Planning a holiday getaway? If you're in the know, you can find some great deals on rental cars.
"As demand from consumers has returned, rental companies have expanded their fleets, so pricing has softened," says Neil Abrams, president of Purchase, N.Y.-based Abrams Consulting Group, a leading consultant to the car rental industry.
Another reason for lower prices? Rental companies are capitalizing on a strong used-car market to sell older fleet vehicles at a premium. This allows them to offer more competitive rental rates.
Here are eight tips to help you get the best deal possible:
1. Plan ahead. Taking your chances by walking into a rental agency instead of making a reservation is risky business. Odds are you'll pay more, have to choose from a limited and more expensive selection of vehicles, or find that the agency has no available vehicles. Some agencies now offer additional discounts if you prepay, says Bonnie Shillig, product director for USAA's rental car program.
Booking ahead of time also lets you explore all options. "You want to be sure to capture any possible deal the rental agencies have," Shillig says.
Depending on the dates you rent, she says you could receive a free weekend day or free upgrade. "You could even receive a discounted weekly rate whether you rent for five or seven days," she says. "Oftentimes, agencies will discount your rental further the longer you keep the vehicle, so check a few dates before you lock in your rate."
2. Start with "members only" discounts. Don't miss out on car rental deals available through businesses and organizations you already use. Also consider redeeming some of the loyalty rewards you've earned.
3. Take care on the Web. Popular travel websites allow you to compare offers from multiple companies, displaying all taxes and fees upfront. Beware of websites, however, that promise deep discounts if you commit to booking without knowing all the details in advance. You could face restrictions and fees if your travel plans change.
4. Go to town. Most times, the fees, taxes and rates for rental cars are less at off-airport locations. One reason: Many cities fund public projects by taxing visitors who stay in hotels and rent cars. That strategy extends to rental cars in more than 100 markets, Abrams says. If a little less convenience won't wreck your travel plans, you could save big by taking public transit into town and then renting. However, be aware that off-airport locations may have limited selections and restricted hours.
5. Make it right. To avoid hassles caused by overbooking, confirm your reservation and vehicle type a few days before your trip. If the car you reserved is unavailable when you arrive, demand an upgrade at no extra cost, or request that the company get the vehicle you need from another location or agency. In a worst-case scenario, in which no agency has any cars available, ask the rental company to reimburse you for taxi expenses.
6. Avoid the call of extra, extra. Add-ons are critical revenue generators for the car rental industry and can increase your bill by 20% or more. Even though you reserved a certain type of car, you could be asked if you'd like to upgrade for a few dollars more per day. Gadgets and equipment -- from GPS units to satellite radio and ski racks -- also are big moneymakers for agencies. Resist the temptation to purchase any extras you don't really need.
7. Play by the rules. Be sure you understand the terms of the rental contract. When you pick up your vehicle, go over the details with the rental agent.
Most rental companies require drivers to be at least 25 years old, and they sometimes charge extra if more than one person will drive the car. But there are exceptions, depending on the agency. Other restrictions may prohibit you from crossing state or country borders. If you sneak around these rules, it could result in extra charges and void your insurance protection.
Finally, return the car at the time you promised or risk a late fee. Many consumers are unaware that car rentals operate in 24-hour increments, Shillig says. "If you rent a car for a day and pick it up at noon," she says, "you should plan to return it the following day at noon. You could be charged fees or even for a whole extra day if you return it past 24 hours."
8. Fill the tank. It's usually cheaper to refuel the car yourself rather than buy the prepaid fuel option. But there could be circumstances in which paying for the convenience is worth it -- it's better than missing your flight because you couldn't find a gas station. If possible, don't decline the prepaid fuel and return the car empty. That could cost you a bundle -- as much as $9 per gallon for gas and the "refueling service charge."