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5 Ways to Save Money on Rental Cars

While frugal air travel tips abound, info on saving money on car rentals is scarce. That’s too bad, as car rental can be the most confusing part of traveling.

Online quotes do not include multiple taxes, fees, and surcharges, and the rental agency will try to sell you upgrades, add-ons and all kinds of insurance when you pick up your car.

Often, you have no idea how much the car rental is actually going to cost until you return the car and it’s too late.

How do all the fees stack up – and what can you do about it? Here are five tips to save you big bucks the next time you rent a car.

Avoid Airport Locations – Renting a car for a couple days or more? Try an off-airport location. Airport locations charge premiums to cover costs like terminal shuttles and 24 hour staffing. Even when renting away from home, it can be cheaper to take a cab to a car rental location a couple miles from the airport.

Know Your Insurance Coverage Before You Rent – Rental car agencies make far more money selling insurance than renting cars. Every time you rent, the agent will try to sell it to you, charged per day, amounting to more than the car itself. They will often use scare tactics, telling you that if somebody hits you, you’re responsible. I recently heard an Avis agent say “the weather in Kansas City has been bad recently, and if it hails, you’re responsible for hail damage.”

While it’s true: the renter is responsible for any accidents that occur while driving, you are probably already covered for damage by your existing auto insurance policy. (Not sure? Call and ask your insurer). Additionally, American Express and some other credit cards provide free rental car damage insurance when you pay with the card. This feature does not cover personal injury or damage to other vehicles or property, however.

Finally, if you are traveling for work, your employer’s insurer may also cover you. If you are covered in any of these ways, at-the-counter rental car insurance is a waste of cash. The only time you should buy this coverage is if you truly have no other insurance options.

Under 25? Shop Around — Some rental agencies will not rent to drivers under the age of 25, period. Some will, but charge fees as high as $75 a day. Some agencies, on the other hand, charge no fee at all. This varies by individual location. I rented from Enterprise numerous times before turning 25 without ever paying a fee. When in doubt, ask around.

Bring Your Own GPS – Rental car agencies can charge up to $15 per day to rent a GPS. If you already own a navigation unit, that’s a silly cost when you can just bring your own. If you don’t own a GPS, but have just one destination to get to, pick up a free map at a state tourism office. After all, we did get around just fine for years before navigational satellites!

Don’t Forget the Gas – Forgetting to fill up your rental will cost you – rental car agencies charge as much as twice the market per gallon rate for gasoline. If you know you’ll be returning the car on a tight schedule – before a flight, for example – scope out the nearest gas station as you’re leaving the rental car terminal so you aren’t scrambling to find it before you return the car.

Do you have any rental car horror stories, or other tips for saving money when you rent a car?

Published or updated on April 28, 2008

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. TranceMist says:

    Glad you like my photo. :)

  2. The insurance excess reduction for a rental car in New Zealand can be reduced from average NZ$2000 to NZ$200 by paying an additional NZ$10 per day. This is optional of course but can increase the total hire rate a great deal.

  3. L says:

    I rented a car from Budget once and I bought the insurance, which they told me was actually a damage liability waiver that allows Budget to assume “all responsibility for damage or loss to the car”. On my way to my destination a piece of debris flew off the road and hit the car. I thought I would be fine since I had bought the DLW but they neglected to tell me about the deductible that cost me an additional $300 and it says absolutely nothing about deductibles in the contract. Enterprise has a better policy with no deductibles even though their rental rates are a bit higher.

  4. G says:

    I am wondering about the liability coverage for rentals. I don’t own a car so I don’t carry any kind of liability coverage. Here in California, as I imagine is true elsewhere, all cars have to carry minimum liability insurance. Does that include rentals? Of course, the rental agent at the counter always says “no,” and I even tried contacting the state, but didn’t get anywhere. If I rent a car and decline all coverage, nobody bothers to make sure that I carry liability. In Nevada they did ask for proof of liability coverage. Does this mean that the cars in California ARE insured for liability?

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