Alterations in travel behaviors prompted by the pandemic have propelled rental car prices to unprecedented heights. Despite this, there are still chances to find affordable deals. A prominent travel trend arising in the COVID-19 era is the revival of road trips. However, the increased demand has resulted in a potential scarcity of cheap car rentals. As anticipated, car rental rates have surged to exceptionally high levels during the pandemic.
While cheap car rentals near me prices appear to have peaked and are gradually declining, they remain significantly elevated compared to pre-COVID rates. In March 2023, average US car rental prices were a staggering 53% higher than they were in March 2019, the month before the pandemic.
The reassuring thing is that you won’t have to spend your entire vacation budget on car rentals. This list of 10 tips will help you rent an economical car for your upcoming trip, whether it’s a quick weekend getaway or an extensive cross-country adventure.
Avoid the airport
Choosing to rent at the airport may seem convenient, especially when arriving in a new city by plane. However, this convenience often comes with a higher price tag due to general price increases driven by demand and additional costs such as airport taxes.
These surcharges are usually fixed dollar amounts, commonly referred to as “customer service fees.” Alternatively, they may be presented as a percentage of the total rental price, and in some cases both types of fees may apply. While these fees typically amount to a few dollars per day, their cumulative effect can result in fees well into the triple digits depending on the length of your trip.
The study discovered that weekly cheapest way to rent a car in the city center were, on average, $126 more economical than at airports. In fact, you can anticipate spending about 26% more to rent a car at the airport than to rent in the city center.
Explore online opportunities
Visit sites to assess your choices and identify the best car rental deals. Following that, visit the official website of the car rental company directly. You can secure an even greater discount, especially if you opt for the Pay Now option. However, bear in mind that rental payments made in advance are typically non-refundable.
Even after making a reservation, don’t stop searching. If your rental is not prepaid and non-refundable, you can cancel and rebook if you find a better price.
Compare brands (not all discount brands are the most affordable)
Contrary to assumptions based on names like Dollar and Thrifty, it would appear that budget brands may not always offer the best prices. According to NerdWallet’s 2022 Car Rental Research, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Budget, Hertz, and Dollar were among the most economical cheap rental cars companies. For instance, while the average weekly rental price for the pricier National brand was $695, for Enterprise, it was only $480.
Use your membership to save money
If you’re a Costco member, leverage your membership to lower the cost of your upcoming rent a car for cheap. Clem Bason, CEO of the travel site goSEEK.com and a former Hotwire.com executive, highlights that Costco consistently surpasses online travel agencies in full-price car rentals.
Added benefit: You can often add an additional driver at no additional cost.
AAA membership is another valuable money-saver, offering discounts on Hertz car rentals and waived underage driving fees for AAA members ages 20 to 24.
Frequent flyer programs also provide opportunities for discounts on rent a cheap car. For instance, American Airlines offers AAdvantage members a 35% discount on Budget and Avis car rentals, but remember that rentals must be made at the airport.
Choose economy class cars
Opting for economy cars is a smart move given that they are usually the most economical and therefore in high demand. Brett Graff, a family finance expert and author of the syndicated column “The Home Economist,” recommends reserving the smallest, most affordable car when seeking cheap car rentals, anticipating the possibility of upgrading if the chosen model isn’t available on the lot.
Limit the number of drivers to one
Most car rental companies charge a daily fee to add an additional driver. This fee is typically $12 per day for Enterprise and National Car Rental and $13 per day for Budget and Avis, although it may vary by location.
However, there are strategies to avoid this fee. For example, some companies, such as Enterprise, exempt spouses or domestic partners from driving surcharges as long as both people have the same address listed on their driver’s license. Other companies, such as National, waive fees for spouses, partners and immediate family members if they enroll in the membership program.
You can also use various memberships, including USAA, AARP, AAA or Costco, to get a free additional driver from certain car rental companies.
Rely on your own insurance
If you own a car, chances are your primary insurance will cover you when you rent a car. For millennials who don’t own cars, consider having your parents add you to their insurance as a driver, usually at no extra cost if you have a good driving record.
Many credit cards also provide basic insurance coverage when used to pay rent, allowing you to forgo purchasing additional insurance and potentially save up to $30 per day on rent. Some credit cards even offer broader coverage.
Rent abroad? Keep in mind that you may be required to purchase insurance even if you have coverage through your primary car insurance and/or credit card. Be sure to factor this into your budget.
Rental agents often increase their income by promoting additional services such as roadside assistance, satellite radio and GPS navigation. Resisting the allure of these add-ons can result in significant savings.
Instead of spending $15 a day or more on a Garmin or similar GPS navigation device, use a navigation system on your smartphone. Michael Goldman, president of AutoRentals.com, emphasizes the practicality of using apps like Waze or Google Maps and questions the need for GPS rentals.
Car rental companies charge a daily fee for toll transponders, which you pay in addition to any tolls. To avoid overpaying, consider alternatives. In areas like South Florida, where rental companies can charge $25 per day for a SunPass, AutoRentals.com suggests purchasing a Florida SunPass for $19.99 at local stores and paying only for what you use.
While safety is paramount, if you’re traveling with friends, use their network to borrow a car seat, potentially saving $10 or more per day.
Evaluate prepaid gas options
Use platforms like GasBuddy to locate nearby gas stations and current fuel prices, allowing you to compare them to the prepaid price offered by the car rental company. Think about your likelihood of returning with a nearly empty tank. For shorter trips, topping up the tank before returning may be sufficient, while longer trips may allow you to save money by returning with low fuel levels.
Explore car rental alternatives
Consider walking or using public transportation in walkable cities with good transportation networks. Also, explore non-traditional rental options which work similar to Airbnb for cars. Some are run by individuals who rent out personal cars, while others are associated with the auto industry. These alternatives are often more cost-effective than traditional rentals, allowing hourly bookings to avoid paying for downtime hours.