We’ve had occasion to rent a car quite frequently lately. It is one of those transactions that can be maddening. Costs are all over the board. Timing is critical. The customer service experience is terrible and manipulative.
What I’m getting at here is that I think I’ve got this renting a car thing figured out. Here’s how you do it. You’re welcome.
Making the Reservation
I usually start by searching two sites: Kayak and Hotwire. (Full disclosure: I get a kickback if you book through Hotwire. So if you’re on the fence, book through Hotwire.) I like Kayak because they search many different sites at the same time. Hotwire is good for their Hot Rates. Make sure to compare the total cost for the entire time you’ll be renting and not the daily rate. I believe Kayak includes all taxes and fees and Hotwire doesn’t, so the daily rate almost always looks better on Hotwire even though sometimes it’s not. I’m usually not too picky about which car rental companies we actually rent the car from. My experience has been they’re all about the same–every single one has about 2.5 stars on Yelp.
Generally, the price of the car rental is set in whole days. Therefore, if you rent a car for two days and one hour, you’re paying for a three day rental, whereas if you can live without that car for that extra hour, you’ll save a bunch.
Most of the time when I rent a car it means we’re flying somewhere and need a car while we’re there. Every major airport has car rentals available. Most people just check for car rentals at the airport and call it a day. The problem is that the airport the car rental companies know they have a captive audience and charge more. In addition, there are usually more fees and taxes at the airport, which often more more than doubles the total cost. When looking for a rental car, I suggest doing two searches: one at the airport and one for the city the airport is in. Sometimes the airport will come in with a better price. If so, good, you have it easy. If there are better deals to be had in the surrounding city, it’s time to do some sleuthing. This is where Google Maps is your friend. Plug in the addresses of a few of the car rental places with the best prices you see and pull up public transit directions. Several cities have light rail trains or an express bus service that goes right to the airport. There’s a good chance you’ll find one that doesn’t require three transfers and riding on a bus all day. It’s okay if the directions show a bit of a walk to the car rental office from the bus/train stop. You won’t have to drag all your luggage through some unknown city for a mile. Most of them will pick you up within a certain distance of their office (but not at the airport). Public transportation isn’t your only option, either, I recently found a better deal on a car rental across the street from a Marriott that had an airport shuttle. I know this can seem like quite a hassle, but it really can add up to serious savings. Last summer when we went to Oregon, we saved $200 by renting a car in Beaverton instead of at the Portland airport. For $5, we rode the MAX train and Hertz even dropped us off at the transit center.
Car rental rates fluctuate almost as much as airfare. It’s impossible to predict when the best prices will be available. The good news is that you don’t have to. A little known fact about car rental reservations is that you can cancel them at any time without penalty. (Make sure to read the fine print, though.) This means that you can book your reservation and if you find a better deal, cancel it and go with another. If you know you’re going on a trip, find the best deal at the time and book it. Then check back every week or two. Set a reminder in your calendar if you have to. I’ve had trips where I have cut the price of the rental in half with this tactic.
Desk Agents and their Jedi Mind Tricks
So at this point you’ve booked the optimal reservation and are going to save a ton of money over the person who just haphazardly walks into the car rental desk on the day of their flight. You still have one major obstacle before you’re driving away in your steal of a deal: the desk agent. Their main purpose is to convince you to add on things you don’t need to increase the price. Usually they make a commission on each upsell they do. Usually it starts out like this:
Desk Agent: “Would you like the basic, standard, or premium insurance?”
Notice how not purchasing extra insurance was never even mentioned. That’s the option you want. You have already checked with your car insurance policy and credit card benefits and know that you’re covered, right? The most important thing to do in this situation is to very clearly, but not rudely, explain exactly the option you would like to select even if that option wasn’t presented to you.
You: “I would like to decline the additional insurance.”
What’s important here is that you didn’t try to explain why you are declining their overpriced insurance. You don’t owe them an explanation. As soon as you try to justify your position to them they will come back with something to make you second guess yourself. Believe me, they have heard your reasoning before. About half the time they will try to push the upsell again anyway trying to guess your concern:
Desk Agent: “Are you sure? Many credit cards don’t cover your liability in an accident, especially since … ”
You: “No thanks. I would still like to decline the additional insurance.”
Notice you weren’t rude, but still very clear that you weren’t accepting their offer. Also, you still aren’t trying to justify your position. Eventually they will relent.
This same method works equally well for the prepaid gas which is never worth it unless you can manage to exactly calculate your gas mileage on a car you’ve never driven before so as to roll back into their lot on fumes. It also goes for them trying to get you to pay more to upgrade your car type. That usually means they don’t have enough of the car you reserved and that they’ll give you the bigger car for free when you get out to the lot anyway.
Picking up the car
After all that grilling you finally get to pick up your car. Before you speed off make sure you check it out and fill out one of those damage reports noting any and all dents, dings, and scratches on the car. Sometimes they’ll forget to give the form to you. Ask for it. Keep your copy of the report with the rest of your paperwork. Also, snap a couple pictures of any damage you saw and marked on the form for proof. I’ve never needed this, but it just takes a minute, so why not?
Returning the car
Since you declined the prepaid gas, give yourself time to fuel up the car before returning it. Usually they want it to be within 10 miles, so keep your gas receipt so you can prove that, although I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone check. Sometimes gas stations near car rental places charge more. You can use something like the GasBuddy app if you have a smartphone to try to find cheaper gas, but I almost never do.