My situation isn't an unusual one; car rental deals can be notoriously hard to find, especially if you're only searching in a few places. However, doing some more intensive comparison shopping can offer some of the greatest and most sensible savings available to the average traveler. Because brand and name recognition don't matter too much when you're renting a car -- a Hyundai two-door is a Hyundai two-door, whether you rent it from Avis, Orbitz or Enterprise -- it's easy to keep your options open and increase your chances of getting a good deal.
If you're willing to put in the time and research, it turns out that there are more hidden deals on rental cars than any other part of the travel experience. Take my New England rental: After my first unsuccessful searches, I kept at it, using some of the tactics below -- and the effort paid off when I booked a reservation for $54 total. That's about $13 a day, and cheaper for the whole trip than it looked like I might pay for the first day!
Clearly, there are some great deals out there. But how can you find them?
Major Booking Sites
While many of the options I will outline below have the potential to trump the big sites, the major booking sites -- Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz -- are still a good place to start your search. When appropriate, searching on "Flight and Car" together, or better yet "Flight and Hotel and Car," will help you tap into the universe of vacation package and bundled discounts. These can be both compelling and competitively priced, especially with the added attraction of one-stop, time-efficient shopping.
Read on, however, and you'll see that the big booking sites are probably best used to get a sense of the lay of the land. In my research for this article, I would estimate that nine times out of 10 I could find a slightly better deal on a rental car elsewhere. In some cases the savings were along the lines of about five bucks a day, which is not necessarily a deal breaker for the convenience of booking a car and being done with it -- but if you're seeing very high daily rates, as I did in several searches, it's time to look elsewhere.
The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental
In past years, aggregator sites such as Kayak.com were mostly good for airline flights, and few travelers used them for much more than that. Times are changing. Aggregators like Kayak and CarRentals.com are probably the best place to figure out the range and location of the best car rental deals; the snapshot you can get of car rental rates is quite impressive.
A search on Kayak displays prices not only by rental company and airport, but by car class as well. And where you can toggle airlines and nearby airports and on and off when doing flight searches, you can do the same for car classes and rental companies for car rental searches. Kayak also lets you filter results by price range and options like automatic transmission and unlimited miles, and permits you to open up your search to include off-airport rental companies, where savings can be significant.
Discount Codes and Coupons
You may have noticed that most rental car reservation sites ask if you have a special discount code, but how many times have you used one? Where does one get these codes anyway? For starters, you can find some in our discount car rental deals, where we post new car rental deals every week. Additionally, Web sites with "secret discount codes" and online coupons have cropped up all over the place. Here are a few:
The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips
In my experience, ultimately you will most often get the best rate when booking directly from the car rental company Web site. Armed with price ranges and discount codes after checking the aggregators and coupon sites, a visit to the car rental's own reservations Web site is well worth your time, as very few of your alternatives will consistently produce a lower price.
And when you do receive a rate quote, make sure you are not missing some of the hidden costs of car rentals, such as airport concession fees, sales tax, automatically applied insurance, and more; a recent study by Travelocity found that major U.S. airports tacked on an average of 25.8 percent of your total bill in local and state taxes. For more information, see our report on Car Rental Hidden Costs.
So while a Hyundai may always be a Hyundai, no matter where you rent it, there is money to be saved by expanding your horizons when making car rental reservations -- if you know where to look.
Budget your car rental and other travel expenses with our Travel Budget Calculator!