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Winning at Rental Car Roulette

Posted on Friday, November 5th, 2010 at 9:05 pm (0) comments

by flickr user www.bluewaikiki.com

While it’s all too easy to waste money on bad car rental deals, the good news is that a little online research and a few basic cautions can save a bundle.


The longer in advance you plan a rental, the more choices you’ll have among companies, car classes, rates, pickup/drop locations, discounts, optional equipment, etc. Obviously, pick preferred rental start and end dates. If you’re coordinating with flight/cruise/tour planning, rental details won’t be your first decision. But rental flexibility does allow comparing more alternatives. In fact, it’s handy bringing up multiple rental Web sites in simultaneous browser tabs or windows for research.

Since it does no good finding a bargain deal if rental locations aren’t where you need to be, the most basic step is identifying companies serving your start and end locations. Tabulate rates for pickup and drop on-airport, near-airport, and in convenient commercial/residential neighborhoods. I’ve frequently found the latter offices to be very friendly, convenient, and not cattle-car packed. Check operating hours and determine what happens if you return a car after an office closes – will rental end when you drop keys through the door, or extend until the office reopens?

It’s too late to join company clubs when you’re planning a rental, so collect a few membership cards in advance. Often free or promoted by airlines, these offer deals like no-fee spouse driving, instant driveaway, and discount coupons. When scanning costs, beware cheap daily rates with high mileage charges, often not revealed until well into the reservation process. Especially on one-way rentals, balance daily rates against mileage charges. For long-distance driving, a higher daily rate easily offsets paying a quarter or more per mile! And different companies offer amazingly varied rate structures.

If you’ll mix local and one-way driving, split the rental to get the best rate for each segment. When driving from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco and staying in the Bay Area, I made two Hertz reservations: long distance and local, arranging to end the first and begin the second at a neighborhood office. This involved minimal paperwork switching rentals and I kept the same car for the much less-expensive local rental.

Compare rates for different car classes; a two-door econobox can easily serve low-mileage local gigs, but you might want something more plush and powerful for serious cruising. Sometimes higher car classes are only a few dollars more per day, so it’s worth peeking up the food chain.

Next, compare discounts for which you qualify: rental company coupons and promotions, airline and hotel codes and deals, affinity group memberships (AAA, AARP, NARFE, alumni, credit union, employer, Entertainment, etc.). Coupons and codes can provide car class upgrades, free days, free equipment, and cash discounts. You’re often only able to use one discount, so explore which one saves or offers the most; beware small-print restrictions and expiration dates.


A confirmed reservation — best to have it printed — means they owe you the car you reserved, or a class upgrade if they’ve run out of your car. And if they have NO cars, they owe cab fare or limo reimbursement. Understand your auto insurance policy’s rental coverage and refuse anything that duplicates it. If rentals are covered, don’t fall for counter pressure or threats of financial disaster.

Understand options for gasoline; choices may include paying for a full tank with no refund on unused gas (making the goal running the car dry), paying to refill on return, or retail refilling near your return. Buying the tank in advance strikes me as a bad deal, since there will always be some gas remaining I’m gifting back to the rental company. For the best refill strategy, scope the company’s refill rate and nearby gas station costs. The comparison isn’t always intuitive; it’s sometimes been cheaper to pay Hertz price than buy gas retail near JFK. And you needn’t refill adjacent to return location; tanking up and driving 20 or so miles is reasonable and will leave the gauge on Full.

Investigate fees for your car’s gadgets — navigation, toll (EZPass and equivalent), and such – and decline what you don’t need. Beware toll payment plans included “for your convenience”, which may involve unintuitive service charges such as a daily fee even when you don’t use toll roads.

Since you’ve joined the company’s friendly renter plan, optimize your rental bonus by deciding whether to apply it to to cars/flights/hotel.
Watch out for fees associated with any “bonus” and decline the treat if it’s not a good deal. For example, each day’s 50-point bonus might cost 50 cents but be worth less than that.

When you reach your car, check it thoroughly for dings. Nitpick, take photos, and demand contract notations about imperfections. Don’t fall for rental staff claiming that something is inconsequential – people sometimes are stuck with large charges for damage that happened before their rental.


Again, check car thoroughly for dings; nitpick, take photos, and demand contract/receipt notation that the car is returned unscathed.

Review your bill for surprises and don’t let the friendly roving hand-held check-in and your rush to the plane blur your vision; it’s MUCH easier to fix billing issues on-site than later.

Find a survey form – often available on airport shuttle buses – and evaluate car quality/cleanliness/problems and service received.

Review credit card charges: add-ons such as toll fees can take quite a while to show up, and immediately protest anything incorrect to rental company first, escalating to credit card company if necessary. If you endured rental problems such as trouble, garbled reservations, or bogus fees, write a courteous/clear/brief complaint letter to rental company CEO; this may earn a discount voucher for a future rental.

Finally, verify that any rental bonus is credited correctly.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email slickdeals@gabegold.com when you use it.