It is all a function of supply and demand, and it pays to shop around.
I usually start by checking Priceline first, to determine which rental company is offering the lowest rates for my chosen dates. Then I go to that company’s website to see more details.
Sometimes I use a rental code from an airline website, and sometimes I go through a cash back shopping portal like FatWallet.
On a recent trip, I discovered several other random factors that can make a big difference in car rental costs.
- Return Location
- Date of Booking
- Pick-up Location
- Pick-up Time
1. Return Location
Round-trip rentals are almost always cheaper than one-way trips.
If you are traveling to a city with a number of airports, you may find vastly different prices depending on where you return the car.
Here is a comparison for a sample one-way rental of an economy car from Boston to Washington via Dollar Rent a Car.
In the first example, I reserve the a car for a one-way rental from Boston’ s Logan Airpot (BOS) and return it to Washington Dulles (IAD). The base rate is just $15.20, but there is a substantial drop-off charge. The total cost for the one day rental including taxes and fees is $281.02.
In the second example, I reserve a one-way rental for the same car on the same dates from Logan Airport in Boston, but returning the car to Reagan National Airport (DCA)in Washington, DC. The base rate jumps to $40 but there is no drop-off charge. The total cost for the one day rental including taxes and fees is $67.19.
That’s a savings of more than $200.
2. Date of Booking
I chose the Boston to Washington, DC example because that was a road trip we took in April. We live near Dulles Airport, but in this case, I booked our flight to Boston out of DCA, because of the cost differential for the rental car.
What I learned from that experience was that car rental rates can change just as drastically as plane tickets. When I checked the rates a few days after I had booked, the car rental charges were actually cheaper if returning the car to IAD. In my case, it was too late to make a change because we already had purchased the plane tickets, but perhaps you can learn from my mistake.
If you are not traveling during a busy time, you may find that rental prices drop dramatically the closer you get to your trip. Since most car rental reservations can be changed and cancelled, it is worth checking if rates have fallen a day or two before you travel.
3. Pick-up Location
It is often cheaper to pick up a rental car from a downtown location than from the airport, because the airport location typically entails extra taxes and fees. Sometimes, companies like Enterprise will pick you up from your home or hotel and drive you to the rental location. If arriving in the evening, it may be worth your while to take the airport shuttle to your downtown hotel, and pick up the car in the morning, thus taking advantage of the cheaper downtown rental location without incurring an overnight parking charge.
4. Pick-up Time
I was surprised to learn that changing the time of the car pick-up could have a drastic impact on price. This is not always the case, but it may be worth checking if you have some flexibility. In one situation I watching, picking up a car at noon was much less expensive than beginning a rental reservation that same evening at 8 p.m.. Go figure!
Do you have any tricks for saving money on car rentals that you would like to share?