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Five ways to save on summer car rentals

SmarterTravel

Starting with Memorial Day and the arrival of the warm weather season, rental car companies see a spike in the number of travelers taking road trips. Rental agencies in many popular destinations can afford to raise rates because of increased demand, though prices and availability vary by location. On the flip side, you could benefit from the high demand, as companies also tend to offer good sales to promote brisk business.

Paula Stifter, a spokeswoman for Hertz, says the strongest demand this summer is in popular leisure destinations such as California, Colorado, Florida, and Hawaii, so you may find good sales in these regions. Or, to boost travel, rates may be lower in areas without strong summer tourist seasons. Stifter also recommends renting cars from a suburban location to avoid airport fees. Our research showed prices and special offers varying by locations and rental car company, with no one agency or city showing the best discounts across the board. Here are five steps for finding the best rate for your trip.

1. Be an early bird

When a car rental company has a sale, it’s often required that you book in advance. Don’t expect a great deal on a rental car arranged the day of rental or similar short notice. Research sales a few weeks before your trip, and don’t wait to book a good rate.

In addition, read the fine print in your rental car contract. If you are attempting to book a sale price, double-check availability dates to make sure the sale is valid for when you need your car. Many popular holiday weekends, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, are included in sale blackout dates. Call your desired rental car company for details.

2. Be flexible

If your itinerary isnÃ?Â?t set in stone, you can also check out last-minute car rental specials for a given weekend, rather than making an advance reservation. Some rental car companies do reward latecomers, but again, research is needed so you won’t get socked with a high daily rate. Last-minute specials are also subject to availability, but they can provide savings for those willing to wait. Avis and Hertz are two companies listing last-minute rental sales on their website; check to see if your desired city is included. On the Avis page, click on the “Getaway this Weekend” box to see what’s being offered. For Hertz, click on “United States,” then “Weekend/Weekly Vacation,” followed by “Last Minute Specials.” Alamo also lists such deals, visit Alamo, then click on “Hot Deals,” followed by “Last Minute Specials.”

3. Price the competition

However, as we know blackout dates apply more often than not over holidays, we checked non-sale rates over Memorial Day weekend at leading companies to give you an idea of sample prices. All rentals are based on four days over the holiday weekend and prices were tested using an intermediate car class. The three locations were chosen to exhibit rate differences between high-interest tourist destinations (Orlando, San Francisco) and those less congested (St. Louis).

Destination city Alamo rate Avis rate Budget rate Enterprise rate Hertz rate
Orlando $108 $130 $99 $118 $126
St. Louis $174 $85 $114 $111 $205
San Francisco $86 $162 $94 $97 $171

All prices are based on a search conducted April 26 for the dates of May 28 through June 1.

As you can see, no one rental car company or destination offered the best rate exclusively; your best bet is to check multiple car classes, tweak your dates (if possible), and see if any specials apply despite the holiday weekend. Avis’s Twice the Love sale or the Hertz Double Take sale, for example, are available during the Memorial Day weekend.

4. Check your memberships

You can often find savings through membership associations that have partnered with leading companies to offer you discounts. AAA, AARP, and other associations frequently offer savings to their members. Check to see if any rental car companies participate in savings programs with groups to which you belong.

For example, members’ only promotions can help you save on rising gas costs. According to AAA, regular-grade gas is currently $2.25/gallon in San Francisco, $1.78/gallon in Orlando, and $1.75/gallon in Boston. Avis provides the option of a free tank of gas to AARP member travelers, saving you at least $20.

5. Surf the web for specials

Being part of a membership organization isn’t the only way to save on fuel. If you are taking a longer trip and need a hotel, reserve your room at Hotels.com, which provides a free tank of gas, up to $30, to travelers booking accommodations for three nights or more. Rooms must be reserved by May 11 for stays through August 31.

Or, several rental car companies offer the option of refueling for a flat rate (pre-paid with your rental contract); most prices and requirements are listed on rental car company websites. Do the math to see if this charge is less than the cost of the gas in your vacation region—it might be cheaper than filling the tank yourself.

Lastly, browse the deals on the SmarterTravel.com.com car webpage; check back frequently for updates. You can also get great rental car tips from our travel experts. Or, if you hold a frequent flyer membership with your preferred airline, browse the new-and-improved Mile Finder to see if you can add value, through earning miles, to your car rental. However, be aware that some car rental agencies will tack on a frequent flyer surcharge, varying by agency and rental period, for earning miles. Call your preferred car rental agency to determine whether such an option would still be a good deal for you.

If you still haven’t found a satisfactory rate, check Hotwire for sale rental car prices. A quick search showed rates as low as $15/day, hard to beat in any season.

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