Travel Tips: Car

    The final post in our series on saving money when you travel will be about saving money with a car rental.

    Car rentals are the least predictable of the big three areas (Flights, Hotels being the other two). There are so many bells and whistles, upgrades to better vehicles, types of insurance to choose or decline, that sometimes people get so turned around they just sign anything that’s in front of them, and end up overspending when they don’t have to.

    I’ll try to walk through this process as clearly as possible, and highlight the areas that often are money traps… even if you don’t even know it!

    1. To Book or Not To Book? That is the Question

    The first decision you have to make is whether or not you even need a rental car. In some cities (like Chicago or New York) you’re actually better off using public transit or taxis to get around, whether because it’s expensive to park (True or False, valet parking at some Chicago hotels costs $50 per night? False. It’s MORE) or traffic is really crazy (Ever try to drive in Manhattan?).

    Therefore, it pays to evaluate how much you’ll actually need a vehicle. Most hotels will offer an airport shuttle to and from their hotel for free or a nominal rate. While the easy thing to do is just book a car, you may not actually need one.

    2. Booking the Vehicle
    Assuming you do need a car, I would suggest similar tactics to booking the vehicle as yesterday’s post on Hotel Travel Tips. In a nutshell, that would be to book as early as possible and then check frequently for better deals. Most rental contracts are nonbinding, meaning that you actually are not obligated to rent the vehicle until you are physically at the car rental desk signing their paperwork. So booking the vehicle is essentially like putting your name on a restaurant reservation list. They are holding the space for you, but you don’t have to book through them. Pretty cool, huh?

    This means you can book a vehicle immediately (I book EXCLUSIVELY though Costco’s Travel website personally, because I’ve ALWAYS found the best deals there), and then keep checking to see if you find a better deal. For our family vacation this year, I have already re-booked our vehicle 5 times, saving between $15-30 each re-book. That may be annoying when viewed as a change-by-change, but in total, that’s over $100 saved. So far. And I’m still with the same company I started with (Alamo). Just as a side note, I also like Costco’s website because I can choose between four different companies (Alamo, Budget, Avis, and Enterprise), and see all their rates at a glance on a big chart. I just pick the one I like, and cancel the one I used to have. Then do it all over again.

    I check for rates almost every few days, because unlike airlines, vehicle rates change at any time. Doing this has ALWAYS saved me money, often an average of $100-150 start to finish.

    3. Extra Stuff, Pre-Book
    There are some extra things you can add on before you actually get the car (when you’re just booking it online). You can add on an extra driver (with Costco, it’s added for free). You can add on their own insurance. If you’re using multiple drivers, it may be worth it to add that extra driver, because if you let someone drive who is not covered by the insurance, that can be a very very expensive “oops” moment. I would just make sure that the driver is older than the minimum age (usually 24 or 26). Younger drivers pay a lot extra for the ability to drive a rental vehicle. That’s just how it is. If you already have your own personal vehicle insurance, you may opt to decline the insurance coverage (essentially putting yourself in liability). Just make sure your personal vehicle insurance will cover that sort of thing (it’s worth calling your insurance agent and making sure they’re comfortable with this). Normally, one little nick in the paint on the front bumper from gravel kicked up by the truck in front of you won’t be an insurance claim (they call it “normal-wear-and-tear”). But a major dent or accident will. If you decline their insurance, you could save up to $20-50 per day. But just know that if you do get into an accident, your personal insurance could go up by $20-50 per month… for a long time.

    4. Extra Stuff, At the Booking Counter
    There are a few last minute “deals” that the agent will probably offer you just before you sign and drive away, including upgrading to a “better” vehicle and buying a full tank of gas at a discounted rate. If you do get offered to upgrade, it’s probably to a luxury vehicle. If you’re just traveling for business, you may not care to upgrade, even if it is for a few bucks. But if you’re attending your 10 year reunion, that drop-top Mustang seems a lot better value than that Prius, doesn’t it? That may be an upgrade well worth having. The discounted full tank of gas often is not. Here’s the deal with that: You pay for a full tank of gas at a discounted rate upfront. For example, let’s say that’s a 15 gallon tank at $3 per gallon. Station gas is $4 per gallon. So you save $1 per gallon, right? WRONG. You just paid $45 for the tank. The catch is that if you want to save all that money, you have to bring it back as close to empty as possible. Most of us have a hard time predicting the gas level in the tank, so inevitably, you’ll bring the car back with SOME gas in the tank. Meaning you’re giving them back FREE GAS. It’s not bad if you give them back 1/8 of a tank… but you’ll want to do the math. 1/8 of a tank is roughly 2 gallons, or $8 worth of gas. So instead of saving $15 on the gas, you only saved $7. And if you brought it back with a half tank? Well, you just gave them a free $1. Therefore, sometimes the discounted tank of gas works out, but most times there are other factors at play that make it not worth the effort. Personally, I just decline that option, and fill the tank up just before I return it to them. Then you just don’t have to worry about it.

    Doing these things doesn’t necessarily decrease the amount you pay for a vehicle, but it may save you from overspending on an impulse purchase that you weren’t expecting, but sounded too good to be true.