1. Skip the airport
Sure, renting at the airport is convenient when you’re flying into a new city. But that convenience can come at a premium, thanks to airport surcharges.
We checked rates in March for a Memorial Day visit to Portland, Oregon. An economy rental from Enterprise is $15 per day if you pick it up downtown. The same car is more than $38 per day if you pick it up at the airport. Plus you'll pay a $6 per day "Customer Facility Charge" and 10% "Concession Recovery Fee" for renting at the airport.
All told, you'd save roughly $110 over your three-day weekend in Portland just by renting from somewhere other than the airport. This isn't the case in every city, though. You'll pay nearly the same price renting at Chicago O'Hare International Airport as you would at an off-airport location.
Price out rental locations in the city and compare to what you can get at the airport. Make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or Lyft to and from your rental location if you rent at a location away from the airport. And take into account time lost to traffic in a city like Chicago.
2. Shop around
Look at sites like Kayak, Priceline, and even Costco or AAA to compare your options and narrow in on the best deal.
Then go directly to the car rental company's site. You might find an even steeper discount that way, particularly with "Pay Now" options. Just keep in mind that rentals paid in advance are typically nonrefundable.
Even after you book, keep shopping. If you didn't book a nonrefundable rental, you can cancel your reservation if you find a better price.
3. Consider budget rentals
Enterprise, Hertz and Budget aren't the only outfits in town. Discount brands like Advantage, Payless, Thrifty and Dollar Rental are also vying for your business, often at a lower rate than big-name rental companies.
On a given day, our research showed that the lowest-priced rental from Advantage, Dollar and the like was at least $5 cheaper than the cheapest premium brand rental, depending on the city. That savings multiplies over longer trips.
4. Leverage memberships
Have a Costco membership? Use it to save money on your next rental car.
"I find that Costco consistently beats full-price car rentals on online travel agencies" says Clem Bason, CEO of the travel website GoSeek.com and formerly of Hotwire.com.
An added bonus: You can often add a driver for free.
"They offer 8% and 10% savings on Dollar and Thrifty respectively, says Bason, noting that these carriers often offer the most affordable rentals anyhow. "Getting an extra 8 or 10% off the cheapest options out there can make the difference and cause AAA to sometimes beat Costco on price"
Frequent-flier programs also offer discounts on rental cars. American Airlines, for example, offers AAdvantage members 35% off Budget and Avis — but you need to rent from an airport.
5. Opt for economy
Economy cars are typically the cheapest, and therefore the most likely to be booked. You can use this to your advantage, says Brett Graff, a family finance expert and author of a syndicated column called The Home Economist.
"When renting a car, I reserve the smallest, most affordable vehicle possible, knowing there's a chance it won't be on the lot and I'll get an upgrade", Graff says.
Just don't book something that's too small for your party or you could be stuck cramming five people plus luggage into a two-door coupe. Not exactly the cozy vacation you had in mind, is it?
Search these car rental companies to find the best car rental deal.