Hopefully, you have realized by now how easy it is to get flights and hotels for cheap or even free! But what happens when you have to drive somewhere? Is it possible to get free or cheap car rentals?
As one who has driven over a hundred thousand miles over the last few years, I realize the importance of getting cheap car rentals. My cars have mostly not been the best of fuel economy or are sometimes in the shop when I have to make a trip and that means I have to get a rental car. Many times, Hotwire is your friend in this department – or if you want to try your hand at naming your own price, Priceline. However, depending on the city and the airport, even those sites can spit out prices that will make you choke. For example, there are some airports around the country that have car rental terminals, basically. These car rental centers were built as a collaborative financial effort and, as such, the rental fees normally carry a high facility charge. In fact, some facilities put other charges in there as well! Check out the fee detail here – this is for Kansas City International Airport (one of the most expensive car rental airports in the country). Except for the concession recovery fee, every other fee is added to your daily rental. The $4 Arena Fund fee is to pay for the Sprint Arena constructed in 2007. The customer facility fee goes towards the rental facility – $7 in fees each day for buildings!
Cheap Car Rentals – Off-site rental
So, the thing to do is to pick an off-airport pick-up, right? Keep in mind, they can’t pick you up at the airport because of these fees! So, even though Enterprise will pick you up within a certain area, they can’t if you are at the airport. So, that means taking a taxi or a bus (with all of your luggage) to pick it up and then come back (if you have family to pick up). I have picked up a vehicle before for 1 day at the airport and used it to get us to a cheaper, off-site location and then return that airport vehicle the next day – and saved a lot of money doing it! So, that’s one way, but not very convenient.
Cheap Car Rentals – promo codes
Budget is famous for offering codes on certain vehicles for certain days or times of week. For instance, almost all of last year, they had a promo code that offered an economy car for $14 on weekend days or $119 for a week or an intermediate SUV for $22 for a weekend day or $139 for a week. If you search around at some of the places below, you can normally find rental codes that will help discount your rental. If you are a AAA member, a Sam’s Club member, AARP member, or you have ever shopped at Wal-Mart, chances are you can find a promo that will work for you as well!
These are just some of the sites that you can use for promo codes. Be warned, though – don’t think that you can just take any code (like if it is for AARP members) and use it if you do not qualify. Most of the promo codes require proof of eligibility at pick-up.
Cheap Car Rentals – Hotwire and Priceline
As mentioned before, you can use Hotwire and Priceline for your cheap car rentals as well. I will normally start with Hotwire so I can see what the ballpark figure is for a cheap rental. After that, I will go to priceline and start my bidding about 25% cheaper than what Hotwire showed me. Remember, you can only do one bid per vehicle type (if you don’t change dates of pick-up or airports) per 24 hour period. So, if you have a trip that starts in 2 days, you may not want to play with too low of a figure. Priceline will normally tell you if you have a chance or not. I will start with a mid-size and then work my way around from there with my bidding. If you get close, Priceline will often tell you that they can guarantee you will win the bid if you go to a certain number right away (normally the suggested amount is around $4 or $5 more per day than your bid). Remember, with both Hotwire and Priceline, once you win a bid or pay for the car, you are stuck with it. No renter’s remorse! You cannot change your mind, so be sure of your dates before you book!
Cheap Car Rentals – Extend the date
Car rental rates typically operate by the day or by the week. The most expensive period of time to rent a vehicle for is 4 days. That is because at 5 days, the weekly rate kicks in. The weekly rate is much cheaper overall than the daily rate. So, if you are only needing a car for 4 days, try to arrange your travel plans so that you will need to rent the car for more than 4 days and 3 hours. With many of the rental agencies, the weekly rate will begin around 4 days and 1 hour after pickup. So, adjust your travel times to try and keep a car for at least 5 days. Most of the time, the cost to keep the car for 7 days is the same price as 5 days (except for some taxes that may be per day). Also, one of the best times to pickup a car (for non-vacation destinations) is Thursday. Most business people are returning their cars and headed home so they have a multitude of cars and they want to get them out for the weekend.
Cheap Car Rentals – The Best Way!
This is my favorite method. This is how I once got a Lincoln MKZ for $120 for 8 days! This way of getting a cheap car rental is utilizing the airline mile marketplaces to secure your rental. I will use Delta for this example as this is how I do most of my rental deals.
Let’s start with what the going rate on a vehicle is for Kansas City Airport. We’ll pick a random week day and compare prices between the agency and Delta’s Marketplace.
As you can see, we are selecting an economy car category from Budget to be picked up at Kansas City International Airport on March 4 at 12PM and being dropped off March 5 at 12pM. The total cost is $74.44!
Now, let’s see the same price for the same parameters over at Delta’s Marketplace.
That’s right – 5,600 Delta Skymiles is the price for this rental. See, the currency used in the airline marketplaces is their own airline miles. So, if you have an account with some miles in it but not enough for a round-trip ticket, you can use those miles for a car rental at a great value!
But wait – it gets better! What happens if we don’t wan’t to use miles? See that little slider in the middle of the photo? What happens if we say, nope, I want to save my miles for airfare instead – I only want to pay with cash. Well, let’s move that slider so that we don’t use miles. Note: You do need to use a minimum of 1,000 miles for this to work.
Just like that, we dropped the rate to 1,000 Delta Skymiles and $36 – for a rental car that would cost $77 if you rented from Budget directly. That’s right – you are paying less than 1/2 of what the rate would be if you went through any other site. The taxes are almost that much! And check out the good news on the taxes.
So that rate even includes all of those pesky taxes! We did this for an upcoming reservation where we needed a van for a week. The rate was over $600 everywhere. With the Delta Marketplace, we got it for 23,000 miles!
Now, how do you do it?
First, you will need a Delta Skymiles number. Second, you will need to either have some sort of status with Delta or one of the Delta American Express cards. If you do not have enough miles in the account (all you need is 1,000 to get the cheap cash rate), you can transfer 1,000 Membership Reward points (American Express) to Delta and you are good to go!
Below, I show the step-by-step way to get the Skymiles Marketplace from the Delta homepage. If you want to skip all of that and go right to the right site, click here for the direct link (you will still need to login).
After you have those two things, head on over to Delta and input your information (Skymiles Number, Pin, and Last Name).
After that, go to the upper right corner and use the drop down box for Skymiles and use the USE MILES tab to enter the area marketplace area.
Go ahead and start your search! You will be able to find rates that will make you kick yourself for spending what you have on rental cars over the years! Now, remember a few important things:
- These are prepaid rates so there is no refund (and penalties for making changes)
- Some of the rental agencies may have restrictive terms as in when you can pick up and drop-off. So, pick the times that you know you will be picking it up.
- You do not need to use miles for these rates, but the minimum in miles you will need to use is 1,000.
- Taxes are included
- You will need to select to show lowest rates with the selection tool at the top because the first rates you will see are the Featured Rates and normally from Hertz and they are high. The lowest agencies are typically Budget, Alamo, National and then Avis.
- Know the car category. For example, mini is for minivan, but sometimes they may sneak a luxury car in there in the description. If that is the case, take a screenshot so that you can show that if you try to give you something lower than a luxury car (that is, if you want the luxury car).
- You will need to have a little lead time (you cannot rent a car for the next day using this method)
- Have fun with it!
I hope this helps you the next time you try to get a rental car! I know it helps me tremendously and this is the first place I go when I need a car. If you want to use miles, you can get the rental for free. If you don’t want to, you can still pay less in cash than you will anywhere else.
I wrote this post last year but have updated it with new pricing and in response to people asking lately about rental car deals.
Editorial Note - Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
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