updated 2/1/2010 2:56:13 PM ET 2010-02-01T19:56:13

Much as airlines have cut back on flights and routes since the recession began, the lodging industry has, er, built a lot more hotels and added a lot of rooms?! Oops. Expansion may have seemed like a great idea at the time, but this tactic has been undermined by the sagging economy, and hotel rates have fallen precipitously during the recession. And despite their best efforts otherwise, the airlines too have been forced to hold the line or even lower their fares.

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The car rental biz, however, has weathered the storm better than nearly any other part of the travel industry. Car rental companies have successfully cut their fleets, desk hours and locations to cope with falling demand — which means that car rentals these days cost as much as they ever did, if not more so.

Of all the commodities and services you encounter in the travel experience, the number of automobiles available at any given airport is the most fixed and potentially scarce. With flights, you can almost always book an earlier or later flight, and with hotels you can always find a room a little farther away or at a lesser property if need be. But with rental cars, when the airport rental car agencies sell down or retire inventory, there is a very real reduction in capacity — and prices rise. This is exactly what has happened, and herein lies a challenge for the budget- and convenience-minded traveler.

Sure, there is always somewhere you can get a car — for example, you can always book off-airport. But prices are sometimes higher, and getting to and from the rental office is often a hassle in the extreme, which is the last thing you want to worry about when you are trying to catch a flight. Imagine standing in downtown Portland on a Sunday morning wondering how you are going to get to the airport; you don't want to be that guy.

Among my friends and family, I have come by a good reputation for getting car rental deals; on a trip to Cleveland last week, one of the members of our traveling party had his secretary booking the travel (nice work if you can get it), and mentioned casually that rental costs were high, around $50 a day. I told him to call his secretary off the job, and within 20 minutes had booked a $13-a-day rental. He asked, "It's not some tiny car, is it?" It was — c'mon, we would be driving a total of 40 miles on the trip — but I went back and upgraded the rental to a full-size car for a whopping $3 more per day. I wrote him back: "I wouldn't do that to a man of your reputation; we have a full-size sedan."

Finding an affordable car rental isn't rocket science, even in today's tight market. I've put together a few tips below to help avoid clearing out your wallet when car rental companies clear out their lots.

Book early
As your travel dates approach, more reservations come in, most often for the most affordable or coveted rental car sizes and models. Accordingly, availability plummets and prices climb. As inventory drops, many car rental companies will move their vehicles around to accommodate locations with higher demand — but don't count on it. In the past year, I have seen more "car size/model not available" booking engine messages than ever before; in fact, I can't recall having seen this more than once or twice in the entire previous decade.

Given this scarcity, your chances of getting an affordable rental — or a rental at all — increase with every additional day in advance that you book your car.

If you're feeling courageous, book late
The trip to Cleveland was a last-minute trip to help out an old friend, so of necessity was booked the day before travel. If you find yourself in this spot, or if you are feeling courageous and lucky, you will find that the car rental companies will rent you a car very cheaply, as there is no upside in having cars sitting on lots unrented.

In this situation, you are in the driver's seat in more ways than one. The risks can be high, however; remember that the whole reason we are looking at this topic in early 2010 is the fact that rental lot inventory is shrinking. And keep in mind that you may not have much choice —the more popular car sizes/models sell out fastest, so if you're picky about what you drive, you'll want to book early, not late.

Check the deals and search liberally
Of the more essential pieces of the travel puzzle, car rental prices tend to be the most mutable and variable in my experience. I have seen it happen that the Hertz site will show a $70/day rental for a compact car, Orbitz will show a $35/day rental for a compact car with Hertz and an auction site will give it to you for $19.

Car rental companies also tend to package their special offers in almost countless ways. A quick look at our car rental deals is the proof: weekend vs. weekday, special offers by size of car, location-specific deals that don't show up on the major booking sites and more.

If you rent enough cars over time, you see a lot of odd pricing:

  • Renting a full-size car may be cheaper than renting a compact
  • As folks move away from gas guzzlers, a van or SUV rental may be the cheapest option on the lot
  • A five-day rental is expensive, but a "weekly rental" with a minimum of five days is very affordable
  • Altering your pickup times to qualify for a "weekend" rental can save you heaps

Aggregator sites, and Kayak in particular, allow you to easily tweak your car class, pickup and return times, options for on- and off-airport counters, and more in order to get a broad picture of what is available. This wide view can be very helpful when your first search produces only rates that are higher than your heating bill this winter.

Finally, when you are really stuck you may find that calling the rental company directly will be the best way to get a good rate. As I have written before, the online systems calculate everything on a fairly strict 24-hour clock, and may not show you "long weekend" or weeklong discounts for which you may qualify simply because the times you gave are short an hour. A good agent will see this and can override the system to give you the volume discount.

Consider your coupons and affiliations
I am a member of two national associations, both of which offer car rental discounts as a perk of membership. One has a deal with Avis for weekend rentals, the other with Alamo for weekly rentals. AAA has deals with almost everybody (no surprise there, as it is an automobile association). My practice is to turn to these discounts primarily when inventory is down and prices are skyrocketing, when they can really soften the pain.

You call the shots
Although I have a firm policy against doing so with airline and lodging bookings, I almost always use a "name your price" or other similar extreme discounting method for car rentals. Why? For the simple reason that most airport car rentals are created equal in a way that an airline booking or hotel room is not.

Buying an airline ticket using these systems is extremely risky, in my experience; you don't know the exact flight time, the route, the duration of any connections or even the airline in many cases. When you discover you saved 80 bucks to purchase a 6:05 a.m. flight with a connection that takes you hundreds of miles out of your way and includes a seven-hour layover in an airport terminal with a single Hudson News store and a pretzel kiosk, that's a lesson you never forget.

It's not much different with hotels; if "location, location, location" is the mantra of real estate agents and vacationers picking hotels alike, then buying blind is riskier than trying to flip a house in 2009.

A car rental you will pick up at the airport counter and return to the airport counter, and the actual vehicle you will drive in any rental class varies so little from one rental agency to the next that it is not even worth considering.

Here's how I do it. First, I check a booking engine to find which agency is giving the best deals, check that agency's Web site to see if I can get anything better there and then go to an auction site with the information I have. I will usually start bidding at around $13; from long experience, I have found this to be just about the bottom most rental agencies will readily accept (I have seen lower, but not reliably). If your bid is too low, the auction site usually comes back with a note indicating the price at which your chances go up significantly. Never go up the full amount to start, as you will see this number is almost identical to the rate at which you can book from Expedia or the car rental site.

The sites don't let you bid endlessly; typically after three unsuccessful attempts, they restrict you from bidding again for 24 hours. But unless you are under time pressure, you can be pretty aggressive in the first round of bids and then come back the next day with a little better sense of what might be accepted.

Bonus tip: Bid on the most affordable class of car, as the sites will almost always give you the option to upgrade. This upgrade is typically "X dollars more" than your original accepted bid, so if you bid low successfully, you can usually upgrade a couple of car classes or more for very little money. On my Cleveland trip, I upgraded three full car classes for $3 a day; not bad.

After you go through this process a few times, you will get a very good feel for the most likely sweet spot, and you will get the most affordable rental every single time.

21st Century tip: Avoid the rental altogether
Forget the car rental entirely and try a Zipcar instead.


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