Renting a car this holiday season? 5 tips to keep in mind

From filling the tank yourself to using your own insurance, here's how to save on car rentals

Hand throwing car keys in air
Consider starting your search on a comparison site to find the best deals
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There's no reason to break your budget on an overpriced rental car. If you're traveling somewhere this holiday season — or anytime, really — that entails renting a car, there are ways to make it less expensive.

Going out of your way to secure savings is even more important given the current rental car climate. Some experts are calling it the "rental car apocalypse," according to The Washington Post, driven largely by the semiconductor chip shortage. While improving, "the industry is still nowhere near the pre-pandemic norm."

1. Take the time to comparison shop

Consider starting your search on a comparison site like Kayak or Priceline to suss out pricing. While you might think a discount brand will be the cheapest, that's not necessarily the case —  according to NerdWallet's 2022 rental car study, "Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Budget, Hertz and Dollar ranked among the cheapest rental car companies," as opposed to brands like Thrifty.

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Once you've compared, go to the car rental company's website to book. Per Nerdwallet, "you might find an even steeper discount that way, particularly with 'Pay Now' options."

2. See if you're eligible for any discounts

If you have any memberships, you might be able to save on your rental. You can "use memberships at the retailer Costco or the organizations AAA or AARP to get a discount at specific companies," noted The New York Times. "I find that Costco consistently beats full-price car rentals on online travel agencies," Clem Bason, CEO of the travel website goSEEK.com and formerly of Hotwire.com, told Nerdwallet.

Meanwhile, AAA memberships offer discounts for Hertz rentals and allow you to skip "underage driver fees for AAA members ages 20 to 24," Nerdwallet reported. You can also save through some frequent-flier programs, though that often requires renting from an airport.

3. Rethink renting at the airport

While it may seem most convenient to pick up your car at the airport, "cars rented at the airport are almost always more expensive because of added taxes and fees," according to Travel + Leisure. By renting at "an off-airport location, you could save 20% or more."

That said, reported the Times, "some cities are now charging similar fees if an agency is within 20 miles of the airport," so you'll want to consider convenience as well. It's also worth noting that, per the Times, off-airport rental locations tend to have "more limited hours than airport-based outlets, which could be important if your flight is delayed."

4. Use your own insurance if you have it

Turns out, the insurance coverage offered by the car insurance company may be an unnecessary cost to pay. "If you have a car," noted Nerdwallet, "your primary insurance likely covers you when you rent a car."

Another option for coverage is your credit card, as many "provide coverage against theft and damage as long as you use that card for payment," per the Times. Just make sure you understand what your credit card does and doesn't cover — for instance, many cards "do not cover personal injuries to you, your passengers or pedestrians involved in the accident," according to The Points Guy, while others have exclusions on "certain kinds of car and peer-to-peer rental agencies," noted the Times.

5. Fill up prior to returning

"Travelers should always return the car with the gas tank filled to the level it was upon pick-up," per The Points Guy, or else they'll end up paying the rental agency's "special rate, which will cost more per gallon than carving out a few extra minutes to fuel up at the local gas station."

Another option offered by rental companies is to prepay for gas. That's also not a great deal, said The Points Guy, as "you could pay more per gallon and you won't get refunded for any gas you don't use."

Another tip from the Times to avoid overpaying for gas is to "take a picture of the gauge showing a full tank," since "companies have been known to tack on extra gas charges, and photographic proof usually wipes those charges away."

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