Updated Monday, February 4, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Looking for the best deal on a rental car? One big benefit for renters is that rental-car companies don’t have change fees or cancellation penalties, which means customers are free to look for a better deal right up until they get behind the wheel.
But it still takes some effort to find the best price, partly because Web tools to compare car-rental rates aren’t nearly as sophisticated as their counterparts for flights and hotels. Here’s some advice.
Recheck your rate
“Book early — and often” is a good mantra to follow, particularly if you need a car during a peak travel time.
“Rental-car companies will typically set the price high and those prices will almost always drop,” said Jonathan Weinberg, co-founder and CEO of the car rental site AutoSlash.com. “The best way to game the system is to book as early as possible and recheck the rate.”
AutoSlash set out to automate that process for consumers, even going so far as to automatically rebook a reservation after finding a lower rate. But after car rental companies protested, Weinberg had to revise his business model; he promises a new version of the service this year. Until then, AutoSlash can still track a reservation you booked elsewhere and will let you know if it finds a better rate; you just have to do the rebooking yourself.
Use online comparisons
Most travel websites are investing little in their car-rental comparison tools. Weinberg said that’s because the commissions agencies get for car-rental bookings are so low: about 2.5 to 5 percent of the rate you book, versus 10 to 40 percent for a hotel.
Still, there are a few innovations worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for an off-airport rental. Kayak.comrecently added a “map view” option to its car-rental results, which makes it easy to see the location of various neighborhood dealers and to decide whether it’s worth traveling farther from your home or hotel to pick up a cheaper car.
Hotwire.comtended to have the best deals in the searches I tried, while CarRentals.com displays more of the independent companies others don’t always include in their results, like Ace, Advantage, Fox, Payless and Sixt. Most travel sites don’t work with all of these companies, and some don’t even include all the major brands. For instance, Orbitz doesn’t show results for Enterprise, National or Alamo, while Expedia doesn’t include Avis or Budget, so don’t assume you’re seeing all of your options if you search only one site.
A new site, Zalyn.com, promises to show you coupons that apply to your rental dates but asks you to first enter the lowest rate you can find from 10 different car rental companies. You can skip that step (for less thorough results) or check the coupon section at AutoSlash, which lists dozens of car rental deals, like weekend rates from Enterprise starting at $9.99 a day.
Beyond the base price
According to the 2012 J.D. Power and Associates rental-car satisfaction study, about 4 in 10 leisure travelers choose a rental-car company based on price, but there are other factors like customer service and fees that are worth considering.
The study ranked Enterprise highest in terms of overall customer satisfaction with processes like reservation, pickup and return, as well as price, followed by National and Alamo (both brands are owned by Enterprise), then Hertz, Avis and Budget.
Other factors to consider are whether your rental includes unlimited miles, if there are any restrictions on where you can take the car (some Enterprise locations limit drivers to nearby states) and operating hours. Off-airport locations sometimes close early on weekends, so you may have to pay for an extra day if you’re running late.
If you expect to share the driving on your trip, Weinberg suggested investigating any additional driver fees, which some companies like Avis, Budget and Enterprise waive for a spouse or domestic partner.
“With Dollar and Thrifty, there is really no good way to avoid the additional driver fee,” he said. “With many of the other companies, it’s often included for free.”
Cristina Sampaio / The New York Times