How to shop for a rental car


I’m in the middle of a 10-day car rental right now. Total price was a little over $300, including taxes. And this was from a major national chain too. Took me awhile, but I found a good deal.

I’ve said that I don’t value rental car loyalty, and that it’s better to just find a good deal and book it. But how do you find a good deal? There’s more to it than just searching on KAYAK. Here are some tips that have served me well.

Forget the airport

Most people who fly into a city will rent a car from the airport, but airport fees are insane. When I was pricing out this particular rental, a 10-day rental was almost $1,000. The same car was $400 at a different location.

So instead, always rent from a non-airport location. Airport locations are for people who don’t want to plan, or who are too pressed for time, which, as you probably know by now, is a recipe for price gouging.

Instead, spend $5 and take a train into the city and rent from a location there. All these major agencies will have a location somewhere else, and this somewhere else is almost guaranteed to be cheaper. The time cost is an hour or so, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the savings and for seeing the city through its transit system. Even if you take a taxi, the savings can still be considerable.

Online search engines like KAYAK can plot the locations on a map, which is good for finding which locations are near train routes or downtowns. After all, you want to find the sweet spot between how much you save and how annoying it is to get there. A giant detour out to the suburbs to save $10 a day may not be worth it, but you can almost always find a location downtown.

But don’t forget the airport

Something I recently learned is that if you rent from a non-airport location, you can often return to the airport at no additional charge. Apparently, it doesn’t count as a “one-way rental” for some reason when you return to the airport. And as you may know, one-way rentals can make renting from an airport seem cheap by comparison.

I don’t know if this is always the case, but I have seen this to be so in limited situations. So you now have even less of an excuse to rent right from the airport, as you only need to find your way by yourself once. And in my experience, people are usually rushing to get to the airport, not from the airport, so this works in your favor.

Search for coupons

Sites like Retail Me Not have coupon codes that you can copy and use when booking a car. Airline sites have discounts too. US Airways has a page that’s “exclusively” for Dividend Miles Gold Preferred customers, but as you can see, it’s not password protected, and I have never been asked to verify anything when I’ve used these codes (I had Dividend Miles Gold Preferred status in 2013.)

That said, beware that sometimes there are terms and conditions to these codes that make the deal not worth it, so do your homework, and don’t use a code if you don’t feel comfortable with it.

Search on Costco

Costco, the members-only warehouse club, has a travel portal. I always thought that they only did things like cruises and resort stays, which are products I’m not interested in. But Costco Travel also does rental cars. And for whatever reason, their search engine comes up with cheaper rates than any of the other search engines that I’ve found. My $400 rental came up as $300 there.

You need to be a Costco member to take advantage of this, but if you save enough money, you might still come out ahead if you buy the membership, which at the time of writing is $55 per year.

And luckily, you don’t need to rent in packages of 12!

(Credit and hat tipping for this one goes to Stefan Krasowski from Rapid Travel Chai, who I saw speak at the recent Frequent Traveler University in Seattle.)

Take someone else’s car

RelayRides allows anyone to rent out their own car or rent someone else’s. I have not tried this, so I can’t say whether it’s a good deal or advisable. But it seems like a cool idea, a kind of “AirBnb for cars.”

Even if you use just one of these tips, you’ll be better served to get a car that works for you without getting stuck with unnecessary fees. Happy renting!

But enough about me. How do you find deals on a rental car?


  1. Lady

    Priceline is seriously the best. You can get an econocar for around $20/day including tax.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      No kidding, really? That’s awesome! Is that even for expensive places like the Northeast? I’ve never used Priceline for anything, so that’s definitely something I’ll have to check out. Thanks for sharing!

      • Lady

        Good question. I don’t recall using Priceline in the Northeast. That’s something worth investigating.

  2. Chris

    My father-in-law rented a RelayRides vehicle in Seattle during our family trip there this summer. While the whole key transfer process is more complicated, the per-day cost was considerably less than the chain rental companies. In fact, even the place we stayed was a privately-owned condo across from the Seattle Art Museum, which not only saved big bucks over an equivalent number of hotel rooms, we had a fully equipped kitchen and a washer/dryer.

    One of the rental car specials I’ve used several times is Enterprise’s weekend special–pick up Friday and return Monday for 9.99 a day. Last time I did this it was about 37 bucks with taxes to have a car for three whole days. Not too shabby if you’re willing to deal with their lackluster service.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Hi Chris. Thanks for your tips! I haven’t rented from Enterprise in a while, but I do recall the $9.99/day weekend deal. Glad to hear that’s still going on.

      Service issues aside, I will always appreciate how Enterprise was willing to rent to me before I turned 21.

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