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7 Ways To Save Big On Car Rentals

By Aaron Crowe

Reserving a rental car a few months in advance is probably the best-known way to save money when renting a car.

Especially during peak times such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, reserving a car two to three months in advance can save you money and ensure you have a car waiting for you when you arrive at your destination.

But there are plenty of lesser-known ways to save at the car rental counter, and like making a car reservation, they all involve planning ahead.

Here are seven ways to save big on a car rental:

1. Be inquisitive at the counter. You probably already know not to buy the extra insurance when renting a car, since your credit card or current auto insurance policy already covers you in an accident. But there are plenty of other upsells at the car rental counter that you may not be aware or pay attention to after arriving from a long flight.

“Ask a lot of questions when you pick up the car,” says David Eastes, co-founder of VroomVroomVroom.com, a car rental comparison website. “Because a lot of people, when they get to that front counter, they agree with the questions.”

The clerk may be rapidly firing questions at you from a multi-page contract, asking if you want to add an extra driver, pay ahead for gas or buy insurance, among other queries. Eastes says he’s seen $100 extra on a bill without paying attention.

2. Don’t go downtown to try to save. This seems counter-intuitive to common advice of renting downtown, away from an airport, because you’ll save more. But in Eastes’ opinion, the $20 to $30 savings in rental car fees isn’t worth the headaches of getting downtown from the airport and back to pick up and return a rental car.

“It’s not worth the hassle of going downtown,” he says. It can take more time, cab fare and usually isn’t worthwhile, he says. That said, if you have a kind friend or relative who will drive you from the airport to the rental car agency downtown, it could save you some money.

3. Rent a standard size car. This also sounds counter-intuitive, given that renting a compact car is cheaper and will often result in a free upgrade to a standard car anyway. Becky Blanton, who spends $250 to $700 a month on rental cars and saves about $300 monthly, says standard size cars are almost all rented at an airport because many people rent the standard models.

If you reserve a standard car, you’ll either be offered a free upgrade, or better, a reduced price on a compact to save money. The same savings is there if you rent a compact and you’re upgraded to a standard car, but you won’t be guaranteed of an upgrade. If you do downgrade to a smaller car, you’ll not only save on the rental but will likely spend less on gas, says Andrew Schrage, owner of Money Crashers, a website that has written about rental car savings.

4. Be a frequent customer, or at least pretend to be. Blanton recommends joining a car company’s membership program and renting a car at least once a month, if only for a day. This qualifies you for free upgrades and special offers as a “loyal” customer, even if you’re only a customer one day a month.

Blanton says she joined Enterprise’s free “Plus” program and was allowed to bypass 20 people waiting in line to go to the head of the non-existent line of “Plus” customers and get a car without a reservation.

5. Don’t rent up-sells Like the first tip on not buying up-sells on insurance and other such things, be sure not rent a GPS or baby seat for the car. Your phone can work as a GPS. If your airline charges for luggage, then bringing a baby seat may be expensive. But if you can get it on the plane for free — try carrying it to the checkin counter and they may load it with your stroller for free — then you’ll save by not renting one from a car company.

6. Search for coupons. Automotive blogger Amanda Sozak says she Googles all of the major car rental companies and coupon code terms such as “discount code,” “coupon code” and “promo code.” Sozak says she’s saved 10-30% with a week’s notice by using such codes. Last fall she saved $100 on a luxury car rental at Enterprise for a long weekend trip.

7. Get four more hours for free. Unless you’re a meticulous planner and can arrive and depart at the same time from the airport during your trip, you’ll be paying for a full day of a car rental when only using a few hours.

Most car rental agencies will give you a one-hour grace period on returns, but after that you’ll pay for a full day on the last day of the rental. If you need the car for a few more hours, American Express Platinum card owners receive a four-hour grace period on Hertz rentals.

So if you fly in at noon on a Friday, and fly out at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, you’ll be charged for two car rental days instead of three if you use the grace period.

With two major holidays coming up, now is the time to start saving on car rentals by doing what everyone else should be doing: Making a reservation early. After that, follow our list for more savings.

Aaron Crowe is a writer who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.