Last week, I had to rent a car on sh0rt notice. I flew into the Norfolk military terminal but hadn't reserved a car because I wasn't convinced that we were going to get a place on the AMC flight. Once I realized that I was on the flight, I hopped onto Kayak.com to research my options. I was traveling with all four kids, aged 13-9, so I researched minivans and large sedans. The sedan option was about half the price of the minivan, so I thought that the kids could suffer a bit to save some money. Once I'd picked out the best deal at Kayak, I went to the rental car company's website directly and found a marginally better deal. Alamo was the winner price-wise and I'm glad that I decided to choose them. I am positive that the rest of my month is going to be better because the agent was so great.
By the time I got to pick up the rental car, I had heard enough bickering for the entire trip. I threw myself on the mercy of the rental car agent. "I know I've only reserved a standard, but I've just spent the night with four feuding girls. What can you do for me that isn't going to cost a lot more money?" The agent was awesome! He found me a Ford Flex, which is that huge station wagon that sort of looks like a hearse. It seats 7 people and has a large trunk. More importantly, by the time he did something magical with the military and USAA discount, it only added $5 a day to my total rental cost.
I don't know that there is any single magic formula for finding the absolute best price on rental cars, but there are certainly many things that you can do to lower the cost. First, use a large travel search engine like Kayak or Travelocity to see what will be a good price for you. Then use any discount program that you might have, like USAA discounts, AAA, the Entertainment book, or any other deals you can scrounge up. Lastly, go directly to the website to see if they can beat any of the deals you've found so far. Once you've got the best deal you can find online, book it and move on to phase two.
Once you arrive at the rental car counter, put your people skills to work. Being charming and friendly can do wonders in this type of negotiating situation. Remember, you want this agent to like you and want to make you happy. Looking like a reliable customer can help, too. This might not be the best time to wear your favorite Saturday schlepping around the house clothes. Start off with a warm introduction and take some interest in the agent. Ask how their day is going, comment about their cute hairdo, whatever will make them feel the warm fuzzies towards you. Then start with your situation. Ask for what you want, offer to pay for it, but tell them that you are on a tight budget. I figure that this works at least 9 times out of ten. If you carry your rental car discount club card, be sure to have it out when you hand them your credit card and driver's license. Mention that you're military or whatever discounts you're trying to use - there might even be more deals that the website shows.
If the agent is able to help you get whatever you need, whether it be a bigger car, a GPS, or some other perk, be sure to say thank you and be appreciative. A nice note to the company will help everyone who comes behind you, plus will help the agent feel rewarded for their efforts.
Renting a car can be expensive, but there are lots of ways to find the best deal. A little effort can pay off in a big way.