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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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Good suggestion about the rental cars, most of the people like to use the rent cars and there are many type of procedure for the rent. At the time of providing the car, they told about the procedures and how to use the car, they also provide the GPS system for the use and it help very much to the users.
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Enjoyed the investigation into the rental "two car key" issue. While I have suspected the reason for the double key, I did not know how hard they would be to separate if I wanted to.

I have both a suggestion and a question about rental car keys. Plus, a bonus question.

To have a spare key, try to pick out a car with pushbutton start. You will get the two keys, each of which has a back-up mechanical key inside. The keys are usually secured to the ring via this mechanical key. Pop the electronic pod off one of the two, leaving the mechanical backup on the ring. Pop the pod in your pocket, pocketbood, briefcase, etc. Just make sure you snap the pod back on when returning the car. It's usually not hard to forget since the dangling mechanical key will remind you.

Now for the question. The fobs on the rings warn of lost key charges running into the $100s of dollars. If I lose these keys eternally strapped together do I have to pop for both? Fortunately, I have not had to find out, ..... yet.

If they will charge you for both, can you demand that they separate them and keep one to be "reunited" when you return the car?

Now for the additional question. If the reason for bonding the keys together is to keep track of them for eventual sale, where are the owner's manuals? While I do find them in the glove box ocassionally, that is the exeption.

I disagree with your item #6 - "Decline Additional Insurance" While it is true that the Liability coverage should follow you from your personal Auto policy while using a rental vehicle (but not in all cases, refer to your specific coverage form) there is a problem with the coverage for damage to the rental vehicle. There is a dichotomy in how this coverage is provided by personal auto forms. Some include this as a Liability coverage which means that you have first dollar coverage; others provide this a Physical Damage coverage and your deductible would apply, if you carry Physical Damage on your personal vehicles. The real issue is payment for the damage. If you damage the rental vehicle the contract you signed to rent it gives the company the ability to capture the available balance of your credit card to satisfy the cost of repair as well as the value of lost rental income (not covered by a personal auto policy if it provides Physical Damage for a rental vehicle). This would block that card from use until the Rental Car company is completely satisfied, which could be months. If you are far from home and only have the one credit card to rely on this could be a very big issue. We always recommend that our customers buy the Physical Damage Waiver to avoid this problem.

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