In comparison to shopping for flights, booking a rental car is easy. Airplane prices go up and down with no consistently predictable pattern, and with very few exceptions, once you pay your money, you’re locked in to the flight. I hate shopping for flights due to the time involved and the pricing games played by the airlines.
Getting a good deal on a rental car, on the other hand, is not so bad as long as you begin your search early. With most rental car companies, there’s no payment up front when you book, and there’s no penalty when you cancel your initial reservation if you happen to find a better deal later on.
My biggest piece of advice with rental cars is to stick to the big name companies. You’ll notice that certain companies are consistently cheaper than others. There’s a reason for that: it’s because those companies suck. I’ve had too many bad experiences with piss poor customer service in the past, and I no longer use certain brands anymore for any reason regardless of how cheap they are compared to legitimate rental companies. Once I got temporarily stranded at the airport because Dollar Rent a Car refused to give me my reserved car unless I bought their extra insurance – which I never buy and had never caused any problems with any of the other big name car rental places. Another common issue I’ve had with these cheapo no-name brands is the car not being ready at my specified reservation time. I’d rather pay 50% more for a car that I get on time with no hassle than gamble on a company I don’t trust.
These are the questionable companies I’ve had issues with and will never use again: Dollar Rent a Car, Advantage, Payless, Fox, and Thrifty. You’ll notice when you search for a rental car that these brands typically have the cheapest rates. You get what you pay for, so you’ve been warned. One company I haven’t used but has been showing up in my more recent search results is Europcar. I’ve read the reviews of this company, and what the reviewers describe is rank garbage, so do your research. I won’t be renting from Europcar based on what I’ve read online.
The businesses that I do trust are Enterprise, Avis, Budget, National, Hertz, and Alamo. I regularly rent cars from these companies, and have rarely had any issues with any of them; I’m sure there must have been at least one minor problem come up at some point in the past, but if it did, I have no recollection of it.
The key to getting a good price is to start looking early, and book something initially since there’s no cancellation penalty. The site that I like to use for my rental cars is vroomvroomvroom.com. It’s simple, effective, doesn’t bombard you with ads, and doesn’t require you to open an account with them and divulge a bunch of personal information that they don’t need. Once you find a good deal, you can book through the website which creates a direct reservation with the rental car company.
Now that you have this initial reservation, go back to the main search page and type in your pickup & drop off information and your dates. Search again, and when you get to the next screen with all the rental options, create a bookmark of the search results page and add it to your bookmark bar. A few times a week, click on this bookmark, and you’ll be presented with an updated set of prices. Whenever a cheaper price comes up, either modify your existing reservation to get the better price, or if it’s with a different car company, cancel your original reservation and book the new one. When modifying your existing reservation, you usually have to change at least one thing in order for the system to give you the new price, so I usually adjust my pickup time by half an hour.
Prices can sometimes drop even the week before your reservation date, so check regularly. A while back, I made a one way car reservation from Key West to Miami. The initial booking price was over $300 for a one day rental (one-way reservations where the pick up and drop off locations are different tend to be expensive) when I booked it 4 months out. The price fluctuated up and down, and then two weeks before the trip, the price dropped down to $65 for a few days before going back up again. You can find some really good deals if the timing is right, so keep looking, even if your vacation is just a short time away.
One last piece of advice: don’t be tempted by the “pay now” option that locks in a nonrefundable reservation at a slightly lower price compared to the standard refundable rate. I’ve never found the small amount of savings to be a worthwhile trade for losing the ability to cancel at any time.