The Best Rental Car Deals for Road Trips

August 3, 2011

Rental car deals are in high demand with many travelers expecting higher air fare costs this summer. Some of those travelers will forge on, willing to pay the higher price to get to their dream destination. But with many Americans still unemployed or just recently having found new employment the high price of flying may cause them to consider vacations closer to home and send them in search of rental car discounts.

Taking a regional road trip in a rental car doesn’t have to break the bank, especially when compared with flying across the country. Instead of increasing your maintenance costs or worrying if your car can survive a road trip, you borrow the rental agency’s car for a known cost and call it a day. If the car has maintenance problems that weren’t caused by an accident, it’s not your problem. They’ll swap you out into a new car and get you going.

Tips for Saving on Rental Cars
Renting a car can also get pretty expensive, but not if you know how to look for the best deals. Use the following tips to maximize your savings on rental cars. I worked in the rental industry for about a year and this is how I would go about getting the best deal.

Finding the Best Deal
There is no one best way to find the best deal on rental cars, but knowledge is power. Things you need to know:

What’s the business model? Rental car agencies go after different types of business. Some focus on repair work while your car is in the shop. Others focus on business travelers and only have airport locations. Knowing the company’s business model will help you determine their down times. You can get a better deal during slow periods when they have a lot of extra cars on hand.

  • For example, Enterprise has thousands of locations across the country. They focus on being in “your neighborhood” and deal with a lot of insurance and car repair rentals. That means their cars are in high demand Monday through Friday. On Friday the body shops finish up, and the agency has extra inventory over the weekend. You can get amazing deals on the weekend. More on this in a moment.

What’s in demand? During the summer months the most in demand vehicles are SUVs and minivans. This is especially true around holidays like Memorial Day or the 4th of July. You’ll need to book well in advance or risk missing out.

Know the car sizes. Check out the company’s website and be familiar with their car classes. Booking a smaller vehicle will save you money, but don’t be surprised if it is really small.

Check Online Specials First
The internet is one of the best places to find widely advertised deals on rental cars. Check all of the popular agency’s websites first. You know these deals are legitimate because it is coming straight from the source. Follow that up with a check of large travel aggregation websites like Kayak. They’ll be able to spot some of the secret or less advertised deals that you can’t find without a lot of extra work.

For example, say Enterprise has their $9.99 weekend special going. You can pay as little as $10 per day for three days, and get 300 total miles to use on your rental for a compact size car. That’s a 60% discount off the regular rental price of $24.99 in my area. A full size car can be had for $19.99 per day – that’s 43% off the regular price of $34.99.

Budget has a similar deal. They offer $5 off for every weekend day you have a rental. A 3 day rental (Friday to Monday) would have $15 knocked off the final price. How can they afford to do this? Again, they have a lot of inventory on the weekends. Having vehicles on the road for as little as $30 in revenue is better than having the cars sit on the lot for $0 in revenue.

One way to make the deal even sweeter is to use a rental car credit card that offers rewards or discounts when you reserve your car online.  Just be aware that not all deals can be combined so you might not be able to use the credit card discount along with an advertised special.

Pick Up the Phone
Pick up the phone and call your local branch. Have their website pulled up and know what discounts they are currently offering. Let them know of your plans, and have them walk you through the best deal they can offer. When they’re done telling you the price, tell them that’s not low enough or ask if there is anything they can do to get you to reserve the car today. They may be able to find a discount to put on your rental to drop the price down a bit. Talking to a live human being that works at your local branch gives you an advantage over computer systems.

Book with Travel Partners
You can also try booking with travel partners. If you’re booking a hotel room you may be able to get a package deal with one of their preferred car rental agencies.

Negotiate at the Counter
You have negotiating leverage. Unlike hotel reservations, many rental agencies do not charge you for not showing up for your reservation. Once you are there they want to make sure you leave happy. You can book a lower class vehicle and try to negotiate your way into a larger vehicle at a discounted price.

In fact, the representative behind the counter may try to do convince you first. Many companies will run “up-sell” competitions and rewards their reps for selling you from a smaller vehicle class into something bigger, even if it isn’t at full price. They’re getting more revenue for having your reservation out on the road. You can also try asking for discounts based on:

  • The rate your insurance company gets (which is much, much cheaper than retail). You likely won’t get the full discount, but they may knock the price off a bit.
  • Memberships you have (AAA, AARP, etc.)
  • Your company’s corporate discount

Granted, this only works when the company has a lot of excess inventory sitting on the car lot. You won’t find much negotiating room if you’re renting their next to last car. If they don’t rent to you they’ll find another customer to put into that car.

Consider Gas Mileage
With gas nearing or over $4 per gallon in many parts of the country, be sure to check on gas mileage first. Taking 4 friends on a road trip to the beach? Riding in style in a massive SUV may seem great, but you’ll be guzzling gas the whole way (along with paying higher rental costs in the first place). Those 4 people would easily fit into a standard or full size car, saving you money on gas and rental charges.

Document the Car’s Condition
Make sure you document the car’s condition very well. Renting cars happens very fast. There is important paperwork you sign, including an agreed upon condition of the car. If you don’t mark any of the current damage (knicks, dings, dents) on the contract you may be held liable for them when you return the vehicle. Read the fine print on the rental car insurance and make sure you understand what’s covered and what’s not. In this technology covered age I would recommend taking photos or a video of the walk around on the car on your smartphone or camera. It will help defuse any situations that pop up when you return the car.


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Kevin Mulligan is a debt reduction champion with a passion for teaching people how to budget and stay out of debt. He's building a personal finance freelance writing career and has written for, Discover Bank, ING Direct, and many others.

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