Travel

Use these tips to save money

Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY
Published 8:30 a.m. ET Sept. 13, 2019

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No one likes to waste money when they don’t have to on renting a car.
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Renting a car can be expensive, once you add fees, insurance and optional extras. So it’s no surprise that readers often ask me about how to find the best car rental for a trip. 

The average American spent $536 on rental cars last year, according to a survey of cardholders by Bank of America’s credit and debit cards. But it’s easy to spend much more.

To get an idea of how easy, consider what happened to Deborah Stamper, a high school principal from Jackson, Mississippi. When she rented a car online recently, she made the mistake of clicking “accept” for the optional insurance, which made the price of her vehicle jump from $200 to $673.

“I was stunned,” she says.

So how do you get the best car rental for your buck? Shop carefully to avoid surprise surcharges like the ones that broadsided Stamper. But also, look for your next rental car in the right place. 

How to avoid surprise fees on your next rental car

No one formally tracks the number of surprise fees on rental cars. But if they did, you might be surprised to discover the car rental industry is keeping up with the airline business, at least when it comes to extras. The “gotchas” include:

  • Overpriced insurance. Car rental companies sometimes strong-arm you into accepting the insurance, falsely claiming that it’s required. Such charges can add $20 a day or more to the cost of your rental.
  • Fuel purchase options. Sometimes the prepaid gas can be a good deal, but it’s often cheaper to fill up before you return the vehicle. Miscalculate, and you could pay for the fuel at the astronomical rate of $9.99 a gallon. 
  • Extras and upgrades. Some, like navigational systems or XM satellite radio, are pretty harmless. But beware of the clever car rental agent who “upgrades” you into a more expensive model because they’re all out of vehicles in your class, but fails to mention you’ll pay a lot more for the rental.

Travel nightmares: What to do when they run out of rental cars

“Make sure that you’re comparing the total cost of the rental, including taxes and fees, and not just the daily rate,” says Jamie Page Deaton, executive editor of U.S. News Best Cars.

But the problem isn’t just when you shop.

At the car rental counter, you’ll probably meet an agent trained in the fine art of the up sell. That person will try to persuade you to switch to a sports car, to pre-pay for gas or to spring for a gold-plated insurance policy. Just say “no.”

Where to shop for the best car rental

When it comes to the best places to shop for a car rental, you have a lot of choices. But, say experts and experienced shoppers, a few of them stand above the rest.

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Elizabeth Keatinge tells us what Kayak ranked the top car rental companies.
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AutoSlash allows you to submit a request for a rental and then searches its database of coupons to find the lowest rate. You can also have AutoSlash search a rental that you’ve made, so that if prices drop, you can rebook at a lower rate. 

Ted Haldeman, a retired high school teacher, swears by AutoSlash. “We’ve saved hundreds of dollars on almost every booking we’ve tracked with the site,” he says.

Costco also gets high marks from car rental customers. (Note: You have to be a Costco member to use the site.) The car rental section of its site offers a dead-simple matrix where you can quickly see all of your auto rental options. As an added benefit, Costco also negotiates away any pesky restrictions, like mileage limits or second-driver surcharges, for many cars. 

“Its prices are often the lowest,” says Peter Hoagland, a marketing consultant from Warrenton, Virginia.

For international rentals, readers swear by Auto Europe. Like Costco, Auto Europe offers negotiated rates that can be significantly cheaper than the rates you find through an online travel agency or car rental company. But it’s the customer service that stands out.

“If we ever have a claim because of an accident or flat tire, we can deal with it through a U.S. company in English, rather than in a foreign language,” says Anne Woodyard, a tour operator from Reston, Virginia.

I’ve visited Auto Europe at its headquarters in Portland, Maine. And Woodyard is right. The company is obsessed with customer service.

What else you need to know about rental cars

Most car rental reservations are fully refundable. But some clever agencies and car rental agencies will slide a nonrefundable rate in front of you. Read the fine print carefully. The savings usually aren’t worth it.

Insurance isn’t required for most domestic car rentals. If an agent tells you that you’re required to have insurance, ask to speak with a supervisor. While some specialty vehicles like trucks require insurance, standard cars generally don’t. The agent may be trying to pull a fast one to sell you extra insurance.

You’re responsible for the car. Any damage that happens to the vehicle — even if it’s not your fault — is your responsibility.  Check your credit card or with your auto insurance to see if you’re covered for a rental. If not, you can visit a site like Insuremyrentalcar.com to find an inexpensive policy.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.

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