What’s the best website to use when you want to rent a car? The quick answer is that there’s no one best car rental booking site, but there are a bunch of great ones worth comparing prices on. And the best ones for you will depend on what exactly you’re looking for in a car rental.
As with so many other travel buys, like the best hotel booking sites and the best airfare booking sites, to find the very best car rental deal you’ll need to cast a wide net. Still, some places tend to do better than others, at least some of the time.
The Best Car Rental Booking Sites in the U.S. and Europe
Here’s a quick round up of the candidates for best car rental booking sites, based on detailed car searches in both the U.S. and Europe. (Plus more below on the perks and downfalls of each.)
- Low-cost car rental booking sites Alamo, Payless, and Thrifty
- Sixt Car Rentals
- AARP’s discount with Avis, Budget, and Payless
I tested base rental car rates by searching only for compact cars, for a rental period of one week, and only for picking up and returning the car at the primary airports for a number of city destinations in both the U.S. and Europe. All quoted rates (except for opaque rates that hide car specifics until after you purchase their lower deal) are fully cancellable, although some require an advance payment with the option of a refund given upon cancellation. Some vendors offer lower nonrefundable rates. All rates include air-conditioning and all U.S. rates include automatic transmission; European rates are for manual, since automatic comes at a premium there.
For the most part, the search-and-buy sequence is roughly the same for all car rental booking sites. No one rose out of the mix as especially easy, or dropped as especially difficult. Therefore, my comparisons are based almost entirely on the ability to locate the best deals.
Overall, AutoRentals.com is an excellent place to start a search. It’s a metasearch system that displays a matrix of prices for up to 25 model options available through more than two dozen different sources, including a mix of other metasearch car rental booking sites, online travel agencies, and rental company home pages. Price displays include both the posted daily rate and the all-up cost of the requested rental. The display also indicates which renters, if any, are off-airport—which is important. This matrix feature is especially helpful in comparing options quickly.
Pros: Coverage of major cities is world-wide. Once you select an option to check, AutoRentals links you through to the vendor’s web pages to make your booking, and it includes many rental companies and search systems you’ve probably never heard about, let alone would find on your own.
Cons: But, some of the “best deals” reported are not actually the true total price; they exclude some taxes and fees. And some are not fully cancellable—they’re either nonrefundable or entail a cancellation fee. This information is not disclosed until well into the booking process, and even then you have to dig for it.
Rentalcars.com consistently offered or matched the lowest or near-lowest rates for my searches. It beat out the giants in a few cases, but matched them in most other tests. And all three were generally within a dollar or two.
Pros: As with AutoRentals.com, Rentalcars.com is a metasearch system that makes it easy to compare and offers. It also offers opaque rates for lower prices if you don’t mind not knowing the exact car type.
Cons: The prices you see overall on Rentalcars.com list of rates tends to be higher, but the lowest one is typically the same or comparable to AutoRentals.com. So you can get the same price or a comparable one by comparing here, but it’s going to require a little more attention.
Car rentals on Hotwire offered the very lowest rates by way of “opaque” rates in most of my U.S. tests. Opaque means that you don’t find out about the rental company until after you pay the nonrefundable price. Given the sameness of cars, however, you risk very little disappointment with an opaque rate.
Pros: Hotwire’s leadership in low rates is confirmed by the AutoRentals matrix, where it shows up as the best buy more often than any other individual site.
Cons: I did not find any opaque rates for Europe on Hotwire, although there might be some for certain locations I missed.
Like Hotwire, Priceline car rentals list opaque rates as the lowest options in many U.S. cities. Although Hotwire posted lower ones more often, Priceline was a winner in some cases. So if you’re looking for the lowest, you have to try both.
Pros: The chance of it having the true lowest price. If you already use this site for hotels or airfare, it’s also easy to add on a car (as with the other big search engine booking sites).
Cons: I didn’t find any opaque rates for Europe on Priceline, as with Hotwire.
Expedia consistently offered or matched the lowest or near-lowest rates as frequently as Priceline and Rentalcars.com did. Plus the option to bundle with your airfare or hotel is easy and could save you money (as with other price comparison engines), if you already use Expedia for those, as many do.
Pros: In almost all cases, rates were the same as through the rental company’s own system. And if you already use this site for hotels or airfare, it’s easy to add on a car.
Cons: Expedia doesn’t seem to offer opaque rates, which is only truly a con if you’re looking for them.
Low-Cost Car Rental Booking Sites
Pros: The obvious benefit is you’re paying a lot less. But…
Cons: The trade-off is that the low-end outfits and third-party agencies generally don’t include the bells and whistles that top-end company loyalty programs provide. And they may have slightly older fleets, depending on the company—although the general car rental business model is now based on reselling the cars at an optimum age and mileage range, so it might not vary much.
Sixt Rent a Car
For European cities, the Sixt Car Rental booking site is proof that higher-end companies occasionally offer specials better any other source. The German-based company was running a “special” found to be the cheapest option in some cases, but didn’t specify the rental company.
Pros: Another strong chance of finding the lowest price.
Cons: There’s a degree of opaque pricing in terms of not being able to view the specific rental company, in some cases.
If you qualify for them, AARP’s car rental partnership with the Avis Group (Avis, Budget, and Payless) promises “discounts” from five percent. But I found only one instance where it delivered the lowest rate—in this case, from low-cost Payless (see above on the cons of low-cost rental options).
Pros: AARP rates for Avis and Budget include a few unique extras: liability coverage that is higher than mandated by law in some states, a $5,000 cap on collision claims, GPS at a reduced rate, and waiver of one additional-driver fee.
Cons: Consider AARP mainly if you value one or more of those extras, as your travel credit card might already offer insurance. And the main con of AARP is that, even with a ‘discount,’ you might not be getting the lowest rate.
In Europe, AutoEurope generally matched all other sources, including self-described “discounters,” for offering the lowest rates. Think of it as the AutoRentals.com or Rentalcars.com of Europe.
Pros: I’ve used AutoEurope in the past, and found its customer support to be outstanding. It can also help on difficult rentals, such as finding a rental agency in Ireland that accepts drivers over age 70. It’s a good place to start any European rental search.
Cons: Perhaps obvious by its name, AutoEurope is best for bookings in Europe. This car rental booking site does offer U.S. rentals, but usually won’t get you the best price for them.
The Car Rental Booking Site Gotchas to Avoid:
No matter where you rent, you have to check out the “terms and conditions” of any rental before you make your final purchase. Among them:
- Best-looking deals that are nonrefundable or entail a stiff cancellation penalty.
- Cancellable deals that require upfront payment rather than payment at the end of a rental.
- Best deals that apply to tiny “economy” or “mini” cars that are not practical for anything other than running errands around town.
- Occasional deals with a mileage cap instead of the unlimited mileage you normally expect.
- Supposedly all-up prices that exclude some locally taxes and fees.
More from SmarterTravel:
- No Credit Card? Renting a Car with a Debit Card Just Got Easier
- Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know
- 10 Things Not to Do When Renting a Car
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.