Mike Timmermann, Clark.com
If you’re planning to rent a car for the holidays — or even if you’ve already made your reservation — you may be able to save money by using money expert Clark Howard’s strategy.
Clark rents cars about 30 times a year, so he knows how to get the lowest rental car rates.
Clark: This is the cheapest way to rent a car
Finding a great deal online is often the easiest part. Clark has also learned the secret ways rental car companies get you to spend more — and how to avoid the ripoffs.
Read on for Clark’s step-by-step guide to renting a car on the cheap!
1. Check with multiple car rental companies
Clark begins his search for a car rental at RentalCars.com, a website owned by Priceline that will help you find prices across multiple brands, including Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo and Enterprise.
All you have to do is enter the rental location, dates of travel and click search to see the available deals.
2. Book direct to unlock exclusive discounts
After Clark spots a deal, he leaves RentalCars.com and goes directly to the website of the individual rental car company to complete the booking.
He signed up for the following free loyalty programs that he says “almost always” trigger special discounts:
- Hertz Gold Plus Rewards
- Budget Fastbreak
- Enterprise Plus
- Avis Preferred
- Alamo Insiders
- National Emerald Club
- Dollar Express
3. Beware of third-tier brands
Clark won’t rent a car from just anyone! He sticks with first-tier and second-tier companies because the others have a higher rate of consumer complaints.
4. Be flexible with location, times, car size
Did you know that airport locations charge more? It may be significantly cheaper to take a cab, Uber or Lyft from the airport to a downtown car rental location.
And if the rates seem high, adjust the pick-up/drop-off times or the vehicle type to see if it makes a difference.
Some car rental companies will give you a lower rate if you don’t specify car size. Take them up on this offer if you aren’t traveling with a lot of people.
5. Shop for a lower rate before your trip
Most people reserve car rentals when they book airfare and forget about it. Here’s a trick: A week before you go, put on your calendar to re-shop the car rentals.
“You can end up cutting the cost of a rental car by half or more by re-shopping it the week of your trip,” Clark said.
This tactic will only work if you book a rental car with free cancellations, so make sure that you don’t accidentally make a reservation that’s not refundable.
AutoSlash.com is another option. The free service will automatically re-book your rental when prices drop!
6. Decline add-ons that you don’t need
The real danger to your wallet comes at the car rental counter when the salesperson will try to talk you into optional pseudo-insurance products, such as the collision damage waiver (CDW).
To protect yourself, call your car insurance company before the trip to see if you’re already covered.
“Call your own automobile insurer for your personal car. Most of the time you’re going to be covered for temporary use of a rental car, and you can just say no to all those options they throw your way,” Clark said.
Many credit cards also provide free rental car insurance when you pay for your car rental with their card.
7. Should you prepay for gas?
After the insurance sales pitch, the person at the counter will try to get you to buy a tank of gas. Decline it! Clark says this is a complete ripoff.
Just remember to fill up the car before you bring it back — and don’t forget the receipt for the gas!
8. Take pictures of every little scratch
Clark says his smartphone is the secret weapon to make sure that he doesn’t get a big fat bill in the mail for alleged damage to the rental car.
Take pictures or video of the car’s condition at pick-up and drop-off so there are no questions later.