6 Ways To Pay Less For a Rental Car

Last Updated Jul 15, 2010 8:37 AM EDT

If your summer vacation plans involve airports instead of a road trip, you'll need to rent a car. Watch out! Rates are at historic highs because tight credit has led to smaller rental company fleets and fewer available cars. Worse, rental car companies are notorious for their costly, surprise add-on fees. So you'll want to save on a rental car by exploiting every possible discount. Here are six ways:

1. Join a car rental loyalty club. A membership club like Hertz # 1 Gold or National's Emerald Club can get you price discounts and free rental days. You may get additional discounts if one of your credit cards has a partnership with the car rental company.

For an upcoming trip to Indianapolis in late August to visit family, even the best discount rate I could find for Hertz from travel sites couldn't match the $33 day rate for a mid-size sedan I got by combining my #1 Club membership with a price cut from my American Express card. Plus, I'd get the #1 Club expedited check-in and avoid long lines at the airport rental counter

2. Use travel sites to compare deals from competing car rental companies. Your best bets: Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia. Expedia found me a cheaper deal for my Indianapolis weekend than that $33 Hertz rate -- $25 a day with Thrifty. But I might have bagged an even cheaper rate if I had combined air fare, hotel and car rental in one package-the specialty of these travel sites.

3. Try a car rental specialty site. Unlike the broad travel sites, carrentals.com searches just for deals on wheels. In my case, it found the same price as the comprehensive sites. In this case it picked up the same Thrifty mid-size sedan like a Ford Fusion (pictured here) for $25 a day-about $8 a day lower than the Hertz rate.It also showed the same rate from Dollar. Both have offices at the airport. In some other tests, however, carrentals.com picked up rates the broad travel sites did not have.

4. Check your auto insurance and credit card policies. They may provide automatic rental car insurance coverage, allowing you to decline the rental car company's insurance when you're arranging to get a car online or at the airport. If you belong to AAA, you can reject the rental car company's roadside assistance, since the auto group covers you for that.

5. Avoid paying a premium for a car you don't need. If I drop my habitual midsize car for a compact like a Ford Focus, I can lower the daily rate to $20. And while being green is great, you pay dearly for renting a hybrid. A Nissan Altima hybrid or Toyota Camry hybrid could cost $63 a day.
6. Consider a car sharing service. This service, from companies like Zipcar, work best if you'll only need a car for a couple of hours. With Zipcar, you join for $25 and pay a $50 annual membership fee plus an hourly rental rate. Zipcar's in 29 states, mostly in large cities and college towns. It's not in Indianapolis, but if I had been visiting Indiana University in Bloomington, I could have rented a Zipcar for two hours at $9 an hour including gas-$18 compared with my lowest rental company rate of $25 a day for a midsize plus gas (assuming I had been a Zipcar member).

But Zipcar and car rental company competitors such as Connect by Hertz and Enterprise's WeCar are really less for travelers and more for city dwellers who just need a car occasionally for short periods.

Photo courtesy of the manufacturer

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.