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Cheap Car Rentals Buying Guide

Cost isn't the only factor when considering which of the major cheap car rental companies to go with. A car rental company with many locations may be important to you, or you may prefer a company that guarantees a selection of minivans so you can cart the family to Disney World.

If you're a business traveler, you might need a rental company that offers cars with GPS. Or, you might want to do business with an independent or regional rental car company. Some advantages to taking this route, according to the experts, include even lower car rental rates and better customer service. For example, Mayfair Rent-A-Car, which only serves Wisconsin, charges $36.99 for a one-day, compact car rental. With these companies, there's no corporate giant to deal with so problems or questions are more likely to be addressed by the owners themselves. However, because these regional and independent companies are not big players, the selection of cars is more limited and they may be lacking in fancy features.

Daily Rental Rate.

The size of car you rent obviously affects your pocketbook, but so does the location in which you rent it. A study by Travelocity, which was published on Edmunds, shows that renting at an airport costs 11.5 percent more on average than renting at a neighborhood location. The Travelocity report lists Texas airports as the costliest rental spots, with Arizona, Ohio, Maryland, Missouri, and New Mexico costing renters more in taxes and fees.

If you know you're going to need a car rental in a certain place, booking ahead saves time and money at cheap rental car companies like Alamo, which offers a 10 percent discount if you prepay. Also, some companies offer special deals if you book on weekends; Enterprise, for example, in May 2010 was offering a weekend special of $9.99 a day with 100 miles a day.

But make sure you read every detail of the quoted price. An About.com guide to budget travel reports that many companies seem as though they offer cheap car rental at first until they tack on extra fees at check-out. Without citing the company, the About.com guide says that renting a compact for a week at San Antonio International Airport came out to $50 more than the original price due to an extra 10 percent sales tax, a $19 vehicle license fee, and an "arena fee" of $7.19. Also note that certain locations and certain types of cars may have mileage restrictions or require that you remain in a particular geographic region.

Rental Car Packages.

As anyone who has booked a trip on Expedia can confirm, adding in a rental car with your flight and hotel reservations can save dollars. Other companies, such as Hertz, offer discounts if you book at certain hotels or if you're a frequent flyer with certain airlines, such as Southwest. There are also club memberships, which assess a yearly fee in exchange for perks and privileges . These memberships might only produce savings if you rent frequently, however, so business travelers might benefit more than leisure travelers who only rent during the annual family vacation.

Gas Mileage.

Most rental car companies require you to return the car with as much gas in the tank as was there when you drove off the lot. If you don't, car rental companies charge for the fuel you didn't replace, usually at a price far higher than the local gas station; one consumer review of rental car companies on Flyertalk.com notes that a Budget location has been known to charge the exorbitant rate of $10 a gallon. Many companies, such as Enterprise, let you prepay for gas when you pick up the car, but this option might be more expensive, depending on where you're renting and how far you'll be driving. For instance, if you rent a car in Pennsylvania and prepay, you'll be charged the average gas price in the state. However, if you're driving to New Jersey from a nearby rental location in Pennsylvania, you might be better off refilling the tank yourself because gas is cheaper in the Garden State.

Insurance Policies.

Adding car insurance to your cheap rental car can add an extra $40 a day, according to industry experts. A lot of consumer reviews we looked at include complaints about not being told of certain fees, such as insurance. Customers renting from Advantage, for example, consistently report being subjected to heavy sales tactics when the insurance issue comes up. One consumer notes on Edmunds.com that car rental companies typically offer a collision damage waiver (CDW) and a loss damage waiver (LDW), but many people already have this covered in their own auto insurance policy, so you're wasting money on double coverage if you buy it from the rental company. Call your insurance carrier to check before you elect the optional insurance, and always read the fine print before signing your rental agreement.

Roadside Services.

What if you need help with your car rental and you're far from the pick-up location? Many cheap rental car companies, including all those we researched for this guide, offer some kind of roadside assistance. Budget, for instance, has a 24-hour hotline you can call if you get stranded -- the company will send police or a tow truck to help -- but it charges for things that other rental car companies we recommend don't, like when you lock the keys in your car or run out of gas.

What about getting to and from the rental site? Hertz and Avis are not cheap car rental companies but they have hundreds of locations, so it's probably not too difficult to manage the pick-up and drop-off. Advantage sets up shop mostly at airports which may pose a challenge if you're not planning to start and end your trip near a an airport. Enterprise conveniently resolves the dilemma by providing customers with free pick-up from, and drop-off at, your car-less location of choice.

Rental car companies generally charge significantly higher rates for one-way rentals and assess a fee if you suddenly decide to return a car to a location other than the one you rented from. Some, such as Hertz, have locations every few miles in some major cities, so it's not a big deal if you're in one of these urban areas. With Advantage, on the other hand, its airport locations mean a change in plans can be costly.

Take note of the rental car company's hours of operation. Hours vary by company and location; there are no company-wide rules. Many locations close early on the weekends or aren't open on Sundays, and holiday hours may differ, as well. If you need a car to travel for Thanksgiving, you'll probably get stuck having to rent the car the day before and keep it until Friday.

Car Availability.

While the standard economy vehicle is the cheapest car to rent, some people prefer a car with more space or a different configuration. In the reviews we read, many consumers complain about reserving a specific type of vehicle only to be told it wasn't available once they arrived to pick it up. This might not be a huge deal if you're traveling solo or on business. But if you're a family of six in need of a mini-van or SUV and all the rental agency has that day is a compact car, you've got a problem. Alamo maintains a wide selection of cars, according to CarRentalScout.com, and a consumer commenting on Viewpoints says she was happy with the choice of SUVs at two Florida locations; another renter, who posted a review on Epinions, likewise appreciated the range of color and size choices at Alamo's Orlando Airport location.

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