Money-saving tips for car rentals
Pricey rental rates, high gas prices, insane parking fees—renting a car can get pretty costly if you're not careful. Here's how to shave the high price of renting a car into a reasonable travel expense.
A rental car grants you the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, turning up a dirt road to visit a vineyard or down a back alley to explore a medieval town.
OK, so cars do have one big drawback: they are pretty expensive, especially when compared to riding the rails. I don't mean just the rental cost.
Gasoline in Europe costs roughly four times what it does here. No joke. That's part of why they drive so many of those teensy, fuel-efficient, little Matchbox cars over there, and why they're still churning out diesel-powered sedans and wagons.
And let's not forget parking garages in cities that cost $20 to $30 a night. High daily rates, mandatory insurance, obscure vehicle drop-off fees. Yep, renting a car on vacation can be a pretty costly proposition.
I’m here to help.
Do not rent a car for any portion of your vacation during which you will be in a major city
Cars are useless in cities. The traffic is awful, parking is difficult to find and insanely expensive (usually $40 to $80 a day), and public transportation is usually quite excellent.
Save a rental car for exploring the countryside and small towns—and save yourself (1) money (2) aggravation and (3) time by arranging to pick up your rented car on the final day you'll be in your first major city and dropping it off as soon as you arrive at your last city.
It'll shave a few days off the rental period, and avoid parking fees for those days as well. This alone can knock several hundreds dollars off your rental costs.
Truth be told, though there are several steps listed below for ferreting out the cheapest rates, I find that, at least in Europe, consolidators win the day nine out of ten times. In fact, for my own trips to Europe I usually end up renting via the consolidator Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com). The new Carrentals.com is a hybrid consolidator/aggregator covering rentals around the world (domestic, Europe, Asia, whatever).
Rent a car from home
Rentals are invariably cheaper when arranged in advance from the U.S.. You can saunter into any rental office in Europe and get a set of wheels, but you'll save yourself some big bucks by booking the car in advance.
Use an aggregator
These meta-search engines are like online personal shoppers that come for free. they will do all the legwork of searching the major rental agencies, booking engines, discounters, and travel agencies for you so you can quickly see which have the best deals: RentalCars.com, AutoSlash.com, Momondo.com, Vayama.com, DoHop.com, Kayak.com, Mobissimo.com.
Consolidators likeAutoeurope.com and Carrentals.com are wholesalers who buy (or book) in bulk at a deep discount then turn around and pas along a big chunk of that discount to you (their profit being the difference). You end up gong to the same Avis or Europcar or whatever office window as people who booked direct with those companies and handing over your voucher. The difference: you'll have paid much less (on the order to 5 to 15 percent).
You'd think with such competition that the Big Five and other firms would offer similar rates. Nothing is further from the truth. For the same four-day weekend, you'll hear $49.95 from one company, and then the next will blithely say the best they can do is $129.99.
Look beyond the usual suspects
You'll notice I talk about the major rental outfits last on the Rental Resources page. That's because I rarely find the best deal (for renting a car in Europe, at least) through them. However, since car-rental rates are some of the most fluid and competitive prices I know of in the travel business outside of airfares, there's no telling where you'll get the best rate from one day to the next.
Heck, often if you call the same company right back after hanging up and talk with a different operator, you'll get a drastically different quote for the same exact inquiry you just made. Stupid? Yes. But that's the way it works. Good luck.
Find the true rate
Make sure when you ask what part of the quoted rate is the base rate, what's included (such as CDW), if taxes are included, whether you get unlimited mileage (which you definitely want), and any other restrictions.
Sometimes if you pick up the car Thursday instead of Friday or at the downtown office rather than the airport, or keep it over the weekend, you'll save big bucks. When you give the rental firm your dates for pick up and delivery, let them know you're open to other dates as well if it means saving money. Trade down a few models; do you really near the Ferrari convertible, or can you make do with a Fiat Punto? Even try different pick-up/drop-off cities—you never know. Also, for complicated reasons, it's sometimes cheaper to rent for a full week rather than two days.
A stick shift car can be up to 40% cheaper than an automatic shift. On Europe's many narrow, windy, hilly roads and tight streets in ancient cities, manual shifts give you better control as well. Airport pick-ups are almost always more expensive than downtown (but the downside is then you have to navigate city traffic to get out of town, whereas airports tend to be on a major highway at the edge of the city).
Share the love, cut the costs
Renting is a particularly expensive proposition for the solo traveler, who has to shoulder the entire cost himself. For families or small groups, however, the fact that there's just one lump fee actually works in your favor, as the amount is spread across each person's costs. Sometimes the magic number of total passengers is three, sometimes four, but at some point renting a car becomes cheaper than buying three or four separate train tickets.
Still, even if it's just one or two of you and therefore renting is going to take a big bite out of your budget, there can be situations in which renting a car is worth the expense. If you are at all planning to visit the villages of Provence, the hilltowns and vineyards of Tuscany, the whitewashed pueblos of Andalucia, or any other itinerary rarely of never served by trains or buses, get the car. The truer Europe lies in the small towns, not the big cities. Don't short-change your experience by short-changing your budget.
Check the rental restrictions
Most rental companies have restrictions on where you can drive. With some, you must stay in the country of rental (usually this is only mandated by smaller, national outfits). Most won't allow you to take a car rented in England to Ireland or the continent. Few let you drive from any western European country into Eastern Europe, so if you're planning to drive to Prague, make sure you work it all out with the rental agency from the get-go.
If your regular auto insurance doesn't cover rentals abroad (check), you might want to buy the collision damage wavier, or CDW. This peace of mind comes basically allows you to total the car and not be held liable. Your credit card may cover the CDW if you use it to pay for the rental, so always check with your company.
However, Italy, Ireland, Spain—for evil reasons that have never been made clear to me—refuse categorically to honor CDW or other insurances provided by a credit card, even if you're renting from the local office of a major company like Avis or Hertz. If you need to buy it separately, don’t purchase the coverage from the rental agency, though, which can charge up to $15 a day, but rather from private insurer Travel Guard, which charges $9 a day (www.travelguard.com).
For longer terms, lease a car instead
Companies won't usually remind you of this option, but if you want a car for more than 17 days (up to six months), tell them you want to short-term lease it. There's a whole section of this site devoted to the ins and out of such leasing (a.k.a. purchase/repurchase, or buy-back) programs.
Look into the rail-and-drive passes that get you several days of unlimited rail travel on a flexi-pass along with several days of car rental. You can add rail days or car days as needed to customize the pass to fit your schedule.
Remind them you've already paid.
Make sure you know exactly what you paid for when you arranged the car rental. For reasons I'll never understand, the pick-up office in Europe often somehow "overlooks" the fact that your credit card has already been charged for the rental cost, and they double-charge you. The hassle of working this out with the credit card people after you return isn't worth the trouble. Usually, you will get one charge on your card from the European office for the first full tank of gas it provides (which is almost never included in the original rental price).
Inspect the rental car before you drive away.
I know you want to jump in and get out on that Autobahn, but if the agency doesn't know something is wrong with the car when you drive it off, it will assume you broke it and charge you accordingly. If what's on the inspection form they want you to sign doesn't match the state of the car, point it out. Otherwise, once you drive it away, you are legally liable for its condition.
Make sure all locks and doors work, check the various lights, and peruse the whole thing quickly for dents, scratches, and rips in the fabric. Scrutinize the contract and the vehicle well. Check for the repair and safety equipment. Check the trunk for a jack, inflated spare, snow chains in winter, and a hazard triangle (most countries require you to hang this on the trunk if you're broken down by the side of the road). Check the glove compartment for a parking disc (ask the rental agency about this; they'll explain about the honor-system parking lots if the country has them).
Make sure that any existing damage on the car is noted on the rental form before you drive it away—and also that you don't scribble your initial next to anything on the form that promises you will pay $15 a day for some insurance coverage you already have by virtue of the fact that you put the rental on your credit card.
Be sure to drop off your rented car on time
One of the great institutional rip-offs in rental cars is that you must drop it off on your final "rental day" at the same time you picked it up on your first day. Think about that, in terms of a realistic itinerary.
You pick up a rental car early in the morn (say, 9am) on the first day so you can get the highway under your tires and move on with your vacation. But on the last day, you want to be able to coast into your final town in the evening, drop off your bags at the hotel, and then return the car to the rental office before heading out to find some dinner. Problem is, the car was due back at 9am that morning, and they'll charge you insanely high daily rate of the "extra day" that you kept it.
The only solution: book the vehicle for a period that ends the day after you expect to be finished using it. That way you coast into town at night, drop off your stuff at the hotel, then return the car early. Sure, technically you have it until 9am the next day, but there's no reason to (a) pay for a garage overnight or risk parking it on the street, or (b) waste your next morning driving in rush hour to the rental office then filling in forms and such.
Always gas it up to the brim before returning it
You think European gas is expensive in the first place (which it is)? You ain't seen nothing like the charges a rental place feels free to impose (gas charges of over $100 aren't unheard of).