Traveling for the holidays comes with its own special slew of woes and headaches. And, if you’re traveling, a holiday car rental might be at the top of the list. While there are Ubers, Lyfts, taxis and more in most cities these days, sometimes you just have to rent a car.
It’s not unusual (moreso expected, really) for the cost of everything travel related to increase during the holiday season. This year will certainly include higher prices but will also come with new stressors. Yes, we are still in the midst of a rental car shortage (due to the overall car shortage, which means fewer cars being sold into rental car fleets) — and the post-pandemic travel boom is fueling demand. Here are a few savvy tips to ensure you get the best price (and vehicle) on your holiday car rental.
14 Ways to Save on a Holiday Car Rental
1. Skip Airport Car Rentals
While they are convenient, car rental sites in or near an airport tend to be much more expensive than renting elsewhere. In fact, you’ll often find airport surcharges tacked on to any car rental you pick up from the airport. This rule can be applied to non-holiday travel as well.
When flying into a destination I know I will have to rent a car for, I always check surrounding areas that would have a lower demand for rental cars (think closer to the city or suburbs). It’s tempting to simply hop on a car rental shuttle from the airport but trust us when we say the extra legwork to get to a non-airport-associated car rental site will pay off in the long run. Just do the math and make sure the Uber or taxi ride from the airport to the car rental office won’t cost more than the increased airport rental car rate. Or, ask a friend or family member if they’re willing to shuttle you from the airport to the rental car office. The amount you save may not be worth the extra legwork for a short rental. But multiply the higher airport rate across a long rental of a week or more, and bumming a ride or paying for an Uber might make more sense.
2. Book Your Holiday Rental Car Far Ahead of Time
This may be a no-brainer to some, but many are unlikely to reserve a rental car before the eleventh hour. Securing a rental car in advance this holiday season is more important than ever. Uncertainty around flying and the travel snags many encountered during the peak summer travel season may push many to opt to drive instead, and supply chain shortages that have thrown a wrench in just about every industry’s cog. So rentals are expected to be severely affected as more take to the roads this holiday season. By booking in advance, you can not only rest assured that you will have a vehicle once you’ve reached your destination but also that you’ll be paying a fair price — not the massive walk-up price. You might even score a lower rate by booking outside the window of highest demand — and possibly be able to schedule your holiday travel plans around that.
3. Search For Military and Veteran Car Rental Discounts
Many companies offer military, veteran and first responder discounts, including top car rental companies. If you’re part of one of these groups, before you book your holiday car rental, check to see if the rental agency offers a military or veteran discount. The following are just a few active discounts you can apply to this years holiday car rental:
- Enterprise offers a military, government and veterans a 5% discount off base rates–please note that a valid ID confirming military, government or veteran status may be asked for at time of pickup. To learn more about Enterprise’s military discount, go here.
- Avis offers up to a 25% military and veteran discount to Veterans Advantage members. Military and veterans must be signed up for Veterans Advantage in order to receive this discount.
- Budget offers up to a 25% military and veteran discount to Veterans Advantage members. Learn more.
- Alamo offers discounted rates to military and veterans. The minimum age required for off-duty military to rent a car is 21 years old–however prices may be increased for drivers under age 25. Additionally, a valid military or government ID may be asked for upon rental pickup. Learn more.
- Sixt offers active military members and veterans 5% off car rental rates. Learn more.
4. Factor in Gas When Selecting a Vehicle
Unless you’re traveling with a family or have excess luggage or off-terrain needs, choosing a smaller car will not only get you a lower daily rate but will also help you save at the pump before returning your rental. Returning a vehicle on an empty tank will almost always guarantee an expensive charge. The smaller the vehicle, the less you’ll be on the hook for when it comes to filling the tank.
5. Look at Daily and Weekly Rental Car Rates
Depending on when you need the vehicle, it may be more cost efficient to rent weekly than daily–and vice versa. If you’re picking up a car over the weekend and plan to stay longer than just a few days, daily weekend rates could wind up costing you much more in the long run than a longer weekly rental. What, exactly, rental car companies consider a “weekly” booking varies, but it’s usually in the neighborhood of around five days.
Be flexible with your rental pickup times to take advantage. If you’re staying with family and don’t have to pay for a hotel, extending your stay (if they’ll have you!) for another day or two could be more price effective. I suggest plugging in a range of time frames for your trip to determine the best rate. Here are some current weekly discounts from top rental car companies:
- Budget: Get up to 10% off on rentals of five days or more.
- Avis: Get up to 10% off rentals of five days or more.
6. Check for Exclusive Member Discounts and Rates
Many credit cards, credit unions and exclusive memberships, such as AARP, offer discounted rates and special promotions to members. For example, AARP members who book with Budget have access to premium upgrades, 30% off rates and other perks like adding an additional driver for free. This is just one of the many examples of exclusive member perks and discounted rates. If you have a membership with AARP, AAA, USAA or even Costco, you could be saving if you choose to inquire about current discounts and upgrades.
7. Use Points to Offset High Holiday Rental Car Prices
Nowadays it’s hard for me to travel without factoring applying points to a booking (or paying in full). Depending on which travel point system you use, you could be eligible to use points towards your booking, instantly lowering your out of pocket cost. A little due diligence could save you hundreds. Plus, some credit cards allow you to apply reward points toward travel purchases (including car rentals) to knock down the cost upfront — or get a statement credit later.
8. Rent a Vehicle That Fits Your Needs
A good rule of thumb when selecting a rental car is to not select a vehicle that is beyond your needs. Remember, this is a rental and while your personal vehicle may be spacious, your rental car doesn’t necessarily have to be, for an enjoyable (and cheap) rental experience. Of course, there are exceptions such as weather and road conditions, luggage, bulky items like outdoor gear or golf clubs, and last but certainly not least, how many people you plan to tote around. The larger the vehicle, the more likely you are to pay increased rates.
9. Know What Your Insurance Covers
Rental car companies are a business. While the nature of their business is providing a service, that doesn’t mean that they won’t try to tack on potentially unnecessary charges to increase their profits — aka your total rental cost. Insurance through the rental car company is something that will be pushed any time you rent a vehicle. Remember–insurance is good and necessary–and can surely save you in the long run, should an accident occur. But insurance through the rental car agency is not always necessary. Depending on your personal auto insurance coverage, your rental car may also be covered in what you already pay monthly. Always double check with your insurance company and review your policy regarding rental cars and rental car coverage before opting to purchase additional coverage through a rental car agency.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate
I’m always surprised at people’s reaction when they hear that I received a free upgrade, perk or discount on bookings–especially car rentals. It’s definitely easy to book online or through an app but you would be surprised at what a simple phone call or chat with a rental car agent can produce. As the saying goes, “it never hurts to ask” (as well as, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”)–don’t be afraid to politely discuss competitive rates when booking your car; you just might surprise yourself at the discount a quick call could unlock.
11. Shop Around for Competitive Pricing
If you don’t have a membership or point reward program tying you to a particular company, shop around. And if you do, still shop around. Looking at different car rental companies (and locations) can help you not only gather a sense of what a good deal is, but can also give you the advantage of knowing local competitors’ prices, which you could use to negotiate a lower rate.
12. Sign Up for Loyalty and Rewards Programs
More than likely, the rental car company you choose to book through offers some kind of loyalty or rewards program. Loyalty and rewards programs typically offer deals for first-time bookings as well as discounted rates and perks like free upgrades. Depending on the company, an app may also be available that could unlock further discounts as well as ease of booking.
13. Pay Up Front
One of the most reliable ways to get a rental car discount is to pay for the whole thing up front. There’s a risk here — if your holiday plans change, or a snowstorm derails your whole trip, you are out a lot of money. However, paying in advance (at the time of booking, rather than when you pick up the car), can save you a LOT of money. So much, that it’s worth considering. For example:
- Budget: Get up to 35% off when you opt to pay in advance.
- Avis: Get up to 30% off when you pay in advance.
14. Get Cash Back and RMN Exclusive Offers
If the price of your rental care is stubbornly high, you might as well earn cash back! RetailMeNot offers cash back for select car rental companies. Just click through on the offer, check out, pay and receive a certain percentage back as cash back in your RetailMeNot wallet (you can redeem it via PayPal and Venmo).
RetailMeNot is also known to have exclusive discounts, like this 30% off offer for Avis and this 25% off offer for Budget!
Check the links below for the latest cash back offers before you check out. Or, just install our Deal Finder browser extension, which will find and automatically apply the best offers for you.
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