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How to Get the Best Price on Car Rentals

With the summer right around the corner, we decided to plan a short vacation with the kids to visit friends and family.  This particular vacation involves a short flight, a relatively long drive (car rental)  for an infant and toddler (3.5 hrs), and a house rental for the week.  As I’m the “research to death” type person to get the best deal, I thought I would share a method of getting a good price on a car rental.

When I started the search, I went directly car rental company websites and googled coupons.  While I found coupons helpful for reducing overall cost, it didn’t get me the “deal” that I wanted before pulling the trigger.  Here’s what I did to get the best price possible on a car rental.

1.  Research Market Value

To get a deal, the first step is to figure out the market value.  In this case, I had to figure out the going rate for car rentals on a particular date and specific car size. Since we are bringing the two kids, we wanted something with a bit of luggage space.  In my experience, Expedia usually has very reasonable car rental rates, so it’s a good place to start.  After that, I typically cross check the prices with the car rental company websites.  It usually works out that Expedia is cheaper than the direct website.

2.  Get Auction Prices

As mentioned, we were looking for a particular size vehicle and in the city that we were looking, it meant only a couple of vehicle types to choose from.  As we were comfortable with both vehicles (ie. luggage capacity with decent gas mileage) choices,  auction sites like Hotwire and Priceline can work well in this situation.

Hotwire works by offering the user a low price, but the user can not choose the company, just the vehicle size.  I assume that the car rental companies bid their lowest rate to Hotwire on a daily basis.  Knowing that, it’s best to watch the vehicle rental price over a period of time as it will likely fluctuate daily.  Before moving onto the next step, I usually wait until the car rental price has plateaued for at least a week.

3. Bid your Price!

Now that you know the going rate, and the lowest price that car rental companies are willing to accept via Hotwire, it’s time to use that information to your advantage.   This leads to Priceline, where you can bid what you are willing to pay.  You can bid any price on a particular car size, but Priceline has the option to reject your bid which means that you won’t be able to bid again for 24 hours.

For me, I would have been perfectly happy with the Hotwire price, but the idea of getting a better deal was too enticing.  With my first attempt, I bid 37% below the lowest Hotwire price.  Rejected.  The next day, I bid 21% below and rejected again.  Then I decided to give it one more shot with a bid 12% below my lowest researched price – bingo, it was a done deal.

In total, with a bit of due diligence, the price I paid for the car rental was 44% lower than the best Expedia price for the same car size.  As an added savings tip, don’t forget to book with a credit card with car rental insurance coverage.

Do you have any tips on getting a deal on a car rentals?

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Jason R May 7, 2012, 12:03 pm

    Thanks for the info. That sound like it could be very effective way of getting a deal.
    Another way that I have found that often can get you a significant discount is the links / promo codes from the airline sites.
    Last year I was looking for a car for just the weekend in Edmonton. The best price in Expedia was $23 a day plus tax etc for a total of $90 for the almost 3 days. Alamo via the west just site was just $3.39 a day!! for a total of $33 and was a mid size instead of an economy car.
    I’m sure this deal was mostly the fact that over the weekend a lot of cars were just sitting there. But at other times I have received the best price this way. But with a little leg work with Hotwire / Priceline sounds like you save even more.

  • nobleea May 7, 2012, 12:22 pm

    We have a trip to the US planned for July and will be renting a car. I would like to try the hotwire/priceline thing, but we have the requirement to pick up in one city and drop off in another. I don’t know if that’s possible with those sites. The drop off charges vary from $100 to $500 and depend on which city you are dropping off in.

  • bm2wong May 7, 2012, 12:31 pm

    A couple of suggestions:
    – Autoslash is a price aggregator for car rentals. Try them out to see what the best deal is with specific coupons; the search is somewhat hit/miss depending on the destination
    – if you think the best deal is through Priceline/Hotwire, check out BetterBidding.com. You can find results from other folks for your specific times and locations.
    – check to see if your company has a corporate discount that can be shared with employees. I work for a large telecommunications company and there is a specific discount code for a major car rental company that gives me the best deal right now.

  • Trevor May 7, 2012, 1:20 pm

    How does Priceline/Hotwire work the location of the rental? I find most websites default to airport locations.

  • Joel ME May 7, 2012, 2:28 pm

    I would also suggest BetterBidding.com, as you can see what people are renting cars (and hotels) for.

    I research things too much as well… so my current strategy (to reduce wasted time), is check out BetterBidding.com and go directly to alamo, as they often have cheaper rates on cars.

  • Dan May 7, 2012, 3:46 pm

    I’ve been using the older conventional way, calling the different car rental companies near my departure location by phone, their phone number could be easily identified on google maps. Also, ask for different types of discounts, AAA/CAA/Goverment Employee rates, they will do the comparison for you on their side in terms of what best deal you can get with them. I found most of the time I get better prices calling than from their websites. I’ve never used priceline, but would like to give it a try next time, but I agree with Joel, sometimes we just overlook the valuable time we spent on searching for deals…. :D (Hence, I’ll try his suggestion as well~)

  • Bill May 7, 2012, 4:12 pm

    Kayak, Expedia, etc. give you a good starting point. I did that recently and then thought “hey, my company has a travel site” and I was able to beat the best price by $20 per day. With that in hand, I could probably go to Priceline and bid a few dollars per day under the corporate rate. But then Priceline charges you right away, whereas with the corp. reservation it is guaranteed but not paid for. Particularly at airport locations, the largest cost is in the fees, not the per day rate.

    I was also recently looking for a one night hotel stay. At the corporate site I selected “best available” thinking that may be … you know … the best available. I went back and checked “AAA” rate, and it was $7/night cheaper than “best available” for the same room. So always check.

  • Hollywood May 8, 2012, 4:08 pm

    I think there is some great info here, but not all car rental companies or locations are the same. I don’t just want a great price, I want good service. Too many times I’ve taken the lowest price only to find myself standing in a long line once I arrived, and then standing in a hot parkade while workers tried to locate a vehicle. I won’t mention the “dog” companies, but I have never been disappointed with the service from Enterprise.

  • Dan May 9, 2012, 10:59 pm

    I tried to book a car rental on priceline.com……did anyone notice the exorbinant fees priceline charges? They lump it in with taxes etc when you try to name your own price, and in my case it ended up being double the daily rate of the rental. Did anyone else notice this?

  • Jen May 10, 2012, 2:27 am

    If you’re traveling with kids and don’t want to lug around car seats, keep in mind that not all car rental companies offer car seat rentals. This is one place where blind bidding (i.e. not knowing the rental company) can steer you wrong.

  • FT FrugalTrader May 10, 2012, 8:34 am

    @Jen, one thing I noticed is that car rental companies charge about $12 per day for a car seat, which is pretty much the daily rate for a compact car! Rent it for 2 weeks, and you’re almost better off buying a new car seat in a store, and throwing it away after the vaca.

  • FT FrugalTrader May 5, 2013, 10:41 pm

    @Dan, best to take a look at Priceline’s “total” cost and compare to what you can get elsewhere. Remember that you can see the total cost before paying.

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