Preferred. Not only do we get double points when we use this Chase card to reserve our rental car, but Chase Sapphire provides primary CDW on rentals – meaning there is no need to get our personal car insurance involved.
There is an annual fee for the Chase Sapphire credit card, but we think it is well worth the price – not only for the car rental CDW, but for the many other perks. We use Chase Sapphire Preferred and get double points on travel purchases, no foreign transaction fees and an extra boost when we redeem those points for travel expenses. Apply using our special referral link and you will earn additional bonus points!
Pro Travel Tip: If you don’t have a credit card that offers Rental Car Insurance and your regular car insurance won’t cover your rental car, then search for Travel Insurance that includes CDW. It will be an extra fee, but likely not as much as what the car rental company will charge!
#11 Use Rental Car Coupons
Good old fashioned coupons can be a great way to score a car rental deal – and while they might not be as popular as they once were, there are still a few places to find them.
First, online websites – like Groupon – offer fantastic car rental coupons. Other online coupon sites (many that are membership based) offer discounted coupons for rental cars, but we haven’t tried any yet.
On occasion, I have also found traditional paper coupons for car rentals. Check the Valu-Pak coupon mailer or even the newspaper. I have even seen car rental coupons on the back of grocery receipts!
Rent a Car Tips and Tricks: Car rental agencies often offer their own coupons. You can find them on their website – or simply ask at the counter!
#12 Take Advantage of Membership Discounts
Sometimes it pays to be a member – especially when membership programs dole out rental car discounts!
AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) offers fantastic discounts on rental cars – like 30% off rates. Membership is fairly inexpensive (less than $20 a year) – and there is actually no age requirement to join!
AAA (the American Automobile Association) is another membership program that offers discounted car rental rates (plus heaps of other benefits, like free maps and emergency road side service). In addition to AAA car rental discounts, they offer other perks – like a free second driver.
Many other membership organizations – such as USAA – provide cheap car rental discounts, as well.
Car Rental Advice: Be sure to check if your employer or university offers a discount code for an even cheaper rent a car price! Before making a car rental reservation, check to see what organizations you might already be in that would offer discounted car rental rates.
#13 Costco Car Rental Travel Deals
Grocery membership giant, Costco, can be a great resource for finding cheap car rental rates. In fact, some travelers claim that it is the best place to rent a car. They have an entire division dedicated to travel and extend a nice discount on car rentals to their members.
In addition to a discounted rate for rental cars, Costco members reap other benefits, too. When renting cars through Costco Travel, an additional driver is free of charge and members earn cashback rewards.
We have not taken advantage of Costco rental car rates, but we personally know many travelers who have!
Top Tip: While Costco does typically offer cheaper car rates, we still recommend price comparing (which goes back to point #1 on our Car Rental Tips list!).
#14 Bundle Your Trip
Bundling the costs of your trip – including Air, Hotel, Car – can literally save you a bundle on the overall price of your vacation.
Most search engines – including Expedia and Priceline – offer bundle package rates, possibly saving travelers loads of money.
Travel Tip: Always, always, always price out the cost of your trip separately to make sure you are getting a good deal!
#15 Join Loyalty Rewards Programs
One of the best tips to save money on renting a car is to join loyalty programs – and they don’t cost a dime!
Usually it takes little more than an email address to enroll in a loyalty program. Most car rental agencies offer loyalty rewards and many search engine websites do as well (like Expedia).
In exchange for your email address, you will receive the latest deals, insider discounts and possibly earn points.
Car Rental Deal Tip: Sometimes, you can double down on reward program deals. For example, when you book a car rental deal advertised to members only, you may be able to use a coupon on top of the member discount price.
#16 Cash in Points for No Cost Car Rental
Speaking of points, a fantastic (and sometimes forgotten) car rental tip is to use points to pay for your ride.
Most travelers save their credit card and loyalty points for flights and hotels, but they can usually be cashed in for car rentals, as well.
Points Tip: As we already mentioned, we use the Chase Sapphire Preferred – and when we redeem points for travel expenses (like car rentals), points are actually worth more than if we used them for other rewards (like cash back or gift cards).
#17 Rent a Manual Car
While not particularly one of the great tips for renting a car in USA (where stick shift cars are few and far between), renting a manual transmission car in Europe will save you a significant amount of money.
In fact, I recently priced out cars for a European Trip and the same model car with manual transmission was priced $10 cheaper a day than the automatic.
Europe Car Rental Tip: When renting a car abroad, always understand requirements and road rules. Find out if you need a special driver’s license, insurance rules and any other regulations that may differ from renting a car in the USA.
#18 Use a VPN for International Car Rentals
On that same note, when looking for a car rental abroad, it is best to use a VPN that allows you to search for a rental car ‘in that country.’
A Virtual Private Network changes your IP address to a country of your choice…and when you search the internet for cheap car rental rates within the country you are taking a trip, the rates are typically better than when searching from outside the country.
Pro Tip: There are hundreds of different VPN companies to choose from – and most charge a small monthly fee.
#19 Car Share Programs
Car sharing programs are a unique way to rent a car that can add up to huge savings. Similar to the original idea behind Airbnb, with car sharing programs, you pay to use other people’s personal cars.
The top US car sharing company is Turo. Other companies to check out are GetAround and Zip Car.
Before renting a cheap car through a vehicle sharing program, be sure to read reviews and select an automobile from a highly rated owner.
Car Sharing Rental Tip: Insurance can be a little complicated with car sharing companies. Be certain that you have coverage either through your own car insurance or a credit card. Otherwise, plan on buying the provided insurance and calculate that into your overall rental car cost.
#20 Car Relocation
One of the top tips for renting a car for a road trip is to forego the traditional car rental experience and agree to relocate a car.
There are many reasons why cars (and RVs!) need to be relocated and travelers who agree to relocate these cars get to enjoy a road trip at an insanely cheap price.
Some companies, like Imoova, offer vehicles for as little as $1 per day. Yes, one dollar. How’s that for a cheap rental car?!
Pro Tip: When committing to relocate a car as part of your vacation, it is important to pay attention to the rules! Some car relocations offer unlimited miles and even a gasoline credit…others do not.
#21 Rent a Moving Truck or Work Van
If you are really struggling to find a car rental on a budget, then consider looking into renting a moving truck or work van.
A small U-Haul truck or Home Depot van can cost much less than a rental from an agency – and it still works to get you from Point A to Point B on your sightseeing adventures.
Pro Tip: While renting a truck or van can work in a pinch, lot locations are not always convenient for travelers. Plus, they often have strict mileage rules. Do your research, read the fine print and above all, make sure you’re comfortable driving the vehicle!
#22 Only Rent Car for Days You Need It
One of our top tips for renting cars that we mentioned above is to take advantage of weekly rate discounts – or even month-long rentals. However, it may be a better economical choice to really plan out your vacation and consider how many days you will really need a car for the trip. (Our Printable Travel Planner is great for planning day-by-day itineraries!)
If you are taking a vacation where many sights are close together, you may not need a car for the entire length of your trip. In fact, you may only need a car for one or two days.
Therefore, only rent the car for the days that you actually require it – and use alternative transport on the other days of your trip. Not only could this strategy save you money on your car rental, but you also avoid paying for parking at your accommodation (more on that topic next!).
Pro Tip: We highlight a few of the top alternatives to renting a car for vacation later in the article.
Bonus Rental Car Advice
We have shared our top advice for how to get the best car rental prices – but we have a few more travel tips before you start packing for your trip.
Check Parking Fees At Accommodations
This isn’t really one of our rental car booking tips, but rather a tip for
not getting fleeced staying on budget. One fee that can sneak up on travelers when renting a car is the cost of parking. Many hotels charge ridiculously hefty overnight parking fees, which can add up in a hurry. In big cities and at some resorts it can cost more than $50 just to park your car overnight.
On the other hand, some types of accommodations don’t provide a place to park at all, which will leave you scrambling to find a place to park each time you return to your lodging.
When renting a car for a trip, always check the fees for parking and parking options in advance!
Looking for ways to save on accommodations? Read our Advice for Booking the Best Accommodations!
Never Leave Valuables in your Rental Car
Rental cars are a target for thieves – especially when valuables are in plain sight. When parking your rental car, be absolutely certain that you take everything with you, including your luggage, camera, cell phone, wallet…anything of value.
Other Advice for How To Save on Car Rentals
One of the best ways on how to save money on car rental is to, in fact, avoid renting a car altogether! We have a few tips on what to do when even the cheapest car rental is too much.
Car Rental Alternatives
We shared our best vacation car rental tips, but if you can’t get a car rental to fit within your trip budget, we have a few alternative hacks.
If you are renting a car on vacation to get to attractions, consider joining a tour instead. Sometimes packaged tour deals are a great value (and can be less stressful) than planning the adventure on your own – especially if car rental rates are too high. We use Viator to find top-rated tours in locations around the world.
On your vacation, if you only need transportation to a few places, it could be monetarily beneficial to simply use Uber a few times rather than renting a car for your entire trip.
If, after using our tips for car rental deals, you can’t find a car at an acceptable price point, price out what it would cost to use Uber to where you want to go instead of getting a rental car.
If you are traveling to a destination with a public transportation network, riding the subway, train or bus can be a fantastic way to save on your vacation budget. Honestly, you don’t need our tips on renting a car if there’s a robust and affordable public transit system available!
We always recommend checking for additional discounts – like weekly tourist cards that include public transport.
Riding a bike or a shooter is another great alternative to renting a car. Many areas offer bike and scooter sharing programs – and even hotels (and some Airbnb hosts) offer free bikes as well!
We love exploring new places on our own two feet! It helps us to slow down, observe our surroundings and really get to know a place. Plus, it’s great exercise and of course, always absolutely FREE!
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