Many vacations start with the whoosh of jet engines slowing down, a hustle to find bags on the carousel, and a hasty trip to the rental car counter. But the last of these can certainly spoil the mood with slow-moving lines and the suddenly higher tab thanks to a clerk's upselling of a few add-ons.
There are ways to keep the positive vibes going, though. Follow any or all of these seven steps and land a rental car for less and perhaps bypass the queue.
1. Find the Discount Code.
There is always a coupon code to be had. Sign up for the rental car company's newsletter to learn about sales, codes, and special offers. Check the company website for discounts up to 25 percent.
Better deals are hard to find on your own so use a service such as Zalyn.com, which searches through hundreds of codes and highlights the useful ones given your search criteria. Car Rental Saver has tabs for coupons, discounts, destinations, and specials. Membership associations, such as AAA and AARP, offer exclusive discounts on rental cars, and Costco members can search Costco Travel for discounted rates.
2. Try the Little Guy.
Everyone knows the big names in the rental car industry. Companies like Budget, Alamo, Hertz, National, and Enterprise operate hundreds of locations but may not post the best prices. Some small, local companies offer excellent deals and high-quality service. Companies trying to break into the market, like Sixt, a European rental agency that's been expanding its stateside presence, may be cheap alternatives, as well.
3. Keep Checking In.
Unlike plane tickets, rental car reservations usually can be cancelled up to 24 hours beforehand without penalty. Some companies market slightly discounted rates for non-refundable bookings -- a good deal for last-minute travelers. People who plan in advance, though, should find the best coupons, pay the rate, and then watch for a better deal, cancel, and rebook. A week or two before pick-up day try the "name your own price" option on Priceline or the rental car section on Hotwire. These bookings are non-refundable and usually very cheap, but there's no guarantee about rental company or vehicle nameplate.
4. Sign Up for Rewards.
Always sign up for the rental car company's rewards program (if available). Members usually are diverted to special booths with no (or short) lines and enjoy perks such as less paperwork at the rental location, preferences selected in advance (good-bye upselling), and points toward a future free rental. Hertz waives the second-driver fee for a spouse or domestic partner when the renter holds a (free) membership. Likewise at National, which also allows family members or business associates to drive for free. Budget, Avis, and Enterprise always allow a spouse or significant other to drive for free. Points from third-party rewards programs, such as airlines or retailers, often can be linked.
5. Nix the Insurance.
on a rental car may seem wise but insurance is charged by the day, and the fee adds up quickly. It's a complicated decision, and one that we explored recently. Travelers who already have car insurance should check whether rental cars are covered. Homeowner's and renter's insurance often covers off-premise theft of personal possessions if something is taken from inside the rental car. Many credit card companies also provide a collision damage waiver that covers damage to or theft of the car when the card is used to pay for the rental. Terms vary by card and it's always a good idea to read the issuer's fine print.
6. Be Aware of Location.
Don't rent from airport
locations if you can avoid doing so. The convenience often comes at the price of additional fees or higher rates, sometimes tens of dollars per day. Nearby car rental offices typically offer better deals. Even if you have to pay for a cab there and back, the total cost will be lower.
Still not sold on the reality of flexible rental car rates? Check out the tips a former Enterprise associate shared with Consumerist
. The short of it: Negotiate. And as any good negotiator will tell you, take time to understand the other side's needs and motivations. Managers and sales agents are eager to sell insurance add-ons and keep parking lots empty -- two points to leverage in your favor.