To keep rooms occupied, hotels have slashed prices and launched aggressive promotions. To keep flying, airlines have cut routes and fares (and tacked on fees). And car-rental agencies? They've gone all old-fashioned and raised their prices. Average rates for compact cars at U.S. airports have more than doubled in the past year*—which means it's time to get creative if you want to find savings.
If you've paid close attention to your recent car-rental bills, you've seen that airport-related taxes and fees can add 10 percent or more to the tab. Leaving the airport—and picking up a car at a rental agency in town—can wipe out those charges. Enterprise makes things easier by picking customers up from homes, offices, or hotels for free.
Pluses In addition to the tax savings, off-airport rental rates are often lower.
Minuses You have to actually get to the lot, which could mean a pricey taxi, or a pesky bus or train ride. Also, while airport locations are often open late, many neighborhood lots close around 5 or 6 p.m. Be sure to call ahead or check online.
Best for a Traveler Who... isn't going to need a car the entire time and has planned other transport from the airport anyway.
After paying an annual fee of $50, members get access to everything from Mini Coopers to Ford Escapes for as little as $6 an hour. Zipcar serves more than 60 cities in North America and the U.K.
Pluses If all you want is an afternoon joyride, Zipcar (zipcar.com) lets you rent by the hour. You can make reservations online, cars are all over, and a plastic Zipcard acts as a universal set of keys. Bonus: Insurance and gas are included.
Minuses The annual fee is a deal-breaker unless you use the service a lot (how often depends on the number of hours you use each time).
Best for a Traveler Who... is a Zipcar member at home or who is a frequent visitor to cities with the service.
The country's largest used-car rental outfit has 157 locations, including lots near 38 airports (rentawreck.com). The selection of models is similar to what you'd find at a major agency, with one key difference: The cars typically have from 40,000 to 80,000 miles on them (so they're not, technically, "wrecks").
Pluses You can save as much as 75 percent off what a rental from a traditional agency would cost. We found a Rent-A-Wreck for $28 a day at the lot near Newark Liberty airport; a comparable car from Hertz was $106.
Minuses No one-way rentals, and good weekend promotions from a big agency can often beat Rent-A-Wreck's prices.
Best for a Traveler Who... doesn't drive to impress.
RENTING FROM A CAR DEALER
Many dealers do more than just sell cars. In the U.S., about 70 percent of Toyota dealerships and a third of Ford lots rent cars by the day (see toyota.com/rental and ford.com/rentacar for specifics).
Pluses New-car smell! Vehicles rented at a dealership are often brand new or gently used. Rates are decent for what you get; we found prices as low as $36 a day.
Minuses There's no central online reservation system, so you have to contact each dealership individually to scope out availability and rates.
Best for a Traveler Who... is looking for an extended test drive.
* Source: Abrams Consulting Group
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