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How to get the best rental car price every time

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: PhotoDisc
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 14, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Alamo, Avis, Budget, car rental, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, RaeJean Stokes, Thrifty.

How do you get the best rate on a rental car? Generally speaking, the answer is to never stop looking. With most car rental agencies, you pay nothing when you reserve a car. That means if you find a better deal a week later, you don't have to pay a penalty to cancel your old reservation. I've done this more than a few times and I've always saved money in the process.

But what if you don't have the time or the inclination to check car deals every day for two weeks? Here are my best tips for getting a good deal on a single-day, weekend, or airport rental.

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Single-day rentals

If your rental is last-minute, be sure to check each agency's online last-minute specials. This can be a great way to snag an economy car for under $30. The following major agencies offer last-minute deals: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, National, and Thrifty.

Another option, if your travel plans don't require a last-minute dash to the rental counter, is to take advantage of any prepay promotions being offered. With Alamo, for example, you can prepay and save up to 15 percent.

Weekend rentals

If you only need a car for the weekend, usually defined by rental companies as Friday through Monday, Enterprise and Hertz typically offer the best deals. They both have ongoing promotions for 50 percent off weekend rentals. A few months ago, I rented a car in Denver from Enterprise for $8 a day on the weekend (although lately I've been paying closer to $15, which is still not a bad deal).

Airport rentals

Rental agencies' airport locations are typically more expensive than non-airport locales. This does not mean however, that you have to fall victim to higher rates at the rental counter. If you don't mind a little inconvenience, you can usually save money by taking public transportation from the airport into town and picking up your car at a non-airport location.

If you want to pick up your car at the airport, reserving a vehicle online ahead of time often allows you to take advantage of online promotions that can save you a little money. As a general rule of thumb, the sooner you can book, the more you'll save. If you know that you're flying to Orlando in six months, reserve your rental car today. If a better deal comes along, you can always cancel it for free and re-reserve at the lower price.

Other tips

Another part of snagging the best deal is being a well-informed consumer. For example, did you know that many people overpay for rental insurance or are unsure of their coverage? Or maybe you thought all was lost because you're considered too young or too old by rental car companies? (It's not.) Then there's the issue of rising fuel costs; you don't have to let the price at the pump bankrupt you.

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