(NerdWallet) – Most travelers know that Spirit Airlines is a low-cost airline. They probably know that a Four Seasons is almost always more expensive than a Motel 6.
But when it comes to car rental companies, which one usually has the lowest prices? Is Thrifty that economical? Will Budget best help you stick to your budget?
A NerdWallet analysis conducted in March tracked 360 car rental prices at eight major US companies to find which had the cheapest car rentals – and which had the most expensive.
By almost all metrics, National Car Rental was the most expensive, followed by Alamo Rent a Car. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Budget, Hertz and Dollar are among the cheapest.
Analysis of the cheapest car rental company
In our analysis of average rental car prices at different companies, the cost of weekly car rentals ranged from $480 to almost $700, a difference of more than $200.
The prices analyzed in this study were based on rentals on a combination of dates over the next three months, and for downtown and airport locations in the regions that host the nation’s 10 largest airports. Rental types were the cheapest option possible (usually a small sedan) that allowed you to pay at the counter (as opposed to upfront) and included taxes and fees.
The cheapest and most expensive car rental companies are owned by the same parent company. Enterprise Holdings owns and operates the Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car brands, which together represent a fleet of nearly 1.7 million vehicles through a network of more than 9,500 rental locations in the world.
Hertz Corporation, which is the parent company that operates the Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty vehicle rental brands, was a bit more consistent across all of its brands in terms of pricing; their average weekly car rental prices were about $18 apart.
How to save on rental cars
More than $500 a week for renting a car can be a big chunk of your vacation budget. Luckily, you may not necessarily be required to pay the listed price. Here are some smart ways to save on rental cars:
Change the way you book
A separate study by NerdWallet in March found that booking rental cars in advance often doesn’t save you money. If you’re okay with the uncertainty of a last-minute booking, you might actually save more than if you hadn’t been a procrastinator.
People arriving at their destination by air and intending to rent a car on landing could also save more money by booking from a nearby and off-site car rental location (as opposed to the rental car outpost located at the airport). Another NerdWallet study, also in March, found that rental cars tend to be around 20% cheaper when booked offsite compared to the airport.
Earn credit card rewards (and enjoy car insurance benefits from many credit cards)
Some car rental credit cards outperform others, offering bonus points and miles for paying for your car rental with that card.
While perhaps even more valuable than bonus points, there’s another lesser-known credit card benefit: rental car insurance. Many high-end credit cards offer varying degrees of rental car insurance coverage, which can cover eligible damages in the event of a rental car accident or if someone breaks into your car.
Take advantage of rental car loyalty programs
Most major car rental companies offer loyalty programs that can earn you free rentals and upgrades.
While National’s car rentals tend to be among the most expensive, its loyalty program – dubbed the National Car Rental Emerald Club – is one of the best. Members with Emerald Club Executive Elite status receive one free car rental day for every five qualifying car rentals made, in addition to other benefits like free private airport delivery.
Search car rental alternatives
If all else fails, you can skip renting from a major car rental company altogether. Look for car rental alternatives, which are companies that have come up with clever ways to get your hands on the wheel, whether it’s peer-to-peer car rental services to borrow an owner’s vehicle individual or renting a car from a real car dealership (such as Audi’s Silvercar service).
Key takeaways about the cheapest car hire companies
Rental cars are expensive and they don’t get any cheaper. If getting the best deal possible is a priority, it’s a good idea to browse prices from multiple car rental companies and, if you can be flexible, multiple locations in the same city.
But generally speaking, deal hunters may want to start the search with Enterprise, Budget, Hertz or Dollar – which rank among the cheapest car rental companies.
JT Genter contributed to this report.