If you’re like most drivers, at some point you’ll have to rent a car. Maybe you need a reliable vehicle for vacation or while your car’s in the shop. Many drivers assume rental car rates are all the same and don’t bother to shop around. But taking a little time can save you a lot of bucks.
Here are nine tips that can put you in the driver’s seat to snag a great deal.
1. Plan ahead.
Walking into a rental agency or up to a rental counter at the airport without a reservation is risky business. Odds are you’ll pay more, have to choose from a limited and more expensive selection of vehicles, or find that the agency has no available cars.
Also, the fees, taxes and rates for rental cars often are less at off-airport locations. If it won’t wreck your travel plans, you could save big by taking public transit into town and renting a car there. However, be aware that off-airport locations may have limited selections and restricted hours, so make that reservation.
“Some agencies now offer additional discounts if you prepay,” says Ogechi Namme, product manager for USAA’s rental car program. “Depending on the dates you rent, you could receive a free weekend day or free upgrade. Often, agencies will discount your rental further the longer you keep the vehicle, so check a few dates before you lock in your rate.”
2. Verify your reservation in advance.
To avoid hassles caused by overbooking, confirm your reservation and vehicle type a few days before your trip. If the car you reserved is unavailable when you arrive, ask for an upgrade at no extra cost, or for the company to get the vehicle you need from another location or agency. In a worst-case scenario, in which no agency has any cars available, request that the rental company reimburse you for taxi expenses.
3. Maximize “members only” discounts.
Don’t miss out on car rental deals available through businesses and organizations you already use. For example, in addition to significant discounts year-round, USAA’s rental car program offers other perks, such as waived fees for additional and underage drivers, through select rental car companies.
Program members Enterprise, Hertz, Avis and Budget also waive “loss of use” costs and offer unlimited mileage on most vehicles (excluding one-way rentals) when you use your USAA discount codes.
4. Add up loyalty rewards.
Consider redeeming some loyalty rewards. In addition, through USAA’s rental car program, you can enroll, at no cost, in loyalty programs for Hertz, Avis and Budget. Not only will you be able to bypass the counter, saving you time, you’ll also earn points or credit toward your next rental. While these programs were designed with businesses in mind, families and individuals can take advantage of their perks.
5. Be wary of Web deals.
Popular travel websites allow you to compare offers from multiple companies, displaying all taxes and fees upfront. Beware of websites, however, that promise deep discounts if you commit to booking without knowing all the details in advance. You could face restrictions and fees if your travel plans change. Before you book, check with USAA’s rental car program, where the benefits could outweigh the base price you find online.
6. Avoid the call of extra, extra.
Add-ons are critical revenue generators for the car rental industry and can increase your bill by 20% or more. Resist the temptation to purchase any extras you don’t really need. You can always bring your own GPS or use your phone for navigation.
7. Play by the rules.
Be sure you understand the terms of the rental contract. When you pick up your vehicle, go over the details with the rental agent.
Most rental companies require drivers to be at least 25 years old or charge younger drivers extra, and they sometimes add a fee if more than one person will drive the car. But there are exceptions, depending on the rental company. Spouses who meet age and licensing requirements often drive at no extra charge through the USAA program, for example.
8. Always fill the tank.
It’s usually cheaper for you to refuel than to buy the prepaid fuel option. But there could be circumstances in which paying for the convenience is worth it — it’s better than missing your flight because you couldn’t find a gas station. If possible, though, don’t decline the prepaid fuel and then return the car empty. That could cost you a bundle — as much as $9 per gallon for gas and the “refueling service charge.”
9. Be in the know about rental car insurance.
Knowing if you should purchase rental car insurance can save you, either upfront — by helping you avoid paying for coverage you don’t need — or in the long run — by limiting your liability if the car is damaged in an accident, for example. Whether you need to purchase additional rental car insurance through the rental company depends on the following:
- The level of coverage on your primary auto insurance policy.
- The rental car provider you select.
- If you are renting in the U.S. or internationally.
- Additional benefits from USAA’s rental car providers: Hertz, Avis, Budget and Enterprise.
- Any additional benefits and protection offered by your credit card.
For USAA members with auto insurance, in most cases, securing extra insurance through the rental car company is not necessary inside the United States. The coverage provided by your policy combined with the protection offered when paying for a rental with your USAA credit card should be adequate.