9 ways to save on rental cars

Two flex-fuel 2007 Chevrolet Impalas stand ready in the parking lot of the Enterprise car rental August 14, 2007 in downtown Washington, DC. 

Listeners wanted to know how rental car companies make money. The answer got us wondering -- what if they're making extra money off of us?

There are a lot of ways to pay less than top dollar on your next rental car. Here are a few tips based on our interview with Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America, and author of The Car Book.

1) Don’t go for a size -- or model -- upgrade. When’s the last time your suitcases didn’t fit in the trunk of a car? If you don’t need a mid-sized car or SUV, and an economy or compact is available, make sure to ask for it.  You’ll save on gas in a smaller car, too.

2) Ask for a free upgrade. If you want a bigger car, or more options free of charge, the counter clerk may do it.

3) Bring accessories, don’t rent them. A sophisticated GPS device might cost $7 to $9 per day to rent, and it only costs $100 or so to buy. After the first ten GPS rentals, the rental-car company is making pure profit from you. So bring your own. If you have a smart phone, buy a $10 dash-mount and use that to navigate.

4) Bring your own car seat. But make sure it’s not more expensive as airline carry-on than the additional rental cost.

5) Fill the tank yourself before returning the car. It’s the cheapest gasoline option. Paying for a full tank in advance is only worth it if you return the car with the gas tank completely empty.

6) Decline the additional insurance. You probably don’t need it if you own a car and carry private auto insurance yourself. Make sure to check with your insurance company to verify your coverage. Your credit card company may offer additional coverage, too.

7) Shop online early (and often) for rental deals. If you don’t like the rates for given dates at a given airport, make a reservation and then shop again days or weeks later. Because of demand-pricing, if rental-reservations are slack for a specific time-period, the rates are likely to go down to attract more business. Typically there is no penalty for cancelling a rental reservation made directly with the rental company.

8) Use online services like Priceline and Orbitz. Bid on rental cars using these and other services to get a better deal. A warning, though: These reservations may have to be paid in advance and will likely not be refundable.

 9) Make sure to use affinity discounts. AAA and Costco memberships may get you a better deal.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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