THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CAR RENTALS
Kiplinger's Personal Finance|May 2021
Get up to speed on how to snag a deal and avoid pesky fees.
DANIEL BORTZ

Last spring, airport rental counters were eerily quiet as pandemic-wary Americans canceled their vacations and stayed close to home. But as spring turned to summer and fall, customers started returning, looking for vehicles for road trips as well as longerterm rentals at home to avoid using public transportation and ride-hailing apps. Business travelers also increasingly turned to rental cars. This summer, as more people receive a vaccine and the economy reopens, air travel is likely to pick up, too. That means customers will again be lining up at airport rental car counters—and navigating a maze of prices, fees and insurance coverages.

Many car rental agencies are taking measures to help protect customers from contracting the coronavirus. For example, Enterprise is sanitizing its vehicles between every rental; other companies are allowing 24 hours between rentals. Find out what COVID-19 precautions a company is taking before making a reservation.

HOW TO FIND A GREAT DEAL

A number of factors can affect rental car rates, meaning there are a number of ways you can score a deal.

Look beyond the big chains. Avis, Hertz and other large rental car companies have more locations than smaller agencies do, but they don’t always offer the lowest rates, says Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a website that helps travelers find rental deals and track rental rates. Rental companies such as Payless and Fox Rent a Car often offer cheaper rates, with rental rates of 15% to 30% less than rentals from big chains.

Renting a car from a discount agency has potential drawbacks, though. “I’m more inclined to rent from a major company because I’ve found the service is better and the vehicles are better maintained,” Weinberg says. “That being said, if I can save $200 on a rental car by going with a smaller company, I’m going to think long and hard about what agency I rent a car from.”

Comparison-shop at an aggregator. Searching for a rental car through an aggregator such as Kayak, Orbitz or Expedia can be a convenient way to shop around instead of checking rates at several rental car agencies one by one. But these websites may have less-flexible cancellation policies and fewer opportunities for upgrades than if you book with a rental car company directly. Consider shopping for the best price through the aggregator and then checking for that deal on the rental company’s website.

Take advantage of membership discounts. Big-box stores such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club provide members discounts and perks such as free cancellations, flexible payment options and no fees for additional drivers. AARP and AAA also offer discounted rates. (AARP members save up to 30% on base rates at Avis and Budget Rent A Car; AAA members save up to 20% on Hertz rentals.) Some rental agencies offer discounts to members of the military, government employees, seniors and other select groups.

Consider prepaying. There are pros and cons to prepaying when you place a rental car reservation. The main benefit: It may help you get a lower rate. (A Kiplinger search found that prepaying for a one-week compact car rental at Avis in mid June would save $18.) However, “the big drawback with prepaying is that either there is a penalty to cancel or you cannot cancel at all,” Weinberg says. (Avis customers incur a $50 processing fee if they choose to cancel a pre-paid reservation 24 hours prior to their rental pickup time.) He recommends prepaying only if your pickup date is a few days away.

Consider a limited-mileage plan. If you know you’re taking a short trip, you may be able to save money by choosing a limited-mileage rental plan instead of a rental with unlimited mileage. The caveat? You’ll pay a fee for every additional mile that you drive over your mileage limit. For example, Enterprise charges 10 cents to 25 cents for each additional mile—and those fees can offset your lower rate.

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