Getting a good deal when renting a car is easier now than it's been in years. Though two of the biggest firms got even bigger last year because of mergers — Hertz acquired Dollar Thrifty, and Avis bought Zipcar — they're still facing competition from Enterprise (which ranks first in the U.S. car rental market) and from smaller companies that are growing up.
Who wins? Believe it or not, consumers are on the winning end of these rental agency mergers, especially those who know how to shop for a bargain.
These tips will help you find the best possible rental rates.
1. Go beyond the big names
Check out airport-based companies like Sixt, Payless, Advantage and Fox, as well as the cheaper arms of the big three, like Dollar and Thrifty. As a condition of its merger, Hertz agreed to give up at least a dozen airport booths — and smaller companies are the likely recipients of the coveted space. That will boost the competition over prices even further.
2. Try an off-airport location
Taking a shuttle or even paying for a taxi to a rental office that's a few miles away from the airport can mean a lower rate — 50 percent lower is common — for the same car, from the same company, for the same length of time. Many companies run free shuttles from some of the major airports.
3. Look for package deals
If you're flying or booking a hotel as well as renting a car, consider a combined deal offered by an airline or booking agency. Car rental companies can provide discounts to companies that include rental cars as part of a package, which can mean savings for you.
4. Reserve early — but check back
You'll typically get the best prices by booking in advance. But rates can continue to fluctuate, so keep looking for better deals. (There's no penalty for canceling and rebooking.) One website, AutoSlash.com, actually helps you do this by allowing you to plug your existing reservation into its site. It will then cycle through various available options to get you a better deal.
5. Use discount codes and coupons
All sorts of organizations offer car-rental discounts. You can get a special rate if you're a member of AARP, AAA, USAA and Costco, to name just a few. Couponing sites like Retail MeNot.com and RentalCodes.com often advertise deals. You can also find discounts with an Internet search: Just enter the name of the car rental company and the words "discount code" or "coupon" and you'll get a list of deals the company provides.
By the way, car sharing is another option for travelers and occasional drivers. Check out the video below to learn more about how car sharing works.
Jean Chatzky is AARP's financial ambassador. She writes the Back to Basics column for AARP. Additional reporting for this article was provided by Arielle O'Shea.
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