If the car you reserved is unavailable, don’t automatically pay for an upgrade. Ask the company to honor your rate, or negotiate a better one. (Photo: iStock/Tramino)
By Charles McCool / McCool Travel for Yahoo! Travel
Renting a car can be expensive, confusing, and stressful — but it doesn’t have to be. Here are eight savvy strategies to save money, time, and stress on your next (and every) car rental.
Sign Up for Loyalty Programs
Rental car loyalty programs — like Avis Preferred, Hertz Gold, andNational Emerald Club — are free to join, so register for any programs you might use in the future. My favorite car rental loyalty program benefit is that I can skip the counter and head right to my reserved car. By the time my flight arrives, I usually have received an email or text message with my car information. Some programs allow members to choose a car from the available pool. I like a low mileage car, comfortable drive, visibility, satellite radio, sun/moon roof (rare). My kids might want a favorite color. In addition to saving time and offering freedom of choice, loyalty members earn points and receive special promotions.
Just Say No
If your reserved vehicle class is unavailable, do not automatically pay for an upgrade. Gently request that the company honor your reservation or provide a higher priced car at the reserved rate. Many people reserve the lowest priced car with the hope of being comped into a better car.
In conjunction with the previous point, determine if the reason for the upgrade is that the company is out of your type of vehicle or if it is “running specials.” If it is a special and I am offered an upgrade for $10 a day, I will offer $20 for the week.
Optimize Your Strategy
Do you really need a rental car from the airport? For instance, if your flight arrives at night, take a free hotel shuttle and pick up your car the next day. The car rental location might even be at your hotel or can pick you up (or deliver the car to you). Rental rates are likely lower away from the airport, plus you might save the cost of an entire rental day. A great bonus is that you can usually return the car to the airport for the same rate (or less) than the pickup location. I recently saved more than $300 by renting a car at my Kona hotel during the weekend period (Thursday noon through Monday noon).
Skip the Car?
For a city trip, you may not even need a rental car. Research whether mass transit, taxi, Uber/Lyft, bike rental, and other transportation methods will suffice. Parking charges at downtown hotels may cost more than your car rental rate, so it may be doubly in your favor to forgo a rental car.
I use the discount-finding website Autoslash to track my car reservations.Autoslash informs me when they find a better deal (they usually do find a lower rate). People can also use Autoslash to research and make reservations, although I prefer to use the firms’ websites.
Search for Specials
Check car rental company websites for current specials. In conjunction with your personal discount code, you may also find a last-minute rate, free rental day, or other promotion. My favorite annual travel deal is driving a car one-way out of Florida after Spring Break with rates as low as $1 per day.
Consider Alternative Rental Options
Major car rental companies might have an associated discount brand at your rental location, like Firefly for Hertz. Smaller brands, like Thrifty and Fox, might offer better service and lower rates. An independent or smaller local agency may fit your needs; like A1 or Lucky Owl in Honolulu. Many people prefer to check rates on Hotwire and Priceline, especially for last-minute rentals. Peer-to-peer rentals are becoming more popular; Getaround and RelayRides are like the Airbnb of car rentals. When renting a car in Europe for more than 20 days, research leasing options (for more flexible terms and much lower rates).