I don’t use rental cars as much as I used to these days.
The likes of Uber and the joys of walking often have me prioritizing places where I can walk where I’d like to go, or places where where a quick Uber will suffice.
And in these times, that’s probably good. Rental car rates have skyrocketed, availability is slim and even if you manage to find a car, there’s often no guarantee it will be there when you turn up!
But — as life tends to do — I occasionally end up in a situation where I do want a car rental, but don’t want the new trending changes to car rentals, like skyrocketing rates included. I’ve long had a very simple system for saving on rentals and securing better cars in the process, so here we go!
It’s as basic as it gets, but its highly effective.
Basically, Avoid Airports
Rental car company websites tend to lock you into specific rental locations, rather than generalized areas. If I search for Palm Springs, a search often defaults to the car rental at the airport, rather than the general Coachella Valley area where there are many.
The problem with this is, rental car locations elsewhere in cities — basically anywhere but the airport — tend to be much, much cheaper. Sometimes, they have better cars!
I like a premium car, and prefer a small European SUV typically. Shoot me, I just do. And when I look at car rentals from LAX, or any other major city airport location, I feel the sting for my premium car affinity. So, sometimes, I consider other nearby rental locations instead.
The result is that I typically find prices circa half what I’d 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 is needed to reach the rental lot anyway, I don’t even see this as added hassle.
In Palm Springs this week, I had the choice of $1200 for the week for an inferior car, or $587 for an Audi Q5, by taking a $12 Uber ride a few miles down the road. Hmm, tough choice. The price for the Q5 was lower than the daily for even the most basic compact at the airport rental location.
How To Compare Rental Rates Effectively
Like I said, specific car rental company websites often spit you to a specific lot where the airport is, rather than a general area. If you don’t know the area, you might not know whether any other locations exist. You might not even consider that prices can be so wildly different.
One rather effective way of tackling this is by using online travel agencies, like Expedia, Booking.com and others, which typically include all area lots and will show low prices.
Not all do, and sometimes its important to check your search, like “Los Angeles Area” rather than entering “LAX”, for example. There are pros and cons of booking through online travel agencies, versus direct, so that’s a consideration.
What I Like To Do
Obviously, you’ve got all the usual tricks like choosing the right credit card to cover collision damage waivers, using AutoSlash, or signing up for AARP to get better rates — yes anyone can, it’s not just for old people — but that still doesn’t solve the disparities between nearby locations.
My method, for better and worse, is to open three web browser windows.
- Google Maps
- An online travel agency, like Booking.com
- A car rental company website, like Enterprise.
In Google maps, I’ll select a given city, then search for “rental car” and compare the locations with the airport, or to where I’ll be staying. I’ll then run a general area search on the online travel agency website to get a feel for prices across all spots.
Again, double check that you aren’t only being shown the airport location. Sometimes the best prices are the airport location, but I find that to be rare. It’s usually the places like 10 minutes away that are much cheaper.
Google Maps gives me a list of all locations for all rental companies and I then square that location info with prices found on the online travel agency. I need the alternative location to still be easy for pick up and exit to make it 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 an Enterprise Rental Car in Cathedral City which had exceptionally good rates compared to Palm Springs Airport, with a drive time of 11 minutes from the airport, traffic included. That’s not enough hassle to stop me saving $600 bucks in just a week.
Zooming back out, once I’ve found the cheapest location that conveniently fits my needs, I then go direct to the car rental company to lock in the rental, so that I can use any members 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. The hassles in dealing with customer service or changes grow old over time.
So, in long winded fashion, there you have it. My favorite tip for saving on rental cars is to exhaust non-airport locations as much as possible. The days of asking a friend to tag along to pick you up are over thanks to ridesharing and that means savings are almost hassle free.