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9 Ways to Save on Rental Cars

9 Ways to Save on Rental Cars

From choosing an off-airport vendor to avoiding car rentals entirely, here are tips to outwit ever-escalating rates.

We focus so much on hotel and airfare costs that it’s easy to overlook other areas where prices have climbed steadily—and sometimes insidiously. Dining is one (we’ve all eaten the mediocre $35 room-service breakfast). Renting a car is another.

Even with gas prices back at tolerable levels—for now, anyway—car rental costs are about as high as they’ve ever been. But you’d never know that from those web-only advertised specials, where cars can be rented “from $8.95 a day.”

The word “from” is the first clue, because car rental prices are fine-print driven. So many fees, surcharges and taxes can be added that your base price can be one-third of the total daily rate. The word “total” is your second clue that the “$8.95 a day” price is a fantasy.

It isn’t necessarily the car rental companies’ fault. The biggest culprits may be the municipalities that levy the taxes. Seattle helped fund its new ballpark by hiking its already stiff 15 percent surcharge on car rentals by another 2 percent. Add 6.5 percent state tax to the 17 percent, and Sea-Tac road warriors were paying 23.5 percent tax on top of the daily rate. That was even before an airport surcharge, a fee car rental companies pass along to their customers. On average, airport fees add about 10 percent to your car rental tab. Some states also allow car rental companies to charge a licensing fee from 3 percent to 8 percent of the daily rate. Car rental companies use it to recover the cost of licensing their cars.

Here are a few ways to mitigate these fees:

1. Choose off-airport vendors. You pay for convenience when you use a car rental company that’s close to the terminal. You’ll also pay surcharges that airports charge car rental companies, which are then passed on to you.

Remember that off-airport vendors include city or suburban locations, which may have better rates and fewer surcharges. It might be worthwhile to spend money on public transportation into town to get a cheaper rental.

2. Consider alternatives to traditional car rental agencies. Car-sharing service Zipcar lets you rent cars by the hour or the day; the company is now in 28 North American states and provinces as well as London.

3. Take public transportation. If your meetings are in the suburbs or exurbs, you’ll absolutely need a car. But if you’re going to a city, you may find that local transportation is a cheap and convenient alternative to driving and parking.

4. Decline secondary insurance offered by car rental companies. If it isn’t necessary, and you opt for it, expect to add $25 or more, plus tax, per day to your rental costs. Most premium charge cards offer additional coverage as a perk; check with your card program administrator (if your company has one) or call your card vendor’s customer service line to find out more about coverage.

5. Don’t buy a full tank of gas from the car rental company, unless you plan to do a lot of driving. Do fill the tank before you drop it off. Otherwise you could pay twice as much as you’d pay at the pump.

6. Book in advance. You can usually get a better rate if you book a car seven days in advance. Moreover, car rental rates are starting to fluctuate the way airfares do, ebbing and flowing with demand. If you see a great rate, grab it, because it may not last.

7. Use a discount card or coupon. Industry association and club memberships, from AAA and the National Association of Female Executives to some charge cards, offer discounts on car rentals.

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8. Forget about grace periods. Typically, a rental period is calculated in increments of a day that begins when you pick up the car. Anything longer than 24 hours from that time will end up costing a full extra day. If you’re going to err, get the car in earlier rather than later.

9. Join a frequent-renter program. Many are geared for small companies, even sole proprietorships. Thrifty’s SmartBusiness program, for example, is available at all Thrifty locations in the U.S. and Canada. Benefits include guaranteed low rates on all classes of car, unlimited miles, enhanced insurance and free membership in the Blue Chip Express Rental program, which expedites the rental process and includes a free car pickup at the traveler’s destination.

Julie Moline has been writing about corporate travel since 1980, and has since logged more than 650 business trips on five continents. She currently writes the “Road Warrior” column for Entrepreneur and has written about travel for the International Herald Tribune, Money, Harper’s Bazaar, Global Finance, Toronto Globe and Mail and The London Daily Telegraph.

Courtesy of © 2009 YellowBrix, Inc.

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