As I said two weeks ago, I’m shutting down this blog. This is my last post ever! Thanks for reading, lo these 12 long years.
I’m sure I still don’t know everything. But here are the basics for anyone looking to get a better deal.
1. You probably don’t need to buy extra insurance…except when you do.
You’ll get pressure to buy it. But if you’re renting with a decent US-issued credit card, one of its perks is probably rental-car collision insurance (covering the damage you might do to the car). Most MasterCards come with 14 days’ coverage; Visas usually offer 30.
But don’t take my word for it! Definitely check your card’s terms before your trip. Also ask whether the coverage is primary (you can claim on it first) or secondary (you’d have to first claim with your personal car insurance, if you have it).
As for the other key insurance, liability insurance (what you might do to other cars/people while driving): that is usually provided by the car company at no extra charge. It’s required in most states, but in the ones where it isn’t (California is the biggie), your own personal car insurance will probably cover you. (Again, check before your trip.) If you don’t own a car, alas, you do have to buy liability insurance in the states it’s required.
Most other countries also require rental companies to pay for liability insurance, but there are exceptions–such as Mexico. And there, I learned, some companies (such as Hertz) carry the insurance, while others don’t. But all of them will cheerfully try to sell you on extra coverage–so you need to read the fine print. See here (point #6) for more.
2. Start your search wide.
Run a quick search at Kayak.com to get an idea of the range of rates for the trip you want. Target the lowest prices from the international chains (Hertz, Avis, etc).
Avoid Enterprise where possible. They nickel-and-dime to a sometimes excruciating degree, in my experience. Although in smaller cities, they are sometimes the only option, and can be perfectly great.
3. Join the club.
Whatever company you’re considering renting from, join their frequent-renters club. It comes with automatic 10-15% discounts.
You can also set up preferences for airline discounts (below), and also request not to be given the insurance hard sell when you pick up your car.
4. Get discounts from airlines.
Most airlines–and Amtrak–offer significant discounts at car rental companies. For this, you have to book through the airline’s engine or get a code to punch in at the car-rental website. (For both, go to the frequent-flier part of the website, look under ‘earn miles’ then ‘car rentals.’)
Try a few different ones–they vary a lot depending on the time of year and where you’re renting. (It’s easier to just try the search with the code/engine, rather than parsing the fine print and deciding whether the rules apply.)
I usually check American, United and Amtrak. And because I’ve signed up at a couple of different car companies’ clubs (step #2), I can store the discount codes there.
5. Try an off-airport location.
Some airports charge crazy fees for car rentals. Going to a “suburban” location in the same city can save a ton of money, more than the cost of a taxi to that location. And there’s usually no added fee for returning the car to the airport (but double-check).
6. It costs nothing to cancel a car reservation.
If you see something good, book it. You can always cancel it later, with no penalty.
(Obviously don’t book the prepaid option!)
7. Rental rates change all the time.
After you make your booking(s), check back a few times before your trip. You will probably be surprised, horrified or indignant about how much the rates change, and often for the lower.
Console yourself by feeling smug when you book the new, better rate.
8. Choose prepaid only close in.
When you’re within 4 days or so of your trip, and you’re pretty certain everything’s a go, then you can choose a prepaid discount, if you see a good one.
Now’s also the time to check www.hotwire.com, which does “blind booking” for car rentals, where it shows only the price, not the company. If you see a crazy bargain here, be sure you’re checking the price with all fees and taxes. If it’s still lower than what you have lined up, then go for it.
Honestly, I barely mess with prepaid deals, because it makes me feel all jinx-y about my trip! But sometimes I’ll check the day before I fly and switch to prepaid if it’s better.
9. It’s fairly easy to claim on insurance, if you need to.
I’m not saying you should be a cavalier driver or anything, but at least don’t fret too much if you do damage your car somehow. The paperwork, in my experience with both Visa and American Express, has been pretty easy, and the settlement happens within about four months.
If you do have some kind of incident, don’t move your car without making contact with your car-rental company. It will send an adjuster to document the situation.
10. If your car needs towing, don’t call the rental company.
Well, OK: if you car has some kind of mechanical failure, then yes, call the phone number on the rental agreement. This is the car company’s responsibility, and they should deal with it first.
But if you, for example, follow bad GPS directions and wind up stuck on a sandy forest road, don’t call the car company. In this case (as the tow-truck guy advised me), you should look first online (if at all possible) to find the closest (physically) tow-truck company. Call them directly.
Towing companies charge starting from when they start driving toward you…wherever they are. (Keep this in mind when you hear the hourly rate.) That’s why you want someone close.
And your car rental company charges a service fee ($75, in the case of Hertz) to connect you to a local towing company. Which is why you don’t want to bother getting them involved.
I haven’t looked into it (but probably should), but of course AAA is an option. Even if you don’t own a car, membership may be handy if you rent a lot.
11. Don’t take your car on dirt roads (if you can avoid it).
Car rental companies tend to think this is so blindingly obvious, they don’t mention it. But often they have clauses that say the insurance is voided if you’re on a dirt road. (Check with your credit card’s collision insurance too.)
Happy, cheaper driving! Any questions? I know I said I’m killing off the blog, but of course I’ll answer comments!