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 deals 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 roundup of the candidates for best car rental booking sites, based on detailed car searches in both the U.S. and Europe. (Find more details 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
- Auto Europe
I tested base rental car rates by searching only for economy or 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-priced 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 my ability to locate the best deals.
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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 rental locations, if any, are off-airport—which is important. This matrix feature is especially helpful in comparing options quickly.
Pros: Coverage of major cities is worldwide. 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: 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 yielded good prices for my searches, though it didn’t always win every test. The site covers rentals in 160 countries worldwide.
Pros: As with AutoRentals.com, Rentalcars.com is a metasearch system that makes it easy to compare offers. In some cases it offers opaque rates for lower prices if you don’t mind not knowing the exact car type.
Cons: Because some of the booking sites Rentalcars.com works with may be unfamiliar to you, the site shows user ratings for each so you can decide whether you’re comfortable booking. Unfortunately, some of them don’t have particularly high ratings (in one search, many of the results on page one were from providers rated just 5.9 out of 10).
Car rentals on Hotwire offered some of the 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 on a regular basis.
Cons: I did not find as many opaque rates for Europe on Hotwire.
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 in my Priceline searches.
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. I also sometimes found lower rates on metasearch sites such as AutoRentals.com or Rentalcars.com than I did when booking directly through the low-cost car rental booking sites.
Sixt Rent a Car
For European cities, the Sixt booking site is proof that higher-end companies occasionally offer specials better any other source. At the time of my search, the German 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: The blaring black and orange color scheme of the results page is a bit difficult to read.
If you qualify for them, AARP’s car rental partnership with the Avis Group (Avis, Budget, and Payless) promises discounts up to 30 percent, and in some cases I did find prices lower than those I’d seen anywhere else.
Pros: AARP rates could end up saving you money over all your other options.
Cons: Even with a “discount,” you might not be getting the lowest rate, so you still have to shop around.
In Europe, Auto Europe 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 Auto Europe in the past, and found its customer support to be outstanding. It can also help with 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: As you’d expect from its name, Auto Europe is best for bookings in Europe. This car rental booking site does offer rentals in the U.S. and elsewhere, but usually won’t get you the best price for them.
Rentcars.com is another metasearch system that raises similar results to those search engines that were included in my original tests. Like the others, it manages to dig out some good deals.
Pros: It scans more than 100 rental car companies and confines the search display to the most useful prices.
Cons: As with many other sites, the best prices it finds are sometimes pay-in-advance, including full or partial nonrefundability, meaning you need to know ahead of time that your plans are concrete unless you want to lose prepayments.
Kayak is best known for airfare metasearch, but it offers a good product for car rentals as well. It searches numerous car rental agencies and booking sites and came up with some of the best prices in my tests. It includes opaque options advertising a “surprise agency” if you’re willing to take a risk.
Pros: The site has lots of handy filters, including “pay now” and “pay at counter” as well as an option to show only hybrid vehicles.
Cons: Kayak works with a wide variety of booking sites, which means you’ll sometimes be pointed to companies you’re not familiar with. Search for reviews before booking with vendors you haven’t used before.
CarRentals.com is owned by Expedia, but it didn’t show the exact same results as its parent company in the tests I ran, so it’s worth checking both. (Neither one came out consistently ahead of the other.)
Pros: The site has some interesting filter options, including “station feedback” on clean cars and friendly staff, and the ability to reserve without a card.
Cons: Making a booking through this site automatically signs you up for emails about “special offers,” with no way to opt out until the first email arrives.
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:
- Great-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 local taxes and fees.
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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.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.