The Lowdown on Car Rentals

Advance bookings, local agencies, shopping the web-money-saving secrets you need to know before you rent

By , Wednesday, Mar 30, 2005, 12:00 AM

Large, worldwide chains maintain auto-rental outlets in virtually every city of size throughout the world, and also use both nationwide and worldwide computer networks--reached by dialing an 800 number to service your reservations for a car. If you can make your booking at least seven or 14 days in advance, you'll nearly always receive reduced rates that make the prices of these national car rental chains competitive with those of small, local firms.

But woe to the casual tourist who simply appears at an airport Avis, Hertz, Budget or National desk without a reservation booked several days in advance; the rates for such an on-the-spot rental are almost always considerably higher, not simply overseas but in the U.S. as well. Under those circumstances, you'll do better by seeking out the smaller local firms with unfamiliar names and no airport locations below; they thrive on the last-minute booking.

When it comes to shopping for car rental companies, the smart, Web-savvy traveler utilizes one or several of the Internet sites that automatically do the shopping for them. Sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Qixo, which may be better known for searching for cheap airfares, also have the ability to shop and find the best price for car rentals. Many of the extras, such as insurance and tax, are often not included in the prices quoted by these sites, and such charges vary from company to company, so some additional research is required before finding the best deal.

Auto rental companies often advertise sales, coupons, or free upgrades on their Web sites or in the Sunday travel section of newspapers. By all means take advantage of them when they arise, but be aware of the fine print. These offers are almost always limited by location, limited in terms of availability, with sale rates subject to change. And if you think these prices include CDW, taxes, location fees or any of those other extras that can make renting cars such an exercise in frustration, we've got a lovely bridge to sell you. You will pay more than the base rates listed, so be sure to get all of the numbers before you decide where to rent. Sometimes you'll get better prices from the companies that aren't currently offering sales. It's all a crapshoot with rental cars.

International renters have a host of other issues to figure before finding the best price. Overseas, the cost of gasoline is so high (it often exceeds the equivalent of $3 or $3.50 for a gallon) that you are also well advised to book the smallest car consistent with your needs, and thus minimize your use of gas. But remember that such cars usually come with small luggage compartments; if you will need a roof rack for extra baggage, be sure to order one when making your reservation--they cannot usually be obtained on the spot.

Also bear in mind that in some overseas locations, you can't secure unlimited mileage with on-the-spot booking. For those countries, book ahead with an international renter (or e-mail back and have a friend do it for you) to avoid racking up expensive per-mile (or per-kilometer) fees.

1. Some tips for cutting rental costs:

Avoid airline terminals: Car rental agencies at airport locations often charge "airport location fees" and security taxes that can add significantly to the cost of your rental. The same car that would cost $49 a day at the airport might run for $35 at a downtown or other location. Many off-airport rental agencies within striking distance of the terminal offer free shuttles.

Stay the week: Sometimes weekly rates can be cheaper than three-day rentals, especially at the major rental agencies.

Go clubbing: Frequent renter clubs, with names like "Gold Service" or "Emerald Club," are free to join and usually garner discounts of at least five percent on each rental. Programs such as Avis Wizard can save you as much as 15 percent. Some of these clubs allow you to earn points toward future free rentals, and often they get you better service.

Fill'er up: Make sure you never return a rental car with less gas in the tank than when you got it. Fuel surcharges can double and triple the price per gallon you'd pay at a regular gas station.

Don't trouble with double insurance: Don't duplicate insurance you already have. The car rental agencies will try to sell you insurance at an additional charge, ranging from liability (sometimes called "liability insurance supplement") to accident (aka "personal accident insurance) to policies covering personal belongings. You undoubtedly already have health insurance, and probably homeowners' and auto insurance, so you can often decline them all. The exception to this rule is when renting a car in Ireland or Italy, where the purchase of insurance is mandatory.

"Just say no" to Collision Damage Waivers: Also known as Loss Damage Waivers, they'll add more than $9 a day to your rental cost, unless you sign the CDW agreement making you responsible for damage. Many, but not all, states have outlawed this liability by requiring car rental companies to pay for collision insurance. But even if your state allows it, you can avoid the hefty fees by using a credit card or bank card that covers collision.

Looking on the web

Breezenet bnm.com offers discounts (up to 20 percent) and savings at the major car companies, regional renters and selected "exotic" car rental agencies. Can search companies by airport location nationally and internationally. Has a section on "Last-Minute Specials" and also lists the deals available from several companies.

SideStep (sidestep.com) searches the major car companies, the online bookers, and several smaller agencies for the best rate. It runs along-side other search engines for easy rate comparison.

Low-cost auto rentals

Outside the mainstream car rental agencies such as Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Alamo, and National, there are smaller, lesser-known companies that offer discounted automobile rentals. The upsides to renting with such a discounter is obvious: It'll cost less money. The downsides vary. Some use older or second-hand cars. Other agencies are very small, perhaps with a single location, and services will be far less extensive than the major players (which is important should anything go wrong). But if you're willing to take the slight risk with an older car or a smaller rental company, chances are you'll pay less than at a mainstream agency (but still look at the bigger companies too, to compare).

Here are some sources for low-cost auto rentals:

Rent-A-Wreck (800/944-7501, rentawreck.com) is the overly apologetic moniker for the company that used to discount just older cars through much of the U.S., but that now deals in luxury sedans as well as SUVs. Rest assured its automobiles are not "wrecks" by any means (not usually anyway), and its rates often come in well under Hertz, Avis, Alamo and the like. Be aware that some states have dozens of R-A-W branch locations, while others have one or none.

Car Rental Express (888/557-8188, carrentalexpress.com) is a web site that exclusively searches rates and availability for over 300 independent, locally owned car rental agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Prices quoted on the site include all taxes and fees, and there are online coupons available for additional discounts. Daily rates are 25-30 percent less than the majors, and weekly rates are 15 percent cheaper. All agencies undergo a background check and Car Rental Express promises that 99 percent use new vehicles.

AutoEurope (888/223-5555, autoeurope.com) suffers none of the downsides listed above (it is a big operation and its cars are not old), yet it often undercuts the rates of worldwide operations like Hertz and Avis. It is a top option for short-term rentals all over Europe.

Renault Eurodrive (800/221-1052, renaultusa.com) is often a less expensive option for longer-term vacationers abroad, meaning people who are staying at least 17 days in Europe and who plan to take out a short-term lease. Compare with AutoEurope's rates.

Dan Dooley (800/331-9301, dan-dooley.ie) is a discount rental operation for Ireland only, although it has offices outside the Emerald Isle. It offers a wide array of cars models and sizes, and all of its quote rates are in Euros.

2. Always rent the smallest car

The smallest cars have the cheapest rates, and if the location doesn't have a subcompact when you arrive, they'll give you a free upgrade to the next smallest vehicle they have on the lot. The people who deliver cars to satellite locations (called shuttlers) don't like squeezing into subcompacts any more than you do, so they don't stock the lot with small cars unless they have to. In locations with very few cars, you will often--as a result--be given a full-size car for the price of a subcompact. And if they do have a subcompact, and you want a bigger car, you can always ask for an upgrade on the spot, but there's no reason not to try for the lower rate. This strategy surely won't work at a giant airport like Miami's, where there are hundreds of cars (and therefore dozens of subcompacts) on hand. But it will work in downtown locations and smaller airports with room for only a few cars.

The following illustrated examples speak for themselves, and give a glimpse of the savings at a given moment in time.

3. Compare rates between downtown and airport locations

Say you're arriving in St. Louis and need a car for four days. If you rent one (a subcompact, naturally) from Budget's airport location, you'll pay $51.99 a day, or a total of $207.96. But if you rent the same car from Budget's downtown location, just a few blocks from the convention center, you'll pay $39.99 a day, or a total of $159.96. And here's the best part: You get the lower rate--a savings of $48--even if you return the car to the airport. But, you may ask, doesn't it cost something to get from the airport to downtown? Yes--all of $3.50. That's the price of a Metrolink ride from the airport to downtown.

4. In New York, the savings can be even greater if you're willing to take a train ride to the suburbs

Say you want to rent a car for this Fourth of July. At any of Hertz's Manhattan locations, a subcompact will cost $71.99 per day. But if you take a train to Hertz's location in North White Plains, the same car rents for $42.99. The rental lot is right next to the train station, and the ride takes no more than 50 minutes from Grand Central Station ($7 one-way). The savings are even greater if you keep the car for a week: $311.99 at North White Plains, compared to $409.99 in Manhattan. What's more, you still get the lower rate even if you return the car in Manhattan.

5. Check differences between weekend and weekday rates

Sometimes you can save money by keeping the car longer. At airports and other locations catering to business travelers, weekend rates are so much cheaper that it might make sense to pick up a car on a Saturday or Sunday. (At some locations, there may even be more than one rate on the same day!) For example, at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, National charges $55.99 a day for a rental starting on a Monday. If you keep the car for three days and return it Wednesday night, you pay $167.97. But if you pick up that same car on Saturday night and keep it for four days, you pay for two days at the weekend rate of $21.99/day and two days at the rate of $48.99/day, for a total of $141.96. Voila! A savings of $26.01! If you pick up the car Friday night, you pay only $163.95, still $4 less than what you'd pay to pick it up on Monday morning, and you get the use of a car all weekend.

In Manhattan, where car-less urbanites flee the city on weekends, the equation is just the opposite. Weekday rates are lower than weekend rates, but again, you can save money by keeping the car longer. For example, if you pick up an economy car at any of Budget's Manhattan locations on a Friday and return it Sunday you'd pay around $75.99 a day, or a total of $227.97. But if you pick up the car the night before (Thursday) and return it at the same time, you pay only $65.99 per day, or a total of $197.97. That's a savings of $30, which will more than offset the cost of storing the car overnight in an expensive Manhattan garage if you can't find a parking spot. Why do the car rental companies do this? For the same reason restaurants have early-bird specials. They want you out before the big rush. If you take a car off their hands on Thursday night, that opens up room for one more car they can rent on Friday.

6. If you're keeping the car for four or more days, check if there's a weekly rate that might be cheaper Weekly rates for most car rentals usually kick in on the fifth day.

Most rental companies' weekly rates allow you to keep the car for five, six, or seven days with no difference in price. In many cases, the weekly rate might be cheaper than the four-day rate, and in a few cases, even cheaper than a three-day rental. Here's an example of the latter: If you pick up a subcompact car from Alamo at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport and keep it for three days, you'll pay $60.99 a day, or a total of $182.97. Keep it for four days and you'll pay $243.06. But keep it for five days (or pick it up a day earlier) and the weekly rate of $146.99 kicks in, a savings of nearly $100.

7. Join all the frequent renter clubs you can find-the ones operated by the major car rental companies themselves (call them and request procedures for joining)

These clubs, with names like "Gold Service" or "Emerald Club," are free to join, and usually get you a minimum of a 5 percent discount. But sometimes, preferred-renter discounts are greater and even better than what you get with AAA or AARP discounts. On a three-day rental when everybody is trying to get out of Manhattan, an Avis Wizard number saves 15 percent. And like frequent flyer programs, some frequent renter clubs allow you to earn points toward future free rentals. In addition to the financial incentive, frequent renter status gets you better service, beginning the minute you make your reservation.

8. Always return the car with a (mostly) full tank

You don't have to fill up right outside the airport. As long as the needle says "F," nobody can say the tank isn't full. Returning your rental car (almost) full is still the most economical option. If the gauge is not on "F" when you return the car, you'll pay a fortune in refueling charges. If you pay in advance for a full tank, you'll come out ahead only if you bring the car back empty (not something you want to chance).

9. Check your automobile and health insurance policies to avoid hefty daily insurance charges

The rental companies will try to sell you additional types of insurance, ranging from liability (sometimes called liability insurance supplement) to accident (a.k.a. personal accident insurance) to policies covering personal belongings. If you already have an auto insurance policy, decline them all. Each charge is several dollars a day, and they add up fast. If you have automobile insurance, you're probably covered for rental cars; if you have health insurance, you're covered for personal injuries regardless of how you end up in the hospital. And if you have homeowner's insurance, you may be covered if somebody steals your swimsuit from your trunk. Even if you don't have homeowner's insurance, personal effects coverage is a waste of money unless you're transporting the crown jewels in your Ford Escort.

10. Check your credit card coverage to avoid CDW charges

Then there's that painful charge for a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver, both of them lures the rental companies use to get you to pay the collision portion of the insurance on their vehicles. Unless you sign the CDW agreement, sometimes adding more than $10 a day to the price of your rental, you're responsible for damage to the car in an accident. Many states (but not all) have outlawed this liability by requiring the car companies to pay for collision insurance, so you don't have to worry. But even if you rent in a state that allows CDW charges, you can decline the hefty fee by paying for your rental with a credit card that covers you in case of collision. American Express provides this service to holders of its Gold, Platinum, and Blue Cards, as well as standard green cards, but not every Visa or MasterCard does. MBNA America is one bank that does; check with your credit card's issuing bank to see if yours does too.