Car Rental 101

Car REntal

This last week two different people asked me how to find the best car rental deals, so here goes.

When I book travel I have two great starting points, and I use Trip Advisor to check reviews on places to stay and things to do. I use kayak for airfare and car rental, mainly, but sometimes for hotels also.

I love because it searches all the carriers at once. You can even check the boxes at the bottom and let it search Expedia,, priceline and other options. It is, in short, a ONE STOP shop for travel prices. If you create a user ID and save trip information, it will then “watch” for low fares and email you suggestions for your destination.

That said, as I stated in my post about Airline Credit Cards (, I prefer to book directly with the vendor, rather than a third party like or travelocity. I use kayak to see who is the cheapest vendor with the best routing, in the case of airlines. I then click the link on kayak to take me to the vendor’s website.

Back to car rentals. At this point, I have rented enough cars and checked enough prices to fall back on two discount websites. Costco and American Automobile Association (AAA).

Costco Travel ( This web site used to be difficult to use because you had to pick a car rental company and discount coupon and then search, which sometimes required several tries to find the best deal. They have, in the last few months, changed their web search. It now searches all the car rental deals and gives you multiple search results in one screen so it is simple to compare. They call it their “Low Price Finder”. You do have to create a user ID with your Costco membership number to access this process.

AAA: I’m not including the web link because AAA reroutes you to the club for your area, by zip code. As example my AAA website is for Northern California, Nevada and Utah. Be aware that AAA has an “exclusive partnership” with Hertz. When you initiate a search it will take you to results for Hertz ONLY, but at the bottom of the screen there is a button that says “Search More AAA Rental Car Partners”. If you push this button, you will get a side by side comparison of multiple car rental options.

Both of these search engines take you to the car rental booking engine to book your rental. Be aware that you don’t provide a credit card number as with a hotel. You don’t get charged until you show up and take possession of your car. In fact I changed my mind at the airport in Denver once because the rental car kiosk for my reservation was unmanned and when I asked at another companies manned desk they offered to beat the price on the spot.

It is also wise to check at different points in time, like book the car six months in advance but recheck prices, at two months and two weeks. Sometimes you can get better deals at the last minute, so then simply cancel your old reservation and make a new one.

As with hotels and airlines, I join the car rental company travel perk programs. This usually means at an airport location you don’t have to go and stand in line, your car will be waiting for you with the keys in the ignition and your name on it. Took me awhile to figure this one out, after waiting in a line at San Diego for 30 minutes to rent a car I had already reserved.

NEVER NEVER NEVER show up without a reservation. I did this ONCE when my mother was hospitalized and I had jump on a plane on short notice. They gave me a terrible price when I showed up at the rental car place late at night and told me they had no compact cars, when there were at least 30 compact cars on the lot and lot attendant said I could just take one if I wanted, at the full size car price.

Now lets talk about car rental insurance. I would prefer not to, but it is a necessary evil. If you go to the desk they will push hard for you to take the insurance, threaten you with having to pay for “lost” rental days if your car is damaged and has to be repaired. Most credit cards offer some form of coverage, along with your personal auto insurance, but you have to deal with irritating rental car adjusters.

I speak from experience here. We rented a car in Sacramento simply to get us to the airport in San Francisco for our first EVER European vacation. When we got home we found a bill for $890 for damage they said we caused on this three hour drive from point A to point B. I was able to talk them out of it, but it was frustrating and not easy.

We travel enough and rent enough cars that I wanted an alternative option. Since, as stated above, we belong to Costco, we carry a Costco American Express card. American Express has a car rental insurance option. ( You have to pre-register for the program. There is no cost until you use your American Express card to rent a car and then there is a $24.95 charge ($17.99 in California) per rental, not per day. It is good for up to 42 consecutive days of car rental (30 days for Washington State members).

I have had this option for about ten years and have used their services twice. Once where I was hit by another car in a parking lot and once when the car had prior damage, that was alleged to be mine. Both times I called the folks at American Express. Both times they dealt with the rental car company. Both times nothing was paid, and both claims were dropped. These people deal with rental car companies all the time. They know how to do it. The cost is WAY cheaper than the car rental company insurance and, in my opinion, worth the peace of mind. This is also your primary coverage, so you don’t have to notify your personal vehicle auto policy.

Oh one last thing, don’t take the fill up your tank option, unless you are comfortable running on empty. They charge you for a full tank of gas, so if you turn the car in half full, you just bought an unnecessary half tank of gas. When I leave the car rental place I look for a nearby gas station to fill up prior to turning in the car. If I don’t see one, I use Yelp to find one on the last day.

So, that’s all for Car Rental guidelines. I hope you find this helpful.


One response to “Car Rental 101

  1. I live in DC and don’t own a car. When I do want to get out of town I use Priceline, name your own price, which is great for quick weekend getaways, booked Monday/Tuesday for Friday. I have successfully rented cars for $11-15/day.

    You did just help me save money on a week long rental, because even with the name your own price, Priceline was going to be $300 from my usual Reagan airport pickup spot.

    We changed the search from the DC airport to include “local” rental offices and immediately I saved $100. Then even though I am only gone for 6 days I rented the car for 7 since it saved me another $20. I can always return it early. Total cost for the week with taxes. $188 from $300!

    I ended up renting directly from Enterprise vs Priceline, since I could pick a Metro accessible location for the lower price. The location is actually closer than the Reagan airport.

    Thanks Mom!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s