10 tips for saving money on car rentals

Renting a car can often be confusing, frustrating, and worst of all, expensive.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Because of the dynamic price-gouging nature of car rentals, the tips below could end up saving you over 50% off the “regular” price.

And with all these savings, you may actually find renting a car enjoyable…as long as you keep an eye on the speedometer!

1.  Deny the insurance

I get it:  you’re not a risk taker and you want to be covered.  No worries!

If you’re renting a car in the United States and already have car insurance, your car insurance should cover a rental car (just call to make sure).

If you are renting in the US and don’t have car insurance, book your rental car with a credit card that offers supplemental insurance as a perk.  This includes all Visa signature cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase British Airways, or Hyatt credit card, and many World Mastercards as well.

If you’re unsure about what coverage your card offers, check out this great breakdown by NerdWallet or this infographic from Lifehacker.  You can also call your credit card company directly.

If you’re renting internationally, the supplemental insurance that the credit card offers usually becomes primary insurance, and so once again, you’ll be covered.

2.  Say no to the GPS

You don’t have to turn the clock back to the 20th century and use only a map and the stars, but don’t get the GPS the rental company offers.  If you’re renting in the US, simply use your smartphone’s map function.

This option is also available when renting internationally as well.  Instead of a $13 a day GPS, get a new SIM card for your phone (make sure your phone is unlocked first).

In most countries, $15 will get you data plan large enough to use the map for a few days and also be able to answer email and check Facebook!

 3.  Fill up where it’s cheapest

A no brainer.  But oftentimes, especially when traveling between countries, you aren’t aware of the difference in gas prices, which can be dramatic.  Do your homework ahead of time.

In Spain, the gas prices hovered around $7.50 a gallon.  Insane, right?

That’s what I thought until I got to Portugal, where I was paying $8.50 a gallon!

I was cursing myself for not filling up at the border and determined to not make that mistake again.  I put in just enough to roll out of Portugal on fumes and fill up at it’s much cheaper Iberian neighbor!

4.  Use Rentalcars.com or Kayak as a starting point but always check the actual rental car websites.

Using Rentalcars.com or Kayak or any other search engine is a great way to find out a decent range of what you should pay for a rental car.  However, always make sure to actually check the rental car companies websites as well.

On my last trip, rentalcars.com wanted 192 euros for a 10 day rental from Europcar.  When I went to Europcar’s actual site, the same rental priced out at 150 euros, a whopping 25% less.

A few minutes of work can save you a nice chunk of change, especially on long rentals.

5.  Avoid airport pickup

It’s not always the most convenient, but if you can avoid picking up the car at the airport location, you can save some big money.

Most rental car companies will place a charge on to your rental for picking it up at the airport, sometimes up to $30.

Instead, save those shekels and head to a secondary location to pick up the car.  If you’re in a big city, there should be plenty of options and they should be located conveniently around public transport.

Hop on the metro, get away from the airport, spend the extra money on a nice lunch, and then pick up your car.

6.   Always return the car full

Fill 'er up!

Fill ‘er up!

This has to be one of the biggest scams out there, right up there with the Nigerians princes offering you millions for your bank account information.

The rental car companies will charge you 2x or 3x more than the gas station for a gallon of gas, so if you don’t return the car full, you’ll be paying HUGE amounts to have them fill it.

Also, never agree to pre-pay for gas.  You’ll be charged upfront for a full tank of gas and unless you return it completely empty, you’re losing money.

Instead, simply opt for the “return on full” option…and then make sure it’s full!

7.  Earn bonus frequent flyer miles for your rental

Before renting, always make sure to check the Frequent Flyer Bonuses website to see what type of bonuses are being offered by each car rental company.

All you’ll have to do to get the bonus(es) is give them your frequent flyer number when renting the car and it should post automatically.

Who doesn’t love free miles!

8.  Grab a discount code

Rental car companies are always offering special discounts for all types of things, from business rentals to AARP members.

A simple Google search of “(Your Car Rental Company) discount code” will return a ton of hits.  Look through the first few sites and see what type of codes there are.  Then, use those codes to get up to 50% off your rental!

9.  Use hotel status to score perks

Oftentimes, if you have status with a hotel chain or two, you can score some perks with the rental car companies as well.  For example, my Gold Status with Hilton earns me a 25% discount with most major car rental companies.

Hotel status can also earn you perks like free upgrades or a free GPS rental (while I don’t recommend paying for GPS, if it’s free, take it!).

These extra perks MAY be stackable with promotions offered by discount codes, meaning you’d be able to use your status to get the perks AND use the discount code you found online.  Call the company up to make sure.

If they aren’t stackable, simply choose the one that is the best offer.

10.  Don’t speed

As someone who has racked up speeding tickets in multiple countries, do as I say and not as I do.

There’s nothing worse than opening an envelope from the Victoria state police four months after your vacation has ended and being hit with a couple hundred dollar speeding ticket.

Of course, if you aren’t planning on returning to that destination for awhile, and the statue of limitations might be over by then, and you have a significant other who could rent the car in their name next time, then…maybe speeding isn’t so expensive after all.

Final Word(s)

As long as you do a little bit of homework, renting a car should never cost you an arm and a leg.  Just denying the insurance they push on you can save you a huge amount of money.

Couple that with using your own GPS, scoring a discount code or two, and quickly checking multiple websites for the best price and you’re staring down some big savings.

And always remember, return the car on full!

What tips do you have to save money on car rentals?  Do you have a memorable car rental experience?  Share them below!

(photos courtesy of carlo montoya, bricktraveler)