24 Tips and Tricks to Save You Money on Car Rental

Avis 'Cars Available' Sign on Desk in Foreground, Red Avis Sign Slightly Blurred in the Background

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Avis 'Cars Available' Sign on Desk in Foreground, Red Avis Sign Slightly Blurred in the Background
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You Auto Know

Renting a car should be a simple walk-in, drive-out transaction, but it doesn't always work that way. Not only does it take legwork to find the best price on a rental car, but consumers often miss out on potential savings — or end up paying tons of unexpected fees. We’ve rounded up 24 bits of insider knowledge designed to take the stress — and extra cost — out of the car rental experience.

White 'Advantage Rent A Car' Sign
Joshua O./Yelp

Try the Little Guy

While it’s reassuring to go with a name you know, the most familiar companies are not necessarily the cheapest. The big names in the rental car industry — Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise, all of which own other rental companies — operate hundreds of locations and win on convenience and selection. But our car rental price survey found that smaller companies and independents like Advantage, E-Z Rent A Car, and Ace generally offered the cheapest rentals. National, a corporate sibling of Enterprise, was consistently the highest priced.

Woman Sitting on the Floor, Using Her Laptop on a Coffee Table, in Her Living Room

Save (on) a Bundle

Large booking sites such as Expedia offer healthy discounts on car rentals booked as part of a package. The price of a trip from Seattle to Las Vegas for a weekend getaway (Friday through Monday) in mid-June with a compact car from Thrifty, a hotel room at the Luxor, and a roundtrip flight came to a total of $376, before taxes and additional hotel resort fees. A reservation that included only the flight and hotel was $329, a difference of $47. The cheapest available compact car rental from Thrifty for the same time period was $95. So, bundling the car rental in the trip package would save nearly 50% at minimum. The total for booking each element of the trip separately on Expedia was a whopping $657: $197 for the flight, $346 for the hotel, and $114 for the least expensive car rental (a compact car from Economy).

Orange Honey Logo on White Background

Search for Discount Codes

There is always a coupon code to be had. Follow rental car companies on social media or sign up for their email lists to learn about promotions and special offers, or simply search the web before booking. If deals are hard to find on your own, try a service such as Honey, which searches through hundreds of codes to highlight the best ones for each driver's criteria.

AAA Logo on Left Side of a Hanging Blank White Sign
Ken Wolter/shutterstock

Membership Has Benefits

AAA and AARP members can get discounts with certain car rental companies, as can members of the military, the National Education Association and PTA, unions, and a variety of industry and trade associations. Even warehouse club members are eligible for car rental benefits. In short: No matter who you are, there’s a good chance there are car rental discounts available to you. Some of the best offer savings of as much as 35%.

Friendly Female Car Rental Assistant Pointing to Paper for Customer to Read on Desk

Sign Up for Rewards

Most rental companies offer some kind of rewards program, although not all of them are equally rewarding. Enterprise and Avis, for instance, both offer one point per dollar spent, but Enterprise offers a free rental day with 400 points, while Avis requires 700 points. Ace gives members the option of redeeming credits for future car rental discounts or merchandise like gift cards and video game consoles. Other membership benefits may include free upgrades, special one-time deals, skip-the-line arrangements, and no additional driver fees. Some programs are also linked to airline and hotel rewards programs.

Hands Using Credit Card Reader for a Transaction at a Store, Selective Focus
Novikov Alex/shutterstock

Paying Up Front Might Pay Off

Many car rental companies offer "pay now" discounts that can save 15% to 20% or more off the base rate. Just keep in mind that cancellation fees can be steep if plans change, usually $50 to $100 depending on how close it is to the pickup date. The company might waive the fee if a change results from a canceled flight, but be sure to call before your scheduled arrival time.

Left Side-View of a Blue Colored Ford Fiesta Car Parked on the Street

Economy Cars Aren’t Always the Cheapest

While it used to be that the lowest vehicle class was always the least expensive to rent, that's not necessarily the case these days. In our searches, we often found that so-called "economy" cars were more expensive than standard compact cars. Choosing a smaller car also doesn't guarantee a lower rate. Frequently, we were quoted lower rates for roomier midsize and full-size options than for compact cars.

Shocked Woman Driving a Car Right Before a Crash, Selective Focus

Beware the Mystery Rental

Most car rental companies dangle the option of saving by booking a "manager's choice" rental, meaning you get whatever is on hand. The rates on these mystery vehicles are on par with the cheapest vehicle class, but you could end up with anything from a compact car to a large pickup or van. (You're getting the leftovers, not the pick of the litter.) The upside is that you aren't obligated to rent that vehicle should you be unhappy with your choice, but you may end up paying extra to get a different car.

Young Man Using a Gas Pump to Fill His Car With Gas, Car on the Left Foreground, Man in the Middle
Adene Sanchez/istockphoto

Mileage May Vary

Not all rental cars are created equal when it comes to how much gas they use. When planning a long trip in a rental, take a few minutes to compare the fuel efficiency of the available vehicles. Sometimes a "free upgrade" can really cost you on gas. Even within a particular class of cars (such as compact or midsize), there can be significant variance between models.

Hand Holding a Golden Credit Card, Light Shown on It

They've Got a Hold on You

Rental companies typically reserve a certain amount of credit on the card used to pay for the vehicle. It varies by company but typically includes the full price of the rental and a deposit. Budget's hold, for example, is usually the rental quote plus 25% or $200, whichever is greater. Customers on a tight budget with a low credit limit (or a balance nearing the limit) should factor this hold into their spending plans. Ask about the amount at pickup to avoid nasty surprises. If you’re thinking of renting with a debit card, check the rental company’s policy in advance — you may have to pay an extra deposit or undergo a credit check, which can ding your credit score.

White Paper Car Covered By Two Hands in a Circle on the Side on a Grey Table

Review All Insurance Options

If you don't already carry car insurance as a driver, or if you have only a basic liability policy, you may be compelled to buy supplemental insurance at the rental counter. But personal car insurance policies often extend to rental cars. And many major credit cards offer car rental insurance as a complimentary service, provided you use that card to pay for the rental. It pays to look at your policies in advance to see what kind of coverage you may already have. It’s also good to know whether damages are covered up front or whether you’ll have to wait for reimbursement. If you do opt to buy short-term car insurance from the rental company, be prepared to pay dearly for it. Opting for a collision damage waiver, personal injury protection, and liability coverage can add almost $50 per day to the base rate.

Rental Car Agent Talking With Couple, Two White Cars in the Foreground

Extra Driver, Extra Cost?

It often costs more to authorize more than one person to drive a rental car, so make sure to ask. The good news: By law, car rental companies cannot charge an extra-driver fee for a spouse in California, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, or Wisconsin, so long as the second driver meets the same basic requirements for rental (a valid driver's license, etc.). A "surrogate driver" for a mobility-impaired renter who meets the location's rental requirements may also count. Some member discounts — like AAA’s, for example — include an extra driver for free. Otherwise, expect to pay anywhere from $3 to $13 or more per day.

Closeup of Mother Strapping Baby in a Carseat, Selective Focus

Take a Seat

Car rental companies usually supply car seats when available, but they typically charge about $13 or $14 per day. If you're traveling with multiple kids, these costs can end up exceeding the rental rate for the car itself. It's probably best to bring car seats from home, if you can manage it (most airlines don't charge to check them). AAA members can get free child seats at many companies, and PTA members are also eligible for this perk.

Kneeling Man Using Smartphone to Take Image of Driver's Side of Red Car

Pictures Could Be Worth a Thousand

Rental car companies offer a walk-around inspection of the vehicle and a form on which to mark bumps, scratches, or imperfections spotted before you drive off the lot. The forms are pretty crude, though, and don't cover the size or extent of damages. To guard against post-rental disputes, take pictures during the inspection. And to prove the photos were taken at pickup, email copies somewhere so they carry a timestamp. Don’t forget to inspect the interior and trunk, too.

Smoking Man Driving With Both Hands on Wheel, Cigarette in Fingers of Right Hand, Selective Focus

Where There's Smoke, There's Extra Cost

Most rental cars are "smoke free," so if you're a smoker, either don't light up in a rental or budget up to $250 extra for cleaning services. In its policy description, Budget asserts that this isn't discrimination: "If any car smells of smoke when it is returned, customers will be assessed an additional charge — just as they would if the car's interior had excessive stains, dirt, pet hair, or soilage attributable to the renter's use."

Cars in Line at a Toll Road Near San Francisco, Three Lines, Focus on Middle Line

Tolls Can Take a Toll

The best routes to some popular destinations feature automated, all-electronic tolls, and ignorance doesn't let drivers off the hook for payment. Rental car companies handle such tolls in a variety of ways, including by charging administrative fees on top of the tolls. Some offer prepaid options (fees typically range from $4 to $6 per day) for drivers who know they'll be taking automated toll roads and bridges. Thrifty, for example, offers a program called PlatePass, in which renters pay to have tolls automatically charged to the credit card on the reservation. Opt out and fail to pay the tolls, and administrative fees add $15 per unpaid toll to the bill (with a $90 fee cap for each rental).

Woman Holding Phone With GPS in Right Hand While Driving With Left Hand, Selective Focus

Let Your Phone Be Your Guide

Car rental companies such as Avis charge an extra $17 a day for a GPS unit, and smartphone owners with map apps don't need one. Before hitting the road, however, check the coverage map for your mobile network and make sure your phone plan includes plenty of data (to avoid overage fees). It's also a good idea to download any available updates for a preferred app before leaving a home Wi-Fi network. And bring a car charger for the phone, because GPS is a big battery drain.

Right Hand Holding a Smartphone With App Playing a Song in a Car, Left Hand Holding the Steering Wheel

Listen to Music for a Song

Satellite radio lets travelers enjoy a variety of music and other programming without worrying about reception. But as a rental-car add-on, it's expensive. Avis, for example, charges an extra $8 a day for Sirius XM. Travelers with generous data plans on their smartphones — and traveling where the signal is good — can bring along an auxiliary audio cable, plug it into the car's sound system, and use a free app such as TuneIn or Pandora (or even sign up for a free trial of Sirius XM to get satellite radio on a phone without paying the rental company charge). Not all cars are equipped for this, though. Check before leaving the lot.

Customer at the Counter of a Budget Rent a Car, Agent Behind Counter Helping Customer
Songquan Deng/shutterstock

Know Your (Mileage) Limit

Most vehicles come with unlimited mileage, meaning you could (theoretically) drive from coast to coast without incurring any penalties for exceeding a daily or weekly allowance. But some rentals — high-end luxury vehicles, full-size SUVs, and cargo vans, for example — come with mileage thresholds, usually 150 miles a day. Some special promotions, like discounted weekend rentals, also come with mileage restrictions. Exceeding the limit results in an additional per-mile fee, which varies by company. Look out for any mention of a per-mile charge in the rate summary section of a reservation quote, or no mention of "unlimited mileage."

Closeup of Right Hand Holding Gasoline Nozzle in the Gas Tank Opening of Grey Car

Fill Up or Pay Up

Car rental companies want their vehicles returned with the same amount of gas they had when they were rented, and usually that means a full tank. (The amount should be spelled out on the rental agreement you sign before leaving the lot.) That means you've got two options when returning the rental: refuel it yourself beforehand or let the rental company do it. Most companies offer the option of paying for a full tank of gas up front at a per-gallon price that's competitive with local stations. If you skip this option but return your rental without filling up the tank, you'll be charged a considerably higher per-gallon price — up to three times the current pump price. Some companies now automatically bill for refueling when a trip covers less than 75 miles: a service charge of $16 to $17 at Budget, for example. (An exception can be made if a gas purchase receipt is provided.)

Row of Back of Cars at a Car Dealership Lot, Diagonal

Location, Location, Location

Travelers typically get the best rental rates by picking up and dropping off at the same location. Most companies do offer one-way rentals, but often at a slight premium, and they also charge if you return a car to an unexpected lot. At Budget, there's a minimum $45 "unauthorized return location" fee.

Black 'Car Rental' Sign With Yellow Lettering at the Airport

Avoid the Airport

Don't rent from a company's airport location if you can avoid it. The convenience often comes with a higher rate, and almost certainly extra fees. For example, renting a car from a Los Angeles International Airport location includes a standard 3.5% tourism surcharge and a customer facility charge of $7.50 a day, on top of additional airport fees charged by individual companies. (These fees are generally a percentage of the base rate and can vary by airport location, vehicle type, and rental company. For example, at LAX, Budget, Thrifty, and Enterprise added an extra charge of 11.11% to rent a compact car.) Locations just a little farther away offer better deals — even with the cost of a ride there and back. And many companies offer free pickup and return to neighborhood car rental locations, usually limited to a certain mile radius or driving distance, and not from airports.

Woman Driving a Car Seen From the Backseat, She Is Turning and Looking to the Right
l i g h t p o e t/shutterstock

Return on Time

Car rental companies work on a pretty tight timetable. When vehicles are returned late, it costs them money, and they don't hesitate to pass that expense on to renters. Budget, for example, allows a 29-minute grace period — but once the vehicle is a half-hour late, an hourly charge is applied, and after 90 minutes you may have to pay full-day late charges (it varies by vehicle and location).

Hand Picking Up Yellow Parking Violation Ticket on the Windscreen of a Red Car
Africa Studio/shutterstock

Don't Ignore a Ticket

Travelers who get parking tickets while driving a rental should pay them ASAP. Rental companies typically pay unpaid tickets for cars in their fleet — but then bill the renter's credit card for the cost of the ticket plus an administrative fee. It's cheaper to handle parking tickets before they ever get back to the rental car company. Most major cities offer the option to pay online.