I don’t use rental cars as much as I used to these days.
The likes of Uber and the joys of walking often make me favor places where I can walk where I’d like to go, or where a quick Uber will suffice.
And in these times, that’s probably fine. Rental car prices have skyrocketed, availability is slim and even if you do manage to find a car, there’s often no guarantee it’ll be there when you show up!
But – as life tends to do – sometimes I find myself in a situation where I want a car rental, but I don’t want the new car rental trend changes like the skyrocketing rates, are included. I’ve long had a really simple system for saving on rentals and getting better cars in the process, so here we go!
It’s as basic as it gets, but it’s very effective.
Basically, avoid airports
Car rental company websites tend to lock you into specific rental locations, rather than generalized areas. If I search Palm Springs, a default search is often for car rental at the airport, rather than the general Coachella Valley area, where there are plenty of them.
The problem with this is that car rental companies elsewhere in cities – virtually anywhere except the airport – tend to be much, much cheaper. Sometimes they have better cars!
I like a premium car and generally prefer a small European SUV. Shoot me, I do. And when I look at car rentals from LAX, or any other big city airport, I get the sting for my affinity for high-end cars. So sometimes I consider other nearby rental places instead.
The result is that I usually find prices about half of what I would pay at the airport. Sure, I’ll need a $10 or $20 Uber to reach the lot, but at many airports where a shuttle or series of maneuvers are required to reach the rental lot anyway, I can’t see not even that as an additional problem.
In Palm Springs this week, I had a choice of $1,200 for the week for a substandard car or $587 for an Audi Q5, taking a $12 Uber ride a few miles away. Hmm, tough choice. The Q5 was priced below the daily price for even the most basic compact at the airport rental desk.
How to Effectively Compare Rental Rates
As I said, specific car rental company websites often direct you to a specific lot where the airport is located, rather than a general area. If you don’t know the area, you might not know if there are other locations. You might not even consider that the prices can be so different.
A rather effective way to solve this problem is to use online travel agencies, like Expedia, Booking.com and others, which usually include all the lots in the area and show low prices.
Not everyone does, and sometimes it’s important to double-check your search, like “Los Angeles Area” rather than entering “LAX,” for example. There are pros and cons to booking through online travel agencies, compared to booking direct, so this is a consideration.
What I like to do
Of course, you have all the usual tricks like choosing the right credit card to cover collision damage waivers, using Auto slashor signing up with AARP to get better rates — yes, anyone can, it’s not just for seniors — but that still doesn’t solve the disparities between nearby locations.
My method, for better or for worse, is to open three web browser windows.
- Google Maps
- An online travel agency, such as Booking.com
- A car rental company website, such as Enterprise.
In Google Maps, I select a certain city, then I search for “rental car” and compare the locations with the airport or the place where I will be staying. I will then run a general search on the online travel agency’s website to get an idea of prices across all sites.
Again, check that you don’t just see the airport location. Sometimes the best prices are the airport location, but I find that to be rare. It’s usually the places 10 minutes away that are much cheaper.
Google Maps gives me a list of all locations for all rental companies, then I compare that location information with the prices found on the online travel agency. I need the alternate location to still be easy to pick up and take out for it to be worth it.
The longer the rental, the more the savings add up, the easier it becomes to justify 10 minutes of hassle.
In the Palm Springs example, I found a Enterprise Rental Car to Cathedral City which had exceptionally good fares compared to Palm Springs airport, with an 11 minute drive time from the airport including traffic. It’s not complicated enough to keep me from saving $600 in just one week.
Zooming out, once I find the cheapest location that suits my needs perfectly, I go straight to the rental car company to lock in the rental, so I can use member discounts , AARP discounts or offers for direct bookings.
It’s true that online travel agencies can sometimes be cheaper, but I’m a fan of direct bookings whenever possible. Hassles related to customer service or changes get old over time.
So endlessly, that’s it. My favorite tip for saving on rental cars is to exhaust non-airport locations as much as possible. Gone are the days of asking a friend to pick you up thanks to carpooling, which means the savings are almost hassle-free.