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Car Rental Booking Test Yields Surprising Results

My series comparing online travel agencies (OTA) with direct travel suppliers continues this month with a focus on rental cars, following previous installments on booking [% 3500492 | | airfare %] and [% 3611675 | | hotels %]. The three largest OTAs recently [% 3238749 | | eliminated booking fees %] for airfare, but not for hotel or rental car transactions. So how do car bookings hold up when tested among both OTAs and providers? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

The Experiment

I tested five car rental scenarios, each for the Columbus Day holiday weekend. In every case, I compared the same car class, city, rental duration, and car company to ensure an apples-to-apples result.
The tests were as follows:

  • A standard car rental at Los Angeles International Airport
  • An economy car rental at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport
  • A mid-size SUV rental at Miami International Airport
  • A premium car rental at Boston’s Logan International Airport
  • A minivan car rental at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport

As you’ll see below, every rental scenario resulted in virtually identical pricing, regardless of whether I booked directly with the rental car company or with an OTA.

Los Angeles

Total cost of rental, including all estimated taxes and fees:

  • Payless Car Rental (direct): $68.51
  • Payless via Expedia: $68.50
  • Payless via Orbitz: $68.50
  • Payless via Travelocity: $68.50

Dallas

Total cost of rental, including all estimated taxes and fees:

  • Budget Car Rental (direct): $71.09
  • Budget via Expedia: $71.09
  • Budget via Orbitz: $71.09
  • Budget via Travelocity: $71.09

Miami

Total cost of rental, including all estimated taxes and fees:

  • Avis Car Rental (direct): $207.67
  • Avis via Expedia: $207.67
  • Avis via Orbitz: $207.67
  • Avis via Travelocity: $207.67

Boston

Total cost of rental, including all estimated taxes and fees:

  • Hertz Car Rental (direct): $269.65
  • Hertz via Expedia: $269.65
  • Hertz via Orbitz: $269.65
  • Hertz via Travelocity: $269.65

Chicago

Total cost of rental, including all estimated taxes and fees:

  • National Car Rental (direct): $175.27
  • National via Expedia: $175.27
  • National via Orbitz: $175.27
  • National via Travelocity: $175.27

Analysis

Consumers have a broad range of choices when booking a rental car. In the absence of price differentiation, travelers will mainly have to decide whether convenience (a range of choices with an OTA) or brand loyalty (frequent customer rewards programs, discounts, etc.) is more important.

Even though the price quotes in this experiment came out the same, it’s still a good idea to compare prices for your upcoming trip. First, I did not check any “opaque” sites (such as Hotwire or Priceline), which tend to offer significant savings on rental cars, making them a good option when comparing prices among the major suppliers.

Second, by comparing prices across providers, you’ll see all of the car classes available for your trip, and may be surprised at where you can find savings. For example, on a recent trip to Pittsburgh, I found that a full-size weekend car rental was cheaper than an economy car for the same rental period. If I hadn’t compared a few providers, I wouldn’t have discovered that unexpected value.

Finally, comparing prices may also alert you to sales and promotions you hadn’t known about before. For this experiment, I only looked at non-sale, standard rates. By searching around on a variety of providers, you may learn of seasonal promotions, membership bargains (e.g., AAA discounts), and other applicable deals.

Your Turn

Are you an expert at finding the best deals for rental cars? Have you consistently found one website to offer the best rental car rates? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com and Hotwire.

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