How to Save Money on a Rental Car

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Budget Rental CounterSometimes we’re just plain clueless when it comes to certain expenses. We don’t purchase air conditioners, automobiles, or furniture enough to consider ourselves expert consumers in those areas and often, that causes us to feel at the mercy of the salespeople. For many, travel expenses fall under that category. Most Americans don’t travel regularly so expenses like rental cars could make you feel like you wouldn’t know the difference between a good and bad deal.

As the husband of a former Enterprise employee, I’m in a unique position to know the real story behind rental car sales so let’s take a look at some of the facts that the rental car sales staff won’t be quick to tell you.

The Base Price

The base price of the car isn’t where the company makes the big money. The rate you received is dictated by the amount of inventory the store has, the day of the week, whether it’s a holiday weekend, and other factors. Although the rate can be reduced by certain discounts, shopping around for rates before you arrive instead of trying to haggle with the company is often the best way to score the best rate.

Their Motivation

Once you arrive at the counter, the hard sell begins. Much like shopping for a new car, the sales personnel are highly incentivized to sell the extras. The employees’ performance is tracked and formal sales numbers not only serve as a way to move up in the company but if they’re using their current position as a stepping stone to another, higher paying sales job, they have personal incentive to get you to say yes. Expect the hard sell and know the answers before you arrive.

Where To Save

  • Prepaid Fuel: It can be a good deal but it is sold by the gallon or even less. You know that you’re going to get charged if the car isn’t full when you return it so you’re probably going to fill the car beyond the amount of fuel you purchased. It’s only worth the cost if you can avoid paying for it twice and that’s hard to do.
  • GPS: Do you have an IPhone, Android, or other smart phone? How about bringing your own GPS with you? $13 per day is a lot of money for something that is probably already installed on your phone.
  • Satellite Radio: $5 per day doesn’t seem like much but with apps like Pandora, your phone could serve your entertainment needs. If you love your satellite radio, it might be money well spent for a few days.
  • Car Seat: Of course you need a car seat but maybe the hassle of bringing it with you will negate the cost. If you have to check the car seat and pay the fee, renting one may be cheaper but for extended trips, these small extras can add up quickly.
  • Insurance: Insurance is what the person on the other side of the counter really wants to get you to purchase. The truth is that your auto insurance probably covers you if you wreck the car and your credit card may fill in any gaps that aren’t covered.  Some people think that $20 to $30 per day on short term rentals is worth the cost to keep their auto insurance from having to handle the claim but it may double the cost of the rental. In most cases the extra cost is unnecessary but know that the salesperson will try hard to sell you on it.

Bottom Line

The salespeople at car rental companies often work long hours for not enough money. They rely on bonuses from the sales of these products to supplement their income so when they put the hard sell on you, nicely and patiently turn them down or from time to time, throw them the gift of saying yes to one of the extra products. My wife and I do that because we know that cleaning cars in the 90 degree heat wearing a suit for 8-12 hours a day is tough. From a purely financial sense, rent the car and say no to the extras.

(Photo: lfl)

{ 21 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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21 Responses to “How to Save Money on a Rental Car”

  1. Modest Money says:

    While on vacation recently we faced this problem with trying to find the best deal on a rental car. It seemed that none of the companies were really willing to negotiate their pricing. So we just shopped around for the best rate. Luckily there were 3 rental companies on the same block. I still probably paid more than I needed for insurance. While I originally assumed my own insurance and credit card would cover it, they convinced me that it was better to be safe. I think they were just selling me on it though.

  2. mannymacho says:

    With prepaid fuel you usually need to buy a full tank, so it only is beneficial if you bring in the car to the airport near empty – which almost never happens.

    I’ve heard horror stories about rental car seats also, i.e. they don’t clean them well so they smell and are full of vomit stains and the like.

  3. timparker says:


    I know that enterprise allows you to purchase as little as a quarter gallon and a lot of people don’t know that Enterprise owns Alamo and National.

  4. David M says:

    Prepaid Fuel: It can be a good deal but it is sold by the gallon or even less.

    It’s only worth the cost if you can avoid paying for it twice and that’s hard to do.

    I deleted a sentence in the middle which I understood. Is this accurate, I do not understand what you are trying to say. …sold by the gallon or even less??? …avoind paying for it twice and that’s hard to do???

    Thanks for your explanation.

  5. Goner says:

    That’s it? Nothing about jiggering the rental times a little to wrangle a much better rate, nothing about using codes and Mastercard discounts? Nothing about joining clubs, signing up for special emails, “liking” car rental companies? No mention of periodically checking for a better rate? Setting up rate alerts? Using Priceline? Nothing about simply asking using a nice tone of voice for a better car right at the counter?

    Those are the real ways to save money.

    • Jason says:

      Totally agree with Goner. You failed to even talk about how to get a good rental rate…you just talk about not accepting the add ons. Good deals are to be found on weekend rentals returned by monday. Most cars are rented out by business travelers during the work week and sit empty during the weekends. Award codes and discount clubs for email signups are easy to be found for all the major car companies. I also find the best way to get a good deal is to rent off airport to avoid airport fees. Another tip is say you need a car for 4 days. Look for weekly rental deals, with coupons, etc…rent the car for the full week and simply return the car early….most dont have a penality. This saves you money per day on the rental. As far as insurance, I signed up for rental protection thru AMEX. It only bills me 25$ for the entire duration of a rental. The coverage is excellent and gives me peace of mind.

    • David M says:

      Great comments Goner!

      I enjoy Bargaineering but sometimes I think the posts are being made only so they can count the number of people that come to the site and thus advertisers pay them money. This post – one of those examples as you have pointed out wonderfully!!!

  6. Shorebreak says:

    I usually get a free upgrade to a larger, more luxurious vehicle, sometimes without even requesting it. With high gasoline prices these days the rental agencies are usually short on the inventory of smaller, more fuel efficient cars. I don’t mind driving a loaded Chevrolet Impala LTZ with heated leather seats for the rate of a Kia Optima.

  7. timparker says:


    Prepaid fuel is a problem because if you only purchase a gallon but you have to return the car full, knowing how much to put in the tank become problematic. Rental car companies know this which is how they make money on prepaid fuel. Some companies allow you to purchase less than a gallon.

    Goner: No article you read is intended to provide every way to save and some of your ways are good points. The intent of this piece was to highlight the add ons. Much as been written about the ways you mention.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    • David M says:

      Thanks for your reply – I guess I have never rented from whatever company you are talking about.

      The companies I rent from always want me to purchase the full tank – which I decline. Or I get the car with a full tank and I have bring it back with a full tank.

      I have never heard about this purchasing a gallon with the prepaid fuel option.

  8. I just booked through Costco travel. Their prices were way cheaper than any other site I could find. Even cheaper than packaging rental car with my hotel room!

  9. Fabclimber says:

    I recommend skipping the extra insurance if you are renting in a familiar location with light to average traffic, but if you are in a major city for the first time your risk of an accident is going to be much higher. In that event the extra insurance may be a welcome add on. My friend had an accident right after picking up a rental in Washington DC on a Sunday and had a major hassle with his own insurance and the rental company getting back to “normal” to continue his vacation as planned.

    Of course all accidents are bad news in any event, but his was a minor fender bender.

  10. Mike says:

    US Car Insurance Companies do not insure your rentals in Ireland, Italy and Aruba.

  11. timparker says:


    Remember that they will always try to upsell you. I’ve always been an Enterprise guy because we still get employee discounts even though my wive no longer works there but I’m sure others would do it as well. I, personally, have never done prepaid fuel. The price per gallon always looks really good on the sign which tells you that they’re still making money on it.

    • David M says:

      Now I do remember – when my car was hit – and I got an Enterprise car – while my car was being fixed. They gave me a car with 3/4 tank and said to bring it back with 3/4 tank.

      For all other times I’ve rented a car – I was offered to prepay the FULL TANK or bring the car back full.

  12. Abhisek says:

    No Insurance company(including Amex premium car rental protection) cover any loss of value of the car due to accident. It is also tough to get the loss of business related charges from insurances companies as the rental companies don’t disclose their Usage details and the Insurance companies won’t honor those charges without usage details. So it is better to purchase at least CDW. It is costly – but better be safe than sorry.

  13. Steve says:

    I find that renting from a Hertz Local Edition (HLE), which are found off-airport, can save 20%-50% over rentals from the airport. This last 10 days I rented a car at Skyharbor Aiport in Phoenix for one day, and renewed the rental for 9 more days offsite at an HLE for a savings of $150 over renting at the airport (more than 20%). The final plus is that I get to return the car to the airport, not the HLE.

  14. timparker says:

    That is true, Steve. Getting away from the airport will always drop rates.

  15. Zalyn says:

    The right coupon can save a lot of money on your rental car. The key is to find the coupon offering the greatest discount. I usually start with:

    1. Stackable discounts (e.g. Hertz CDP + Hertz PC) that go together. The rate code(CDP) cuts the daily rate and the coupon code(PC) applies discount to the sub-total. The best stackable discounts are typically member-only discounts (e.g. BJs, Costco, AAA, USAA), but occasionally rental car companies publish stackable coupons too. Stackable discounts are also available to those who pay with Amex, Visa & other credit cards.

    2. Fixed daily/weekly rate coupons. These are mostly for Dollar / Thrifty and can save you big if the current rate at the rental location is high. A couple of weeks back, the daily rate for the cheapest car at ORD was around $90, but with the correct code, a Premium was available for $34.99!

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