Q: Hi, Peter. When is the best time to make a reservation for a rental car? Is it cheaper, like with airfares, if you book the car well in advance?
-Camille, Tallahassee, Fla.
A: You should make a reservation well in advance, but if you have time, check the rates again before you leave on your trip. Sometimes there are last-minute specials. Generally if you plan ahead of time, you have the advantage of saving a certain percentage, say 10 percent if you prepay, but you should be wary that prepaid reservations may be unchangeable. You should also give yourself at least 24 hours in advance to qualify.
By planning ahead, you could also save more by having more time to compare. If you book your car online and find a deal later, you could cancel your previous reservation and get the cheaper car instead. Before you set out to do this, however, be certain that the rental company won't charge you for any cancellations. Be aware that most companies have specific policies on when you can cancel and penalties for doing so―so make sure you read the fine print on this before making a reservation. Be aware, too, that some companies offer discounts when you book online, so keep your eyes peeled for that, too.
You may get a better price by reserving at a weekly rate (5–7 days) instead of a daily rate and by doing this at least a week in advance. Sometimes it can even make financial sense to keep a car for an extra day to obtain this rate. It's also wise to know your rental's time limit and how much you will be charged for keeping the car an additional few hours. For example, if you rent your car on Sunday at 10 a.m. and return it on Monday at 2 p.m., you may be charged for 2 days' rental. Some companies may charge you only for each hour you're late, but it's always better to find out what the charges are before you make your plans.
Finally, unless you really need an SUV or a van, it's usually a good idea to rent the least expensive class of vehicle (usually some type of subcompact). Often, rental places run out of this class of car and upgrade you automatically for free.
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