Having rented a car more times than I can count, I can easily identify the experience as the bane of any work trip or vacation. This is generally how the process goes for me: I get off a plane, sweaty and tired, shuttle off to the airport’s rental car depot, and wait approximately 45 minutes in a queue to pick up the car I’ve booked online. I then sign all the paperwork confirming that I want all the insurance coverage offered and brace myself for the final daily fee and total cost, which is always far higher than the one advertised.
“It’s because you got all the coverage,” the customer service agent says, when I cringe at the estimate. “Better safe than sorry!”
I agree with that platitude, but I also want to know, am I getting ripped off? Are there money and time saving hacks — besides watching the mileage and gassing up before returning — I could be implementing here?
The answer, according to experts, is a resounding “yes”.
Here’s how to go about renting a car so you can drive off the lot without totaling your bank account.
1. Book early — especially during peak travel season
“Car rental companies like Enterprise and Budget operate limited fleets, and they need to estimate demand several weeks in advance in order to have a car ready for you when you step off your flight,” says Kristin McGrath, savings and deals expert for Offers.com. “As you get closer to peak travel season for rental car companies, you’ll want to book as far in advance as possible to ensure that you’re not only getting a great price, but actually getting a car, too."
To save money when booking online, consider using a cashback browser extension like EBates as well as a coupon code search extension like Wikibuy. It also can’t hurt to search Groupon and LivingSocial for potential discounts.
2. Avoid booking at airports if possible — they can pile on fees
If you can manage it, don’t book your rental car from the airport.
“Renting a car at the airport is definitely more expensive in many cases as a lot of cities had added surcharges,” says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “It's rooted in a revenue grab for them and it’s easy to pass along as a tourism tax that we often see [in other ways] at airports.”
Arranging a rental car through the airport can add anywhere from 10 to 25 percent to your costs, Rossman says, adding that just today he was looking at the price of his rental car booked out of a San Francisco airport and found that the $200 base rate had another $100 tacked on in added taxes and fees — “$50 more than if I went into the city and rented the car there.”
Chris Trifilio, blogger at FrugalReality.com, says he’s actually saved money by paying for an Uber or Lyft to take him from the airport to a rental car depot. “I came out well ahead even after my $20 ride-sharing cost,” he says.
3. Use a credit card that will cover primary insurance
The biggest cost that we encounter when renting a car is usually the insurance. If you don’t typically drive (and thus, don’t need/have your own auto insurance), then the first add-on item you’re likely signing up for is the collision damage waiver. This is the primary insurance that will reimburse the company for costs of damage to a car should you get into an accident while it’s in your possession.
Now, you may also want to go with this insurance even if you have your own auto insurance, because, as Rossman notes, if you get into an accident, you’d still have to pay the deductible out of pocket, and the accident could incentivize your insurance company to hike up your rates.
But there’s a better way, and one that actually comes at no cost to you. A number of credit cards offer primary coverage as part of its perks (check out NerdWallet’s list of cards that tout this benefit). The only caveat is that you need to pay 100 percent of the price of the rental on that card.
Check with your credit card company to understand the coverage they offer. Liability insurance is typically not included with these credit cards, so you’ll want to either add that on with the rental car company, use your own if you have it.
Another way to reduce rental car insurance fees is to buy rental car insurance outside of the rental agency.
Get the better newsletter.
Companies like RentalCover specialize in this service.
“As low as six dollars a day can cover you for everything,” says Stewart Barrett, head of growth at Cover Genius, the parent company to RentalCover.
Rossman deems this a savvy alternative if you don’t have a credit card that qualifies you for coverage.
4. Plug in your Costco, AAA and other memberships
One of the perks of being a member of Costco or BJ’s Wholesale is their partnerships with major rental car companies.
“My favorite hack to save on rental cars: Costco. After two rentals, my membership paid for itself with the amount I saved via their travel portal,” says Kelsey Sheehy, personal finance expert at NerdWallet. "You can usually add an additional driver for free, which saves another $12 to $13 per day.”
“Insurance on rental cars is also a common perk from trade associations and unions, so it’s worth checking if you have an industry affiliation,” says Rossman. “Same if you have AAA.”
“My auto club membership code saved me over 15 percent on my most recent five day, one-way rental from Chicago to Florida,” says Triflio. “The savings alone nearly paid for my annual membership with a single booking.”
McGrath adds that the AARP often offers discounts or fee waivers for rental car coverage.
5. Book through sites like Autoslash, which factors in discounts
Rossman isn’t affiliated with the car rental service Autoslash, but uses the site to save on car rentals.
“You put in where you're going and it will give you quotes,” says Rossman. “What is neat is that you can put in your memberships with Costco or AAA, and they will search for those discounts and any online coupons that may help you save. They do price comparisons before and after you book so if two weeks later that booked rental for May went down you can rebook at the lower rate.”
6. Do your homework on bundle deals that come with a ‘free’ rental car
Packages and bundles with hotels and/or airfare are designed to save you money, but these can make your rental car out to cost more than if you book it independently.
“‘Free’ car is an offer that cannot be taken at face value,” says Randi Winter, a travel consultant with Passionate Travel, a Virtuoso affiliate of Classic Travel. “Often it is only one or two days and the mileage or additional days can far overshadow the ‘free’ offer, especially if you are keeping a car for a week or longer.”
7. Beware the cancellation fees if pre-paying
“Prepaying to save money could be your most expensive decision,” says Winter. “Like hotels, prepayment for locked-in conditions look like they are going to save you money [but] changes in flight times, dates, cancellations for illness — even getting a better price hotel in a different area — could result in needing to cancel or modify a booking.”
And that cancellation fee could cost you around $50 (the price Alamo and Enterprise charge), and double that if you cancel within 24 hours ahead of scheduled pick up.
Make sure your plans won’t change if you are pre-paying.
8. Spot a dent? Take a pic before driving off the lot
It’s customary for rental car companies to have you do a quick review of the car you’re renting to document any existing dents, scratches or other cosmetic flaws. You cannot be too thorough in this examination, and it’s best to photograph any problem areas you spot so that they can’t be pinned on you later.
“Always use your phone to take photos of any suspicious dents or dings or interior anomalies,” says Winter. “This proof — with a time and date stamp — can save you from any allegations or charges after you have returned the car and no longer have access for proof.”
9. Bring your own child car seat or buy one
Rental car companies charge a fortune for child’s car seats — “between $10 and $15 a day,” Rossman says.
“You’re better off bringing your own,” says Rossman, with Barrett adding that it could be cheaper to just buy one in your destination. You stand a good chance at finding an affordable one in good used condition using apps like 5Miles or Facebook Marketplace.
10. Pay tolls in cash if you can
Another fee rental car companies just love to tack on your bill is the fee for passing through tolls. Hertz charges a $5.95 fee for every day you use its PlatePass, in addition to the price of the tolls incurred at their highest rate. Avis, Alamo, Budget and Enterprise each charge a $3.95 convenience fee for each day of the rental (up to a maximum of $19.75 per month) in certain areas with tolled roads even if you don’t drive there — on top of any toll fees incurred.
“This is a sneaky one that could really add up,” says Rossman. “It’s harder these days to pay in person as bridges are moving away from cash, so either prepay the toll online (depending on your municipality) or buy a disposable transponder if able. It can save you a lot of money.”
MORE TRAVEL TIPS
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.