Let’s face when planning a vacation it’s no fun to spend money on transportation. After all, a car is just a car (donLet’s face ’t tell my son I said that). It gets you from point A to point B. Let me show you how to save some big money on your car rental so you can upgrade your hotel, enjoy a great meal or take the kids snorkeling.
1. SEARCH…SEARCH…SEARCH. Car rental rates can vary dramatically from one day to the next. The beauty of car rental (and why a patient customer can almost always get a great deal) is that there is no cancellation penalty if you find a better deal. For example, on my last trip to Orlando/Delray Beach/Miami Beach I had reserved a mid-sized car a month in advance for 12 days at the ugly rate of $480. That was picking up at Orlando International Airport (“MCO”) and dropping off at Fort Lauderdale International Airport (“FLL”). I also reserved a mid-sized car for 11 days picking up in Winter Park (a beautiful Orlando suburb and home to my wonderful Aunt Jan and Uncle Stu) and dropping off at FLL for $330 using the off airport strategy I describe below. However, a week before the trip I picked up at $330 rate on Costco.com renting a full sized car from Alamo for 14 days picking up at MCO and dropping at FLL. Cha Ching! At $23.57 a day including taxes not a bad deal for high season. I cancelled the other reservations and off I went.
2. RENT OFF-AIRPORT (IT’S A BIG DEAL—LITERALLY). This is the single best way to save huge $$$$ on car rental. Phoenix/Scottsdale is a great example of a city where this strategy is powerful. Let’s say you were heading to Scottsdale for spring training from March 14-21, 2015. The best deal on my January 29, 2015, search on Costco.com had a full sized car for $443 for the week from Enterprise. You could have rented the same car from Enterprise in downtown Phoenix (approximately 5 miles from the airport) for $223 for the week ($294 if you want to return the car to the airport). You save $149 to $220 for the week for the cost of a short cab ride…that’s real money. This Off-Airport strategy works great in cities like Boston (try saving $200 plus on a three day rental), Orlando (averages about $120 on a weekly rental), Cleveland ($85 on a three day rental) and Pittsburg ($230 on a weekly rental). Remember, car rentals prices can vary wildly from day-to-day but you get the idea.
3. A NOTE ABOUT THE OFF AIRPORT STRATEGY. The Off-Airport strategy works because many municipalities have passed steep car rental taxes and fees that apply at the airport only—not at off airport locations. The Off-Airport strategy works best if you are renting for a period of at least 72 hours in a high tax/fee airport (think Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, Pittsburg). It’s a bit of a pain but worth it when you’re pocketing $200 on a weekly rental. You can either cab it to the off-airport car rental office (so make sure it’s not too far from the airport) or pull a Popper. A Popper is when you take a one-way car rental from the airport and drop it off the next day at the off-site car rental office where you’re going to pick up your much, much cheaper new rental car. The trick here is to rent Budget to Budget, or Avis to Avis, etc., to avoid unnecessary hassle. BE SURE TO MAKE SURE THAT YOUR DATES AND LOCATIONS SYNC UP PERFECTLY!
4. NEVER PREPAY FOR YOUR CAR RENTAL. Prepaying at a car rental website is not a great idea. Those sites take away your flexibility to lower your car rental cost if prices drop And G-d forbid you need to make a date change after prepaying or your plane is diverted to another airport …your screwed. Saving a few shekels (the discounts are usually very small) is just not worth losing you’re flexibility with the rental. Remember, car rental prices change constantly (and there is almost never a cancellation penalty) so you can recheck prices as often as you want. Many car rental websites (like Carrentals.com) will send you an email if prices drop in your destination city.
5. STAY AWAY FROM THE SUBMAJOR CAR RENTAL COMPANIES WHENEVER POSSIBLE. This is a bit counter intuitive but getting a great price on a car rental just to be hijacked by bad service or questionable business practices is never a good deal. I’m not going to name names but whenever I have a big problem with excess charges or “mandatory” CDW it’s with one of the smaller players. In addition, the lines at these agencies always seem much, much slooooooower than at Avis, Hertz, Budget, etc. I am not above using the smaller companies but you had better save me some big coin if I have to deal with truncated service and other hassles.
6. FIND A FEW GREAT CAR RENTAL SITES. I know this sounds crazy but my favorite car rental site by far is www.Costco.com. They have a wonderful “Low Price Finder” that automatically applies all existing Costco car rental coupons to the price. Costco.com is also a great site for booking my Off-Airport strategy because they include the addresses of each car rental location (so you can choose one close to the airport). The only weakness is that they only quote Alamo, Avis, Budget and Enterprise. I also really like www.Carrentals.com. You can input any coupon codes you have and they send you an email when prices drop in a city you recently searched. Therefore, you are automatically notified when prices drop for your search dates. Another great car rental site is Hotwire. Although I don’t recommend prepaying with Hotwire (or any other site), I am using Hotwire for car rental on my upcoming Las Vegas trip. Hotwire hooked me up with a great rate and it’s fully cancellable should my plans change.
7. AVOID PAYING STEEP PARKING FEES ON YOUR RENTAL CAR. Am I the only one who thinks that $53 for valet parking in Boston is crazy? I Hotwired a room at the Westin Copley Place in Boston in December 2014 (a great deal for $107 after a $25 Hotwire coupon). The Westin Copley Place is a beautiful hotel in great location. The room was great, the front desk service was impeccable and they have cold TAB in the gift shop (love that!). My kids are I spent 24 hours taking in the Beantown sights by foot and Uber. I had rented a car a few days earlier in Boston (after my plane was redirected there from Worcester) for a family trip to Rhode Island and the Berkshires. We returned to Boston for the last night of the trip. I had no need for a car in Boston so I dropped the kids off at the hotel with the luggage, checked in and proceeded to return the car to an Alamo location near the hotel. That saved me around $100 on the car and $53 on hotel parking less the $40 I spent on Uber. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
8. COUPON CODES ARE GREAT—SOMETIMES. Feel free to get coupon codes from sites like Retailmenot.com, Coupons.com, Rentalcarmomma.com, etc. Remember this—many of the codes have onerous restrictions and limitations. The best way to use them is as a secondary tool. Use one of the great car rental sites to get yourself a baseline on the deal you want. For example, if Payless and Budget have the best deals for your destination then search their respective websites with your coupon code in tow. Use the codes to see if you can beat the best deal available on those sites. Good luck!