June
21 - 2010

9 Ways To Save Money On A Vacation Car Rental

save on rental car costs on vacation by taking public transit

photo by peterlfrench

It’s vacation month on Cheap Like Me! Let’s take a look at some ways to save money while you travel — and on some days, hear from a few guest bloggers who have generously offered to give me a day off.

Saving money on a rental car on vacation

No doubt about it, renting a car on vacation is convenient, but it also can be pricey. At a minimum of around $50 a day, car rental adds up fast for anything but super-short trips — especially if you’re making payments on your car at home. Here are some ideas to try to save transportation costs when you travel.

  1. Choose a city, where you can walk or use public transport to your destination. Bonus: You’ll work off vacation-dining calories and get a great feel for your destination. Many online mapping services now offer these options when you search directions.
  2. Rent or borrow a bicycle and ride. (If you swap homes, you might have borrow-able bikes at your disposal.)
  3. Drive to your destination. You might create a higher carbon footprint than by flying (although a quick Internet search shows that is up for debate), but you won’t add the expense of a rental car to a plane ride. And driving can help you save money in other ways by allowing you to bring more of your own “stuff” along. You could stock up on groceries, bring frozen meals from home, or carry along your own boogie board instead of buying items at a costlier tourist destination.
  4. Plan shorter trips to save gas (and possible mileage fees).
  5. If you do rent a car, compare costs from a variety of sites to find a good deal. If you have the time and patience, checking over a few weeks (with plenty of time in advance of your trip!) can help you recognize a bargain.
  6. Look into all your discount options. Take advantage of any programs you’re a part of — military or USAA, AARP, AAA, or warehouse club memberships. For a recent two-week trip where we needed a car, the best discounted online price I could find totaled $630. But through a special deal offered by Costco travel, our cost was $511 — a savings of 20 percent!
  7. Consider other options for saving, too. Again, recently, I didn’t have enough credit card rewards to exchange them for a free flight — but I did have enough to order $100 worth of vouchers for a rental car. (If you’re paying attention, that brought us to $411, or 35 percent off the full retail cost. The cash difference of $220 was enough to pay for more than three nights at our budget hotel.
  8. Watch the insurance sign-up. Before you get to the car rental counter, know whether you have to buy insurance on your rental, which can almost double the rental cost. Check with your own insurer and with the provider of the credit card you’ll be using — you might already be covered. But don’t guess, or you could risk driving uninsured.
  9. If you must rent a car, try to rent one with better mileage. However, this is tricky: Most rental car services boast that their cars are “environmentally friendly,” but that can mean they get anywhere from 16 miles per gallon of gas on up. I actually contacted Avis on a recent trip to ask why it was so difficult to rent hybrids, and here’s the reply I got:

Getting an environmentally friendly vehicle from Avis (or Budget) is very easy…but getting a hybrid from ANY rental car company is very difficult.  Manufacturers continue to make hybrids available to rental car companies only in very small quantities — most companies only have a few thousand out of fleets that number in the hundreds of thousands, and given the high demand, they are hard to find.  They are also expensive to rent, reflecting the premium price we have to pay for them, just as is the case at retail.  But “green” options are available, and easy to find.  We use the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay Certification program to help customers understand which vehicles that can be rented at any location are considered “green.”
Unfortunately, if you check out the SmartWay listing of cars, you’ll find that it includes most cars, and their pollution scores are all about the same …. except for hybrids, which you can’t rent, and certainly not while saving money.

Bonus points: Direct flights cause less pollution (because of fewer take-offs, which put off a burst of jet fuel), as well as causing less brain damage, in my case at least. Trains are still less polluting — if only someone would mention to the Western United States that train travel could be a viable option!

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