Summer is the traveling season. Wanderlust grips the country as we all take to our cars, boats, planes, and trains. We load up and head out in search of adventure, or relaxation, to visit friends or family, or simply to take in new sights. According to AAA more than 66% of American adults will take a trip between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That means crowded sites, airports, train stations, and roads. That also means a possible battle for good cars at the car rental counter.
It’s important to know that the car rental industry has gone through quite a few changes over the last decade. With a number of mergers and acquisitions, new rules, taxes, surcharges, and new start-ups getting into the rental car game, it can be quite confusing and frustrating to try and find a good deal on a great car. With a little bit of work though, it can be done. There are also those tricky insurance questions—do you need it? Should you opt out? We here at Instamotor want you to drive the best vehicle that your money can buy so, in honor of the traveling season, we thought we’d put together a how-to list. Here’s a list of the best ways to ensure you get a great deal on your next rental car.
The first rule of rental car bingo is to book early and often. The earlier you book, particularly around peak travel times like holidays, the more money you can save. Try keeping tabs on your rental price with a service like AutoSlash.com. There they’ll track your price and let you know when and if rates drop. It’s up to you to rebook if rates are better. There is a slight exception to the book-early-book-often rule—sometimes rental companies raise prices around the holidays only to drop them just before the date. It’s best to keep tabs on your reservation to know what prices are doing.
Next, use a travel aggregator or an opaque site to book your rental car. Travel aggregators like Kayak or Travelocity work with suppliers directly in some cases and in others simply aggregate price data and link out. Opaque sites like Priceline and Hotwire buy up unsold inventory and package it together to sell to consumers. The only real negative of these sites is that you can sometimes get stuck with a clunker of a rental car. Often times if you book through these services, the rental company will only honor exactly what you booked so swapping cars may not be possible. You can also turn to smaller firms like CarRentalExpress and CarRental both of whom contract with smaller rental agencies that offer lower rates. Look for coupons, too. Rental agencies often offer discounts for people who book online.
When you can, try not to rent at the airport. Limited choices and a variety of surcharges, taxes, and other fees are the price of the convenience of being close to the airport. Even places that have transportation to their rental spots charge these kinds of fees.
Speaking of fees, let’s talk for a minute about the gas option and the insurance options. These things can get tricky if you don’t know what your choices are, so pay attention. First let’s tackle the sticky insurance question. You’ll be offered a variety of options for coverage that includes a collision damage waiver and a loss damage waiver. Both of those kinds of coverage are good to get, but only if they don’t duplicate what you already get in your own insurance coverage. Check out the terms of your policy before you head to your destination to know what is covered and what is not. The collision damage waiver covers expenses in the event of a collision. The loss damage waiver covers the loss to the rental company. Ninety-nine percent of car insurance includes liability insurance just in case you’re in an accident. That coverage will take care of you (to a limited extent) regardless of whether or not the car you are driving is yours or a rental. These features are usually included in your comprehensive or collision coverage portions so call your insurance agent or check your policy to be sure. Additionally some credit cards like American Express offer rental insurance coverage when you use them to reserve cars. Check with your card to see what is included.
There is, however, one thing you should be aware of when opting out of the rental car collision waiver. Edmunds says that the waiver covers the “loss of use” charge to cover the rental car company’s lost income. That usually translates to a daily rental rate for the car for as long as it is out of service. Depending on the extent of the damage it could be weeks of rental fees and it could really rack up the cost. Your personal insurance likely wont cover this cost because its simply not covered in most states. If you do have an accident and opted out of the collision waiver you’ll likely end up having to pay that fee out of your own pocket.
In regards to the gas option—the general rule of thumb is to opt out of it. The per-gallon rates that rental car companies charge are much higher than they are if you fill up the car on your own. Sure, it’s convenient to drop the car off with less than a full tank but it will certainly take a chunk out of your wallet if you decide to go with it. When you do fill up try and get to a gas station about ten miles from the airport. Within that radius prices tend to be jacked up to pick off tourists who are returning their rental cars and didn’t opt for the pre-paid gas package.
In addition to these money saving tactics you can do things to ensure that you get a great rental car when you head out. First choose a company that lets you pick your car early or on the lot. Call ahead to your destination to see what might be available. If you want GPS be sure to reserve it as many times the rental companies will disable the service in the cars (even those that come with in-dash systems already installed). Unless you’ve specifically requested it, you won't get it. If you do decide you want it at the last minute it maybe impossible to find a car on the lot that has it as they tend to be popular and rent out first. When you are planning your trip and have to rent from the airport, try to arrive early. As they say, the early bird gets the worm and if you’re coming in on the last flight of the day, the inventory will likely be significantly depleted, limiting your choice. A fun suggestion from Road & Track is to “choose a car with more letters.” An LT is not as good as an LTZ. Look for cars with Limited on their trunk lids.
If you follow these tricks you’ll be sure to get a great rental car and have a blast on your next vacation. For all your car needs be sure to check back here regularly and keep up to date on the latest in the new-to-you car world.
Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.