11 Car-Rental Cost-Cutting Secrets

One reason that car-rental experiences have been inconsistent is the industry itself, which has been consolidating: Avis and Budget joined forces in 2002, and Enterprise snapped up National and Alamo in 2007, leaving fewer big players in the U.S. market. At the same time, drivers are facing rising taxes and fees, such as the local and state surcharges applied to airport rentals—which can increase the cost of an average rental by as much as 25 percent. And anyone who’s returned a car with less than a full tank (and without a prepaid plan) knows the result: exorbitant fuel charges.

And let’s not forget about those complicated insurance questions, which still bewilder travelers at home and abroad. Knowing your coverage—whether through a personal auto insurance policy or that of your preferred credit card—is the best way to ensure peace of mind and avoid overpaying at the counter.

But some industry changes are for the better, like increased competition from independent companies like rent-by-the-hour Zipcar, and a larger number of deal-finding tools online. International Web sites of U.S. rental agencies, for example, often have better rates for travel abroad than their U.S. counterparts. And aggregator Web sites Kayak.com and  to easily search and compare many quotes at once, then bypass extra fees by linking directly to the rental agency.

The True Cost of Car Rentals

Buyer beware: The rate you see advertised in big print may become so inflated with state and local taxes, airport surcharges, additional driver fees, insurance, gasoline bills and drop-off charges that you end up paying more than double what you expected. Learn more about these extra charges inCar Rental Hidden Costs.

Also, the advertised rate may be valid only during the off-season in Florida or California, when many cars are idle there, but not where you want to rent. Finally, the rate may be only for a car size that you would find unsuitable.

In recent years, the major booking engines have become more transparent about rental car rates, and they now usually show you the total cost of your rental, including estimated taxes and fees, early on in the booking process. For instance, Travelocity offers total pricing, which guarantees that the company’s estimated amount will be within one percent of the actual rate.

Like the airlines, the major auto rental companies have adopted “yield management.” That means that their computers can quickly readjust prices according to changes in the supply of cars available, and so the rental rate you are quoted is valid only at that moment. Unless you reserve immediately, the rate is likely to change.

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