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The Cheapest Way To Rent A Car (Step-By-Step Guide)

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If you’re looking for the cheapest way to rent a car, this is the article for you. I’ve taken many road trips and will be outlining my top tips to get the best deal as well as ensure you get the perfect vehicle for your trip.

If you’re planning a road trip, use this step-by-step guide on how to save money on car rental. It could be a short journey, or a cross-country adventure, read on for the best tips and advice. We’ll be covering pickup locations, vehicle types, add-ons, and more.

I will be discussing exactly how to get cheaper car rentals with this easy-to-follow list of instructions. Let’s ensure you make a stress-free booking when renting a car for a road trip.

First, browse through the initial points and then use the bottom section when making your reservation.

A black SUV rental car is parked on the road during a road trip in Spain. Blue sky is overhead and a farmhouse is shown in the background.
My rental car during a recent road trip in Spain!

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Start With A Quote From A Price Comparison Site

Initially, you should begin by getting a quote from a comparison site such as Rental Cars or DiscoverCars. You can then follow the advice in this guide to get the cheapest price.

The earlier you book, the more likely you are to get a cheaper rate. Comparison websites compare prices from various car rental companies. This will help you find the best deal available.

Flexibility is the Key to Saving Money

The more flexible you can be the more likely you are to be able to take advantage of the cheapest prices available. Here is a list of ways that being flexible when renting a car can lead to lower prices.

  1. Flexible pickup location: Being open to renting from different locations, especially avoiding airport rentals, can save you money. Off-airport rental agencies usually have lower rates and fewer fees than those at the airport.
  2. Flexible car type: Renting the most affordable car available, rather than having a specific make or model in mind, can lead to significant savings. Car rental companies may offer discounts on less popular or in-demand models, which can still meet your needs.
  3. Flexible rental dates: If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you can take advantage of lower rental rates during off-peak periods, such as weekdays or off-season months. Rental prices can vary significantly based on demand, so adjusting your dates can help you find a better deal.
  4. Last-minute deals: Although planning ahead is generally recommended, being flexible and open to last-minute bookings can sometimes lead to significant discounts. Car rental companies may offer discounted rates to fill up their unreserved cars, which you can take advantage of if your schedule allows.
  5. Flexible return location: Some car rental companies offer discounts for one-way rentals or when returning the car to a different location than where it was picked up. This can be an attractive option for road trips, where you can save money by being open to returning the car to another city or region.
  6. Longer rental periods: Car rental companies often offer lower daily rates for longer rental periods. If you can be flexible with the duration of your rental, you might be able to save money by extending the rental period, even if you don’t need the car for the entire time.
  7. Avoiding weekend surcharges: Weekend rates can be higher than weekday rates, so being flexible with your pickup and drop-off days can help you save money. Picking up and returning the car during weekdays can lead to lower prices.

Plan Your Route Carefully

One of the best ways to get the best rental car rates is to make sure you only rent the car for as long as you need it. It’s no use paying for a car only for it to sit outside your accommodation unused for a day or two.

This is one of the most important things to consider when renting a car for a road trip.

Plan out the route for your journey and establish how long you need the rental car. It is worth noting that prices can vary depending on whether or not you are using the car at the weekend, so being flexible is ideal.

Decline The Optional Extras

Many rental companies have high markups on optional extras such as GPS and breakdown coverage. Most rental cars are close to new and the company has a strong interest in maintaining their vehicles to avoid reputation concerns. I would expect therefore breakdowns to be uncommon, however, you should also consider if you will be driving to remote locations where recovery would otherwise be very expensive.

It’s much better to use your phone for navigation. You can get mobile data access in foreign countries using Airalo if that’s something you need. The Airalo Mobile App is the easiest way to sign up.

Choose The Cheapest Economy Vehicle

When you’re selecting a vehicle there will be many options from large SUV’s to small compact economy cars. Choosing an economy vehicle is one of the biggest factors in getting a cheaper rate on your rental car. You may also find that if you reserve the cheapest car you actually get a free upgrade upon arrival.

This can happen because your pickup location doesn’t have any economy vehicles available. Not only are these cars cheaper but you will also spend less on fuel during your road trip.

Check For Hidden Fees

Always make sure that you are aware of what fees you may be liable for and in what circumstances. Common hidden fees include charges for returning a car early or late. Some providers also charge a big markup on refueling if you return the car without a full gas tank on a full-to-full rental policy.

We’ve answered all the common questions relating to how to return a rental car in our other article

Do Not Add Additional Drivers

Adding additional drivers almost always incurs additional fees, so try to avoid it if possible. Some companies waive the fee for a spouse or domestic partner, so be sure to research this in advance if you are planning a long trip and need to share the mileage.

If the occupants are different ages then try adding each driver on their own and see if there is a price difference.

Join Loyalty Programs

Many rental car companies offer loyalty programs that can provide discounts, free upgrades, or other perks. Sign up for these programs to save money on future rentals. The Points Guy has a great guide outlining some of the rental car rewards programs you could take a look at.

Search For Discounts & Coupon Codes

Look for discounts or promotional codes from car rental companies, as well as third-party websites. Some common discounts include AAA membership, military discounts, or corporate discounts.

You may also find that you get discounts due to memberships with organizations such as Costco, or your credit card provider. Always check this before booking and do searches online for coupon codes.

Carefully Consider The Best Way To Insure Your Rental Car

When renting a car, you’ll find that basic insurance coverage is typically included in the rental price. However, this may not be sufficient for all your needs. To ensure you’re adequately protected, you have four options to consider:

  1. Don’t buy additional insurance: If you’re confident that the basic insurance provided by the rental company is enough, you can choose not to purchase any additional coverage. Be aware of the potential risks and financial liabilities involved in this option.
  2. Buy additional insurance online when you book: Some car rental booking websites such as RentalCars offer the option to purchase additional insurance coverage during the reservation process. This can be a convenient way to secure extra protection at a potentially lower cost than buying it directly from the rental company.
  3. Insure with the rental car provider: At the rental counter, you can purchase additional insurance offered by the rental car company. These add-ons may include Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI), Personal Accident Insurance (PAI), and Personal Effects Coverage (PEC). While this option provides immediate coverage, it can be more expensive than alternatives.
  4. Use a third-party rental insurance provider: You can purchase additional insurance through a third-party insurer, which often provides similar coverage to rental company offerings but at a more competitive price. These policies can be purchased online, either as standalone options or as part of a travel insurance package.

Each of these options has its advantages and drawbacks. To determine the best choice for your situation, consider your specific needs, budget, and risk tolerance before making a decision.

Additionally, always check your existing car insurance policy and credit card benefits, as they may already provide coverage for rental cars, potentially saving you money on additional insurance purchases.

Compare The Prices Directly With The Company’s Website

After you’ve obtained a quote from a comparison site, go and look at the company’s website directly to see if you can get a better price. If you’ve already booked and you find a better price, check if you’re able to cancel without paying a fee.

Check Local Rental Car Providers Not Listed On Comparison Sites

It’s also worth looking on Google for local rental car operators that might not be listed on the major comparison sites. You could contact them directly and see if you can get a better rate than your current best offer.

It’s worth noting that there is some risk involved in this as the reputation of these companies is likely not as strong. If you do choose to go with a local provider make sure you research online first to check for reviews from other customers. Trustpilot is useful for this.

Inspect The Car Thoroughly Before Driving Off

Before driving off the lot, inspect the car for any existing damage and take pictures to document it. This will help protect you from being held responsible for damages that you didn’t cause.

Fill Up The Tank With Cheap Gas Before Returning The Car

Make sure you carefully read the fuel policy before making a hire car booking. Most companies operate on a full-to-full policy. In this case, you are provided with a full tank and expected to return the car with a full tank.

Plan ahead and visit a cheap gas station before dropping your rental car off. Don’t get caught out by filling up at an airport! GasBuddy is useful for finding cheap places to fill up.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a qualifying purchase, but this is at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Road Trip Expert.

Image of Iain The Founder Of The Road Trip Expert

Iain Salter

Founder & Editor of The Road Trip Expert

Iain founded The Road Trip Expert in 2019 and continues to manage the website to this day. The inspiration to start the blog came during an extensive road trip around Europe with two friends that spanned several months and involved over 25,000km of driving. He first developed a passion for backpacking in 2014 and has had the pleasure of exploring over 60 countries.