The ultimate guide to stretching your dollar when renting a car



#14 – Join a club and consider being loyal

Most rental companies have a club, for example Avis Preferred, Hertz Gold, National Emerald Club, Dollar Express.  These clubs get you lots of perks like upgrades, special service desks, free rentals and — probably most importantly — your car will be waiting for you with keys in it.  You just walk up and go.  These clubs are usually free and don’t have fees associated with the points or perks you earn (See Tip #10 below).  Not joining is simply throwing points and convenience away.Something frequent business travelers know and many overly frugal travels forget is that loyalty matters and price isn’t always everything.  Consider joining two programs, with one as your primary and shop between the two of them.  Unless the price difference is significant between the two you pick and another random rental company be loyal and get the rewards.

Living Richly TipFrequent renter programs can also add value to a rental that may not be reflected in a pure price comparison.  Avis Preferred and Hertz Gold, for example, mean that at most airports your car will be waiting for you with the keys in the ignition and your name already on the contract.  When you pick up your car, this can easily save you 10-20 minutes minimum dealing with lines and the person behind the counter.  Depending on the situation, that definitely can be worth an extra $20 over a competing company.


#15 – Consider skipping the bonus airline miles

Several years ago, rental car companies started charging a “recovery fee” for the airline frequent flyer miles they give you.  This is almost silly.  Avis for example charges a pre-tax fee of $0.75 to $1.00 a day (up to $5.25) for a maximum of 500 miles.  This equates to about $0.011 a mile earned.  Miles are generally valued at $0.02 a mile, so you may still technically be ahead on this deal, but with so many other ways earn bonus miles (from credit cards, buying flowers, and more) this may not be the best deal.


#16 – Be clear when you will arrive and leave

The price of you rental depends on what booking rate you are in:  Hourly, daily, weekly or monthly.  The time of day you select to pick up and drop off your car can sometimes be the tipping point between being on a daily rate and a weekly rate.

To avoid expensive fees or hourly rate charges make sure you carefully consider your return time.  In recent years grace periods have been removed or shortened, Hertz has changed their return grace period from 59 minutes to 29 minutes.  If you return the car more than 30 minutes past the reserved time, you are charged a ridiculous hourly rate which is 80% of the daily rate, after an hour of being late, you are charged for a full day’s rental.   Avis and Budget have a similar policy:

Beyond the 24-hour period, an hourly rate will be calculated as half the daily rate plus $.01. For example, a daily rate of $30.00 would equate to an hourly rate of $15.01. If a rental exceeds a 24-hour period by 1.5 hours, a 2-day charge will apply.

There is a 29-minute grace period for returns. After one hour, hourly charges may apply. After three hours, a full-day charge may apply.

This can definitely cost you some money, depending on your daily rate this could be an extra $20 to $100 or so for being just an hour and 30 minutes late.

If you are already on a daily rate, be sure to take advantage of it! Returning your car at 3PM may be the exact same price as 10PM.  If this is the case, book the car until 10PM and give yourself a comfortable margin of error.

Quick Tip: If you are going to be late returning the vehicle, it may or may not make sense to simply extend your reservation.  Depending on the company, this may be free or it may cost you.  Avis has the following policy:

Please note that at U.S. and Canadian corporate-operated locations, a service fee of $10 will apply and your original per-day rental rate may change. Your reservation agent will provide all details when you call. If you don’t call to notify Avis that you will be keeping the vehicle longer than expected within 7 hours of your originally scheduled return time to extend your rental, a $10/day late fee will apply.

Quick Tip: Dollar, Thrifty and Enterprise and National do not offer grace periods.




#17 – Consider Renting Off-Airport(Maybe)

Most “rental tip” lists include this recommendation, but we’re not sure it’s worth the money..  The simple fact of the matter is renting at the airport usually costs more.  The difference is usually between 10 and 30% (less when corporate and other discounts are factored in) but NOT always.  On a 4 day rental in Washington DC, this could mean saving $84 on a compact car.

The question though is one of convenience and value.  In this Washington DC example, the nearest Avis is 6 miles away.  This is 15 minute taxi ride, which will eat into some of your savings (our estimate is $20 each way, but this will vary by city, number of passengers, baggage fees, and airport fees).  This also will easily add an hour or more of frustration to your trip.  If you are traveling with children or want to get to your meeting or on with your vacation is it really worth it?

There are many cases where this tip is just plain wrong.  Example:  1 week rental of a full size vehicle in Las Vegas.  The airport rental will be $213.50 before airport fees, while the nearest off airport rental will be $281.80.  You are indeed going to avoid $25 of taxes and fees, but the rental itself costs almost $90 more.

There are some examples, where playing the game of renting at the airport for one day, driving to an off airport rental facility the next day and then taking the off airport car back to the airport can lower your cost $100 or so, but that seems hardly worth the hassle.The point here is to consider it and to shop around.


#18 – Consider what’s important besides price

The absolute lowest price may not be the best deal or value.  If you get a rental car from a company nobody ever heard of, you may get a good price, but who knows what you are going to get in terms of quality.  Will the car be clean?  Will it reek of cigarette smoke?  Will it be in good condition?  What will happen if something goes wrong with the car? Major rental companies certainly charge more, but you can be pretty certain you are going to get an acceptable quality car, and someone will help you if there is a problem.

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