Cost-conscious travelers, whether on the road for business or pleasure, know that one place to shave trip-related expenses is at the rental car counter.
Michael Taylor, senior director of travel services for J.D. Power and Associates, a global marketing information and services firm, says people are looking closely at their rental car bills and shopping around more.
In many cases, these careful consumers discover rental car agents are eager to play "Let's Make a Deal."
But if you want to drive off with a real bargain, you need to know the rules of the renting game. These dozen tips will help you get the best deal.
1. Shop the Internet.
Internet sites sometimes have better deals because they are cheaper for the company to operate, says Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Look at multiple independent travel sites (three popular ones are Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz) and then review three car rental Web pages, says Gillis, author of "The Car Book." Because of special arrangements, says Gillis, you'll often find that one of the travel or car company sites will have a better deal.
2. Ask about discounts.
Frequent-flier programs, credit cards, hotels, national clubs and some companies and government agencies have negotiated discounts. Two popular groups that regularly offer membership breaks for renters are AARP and AAA. To be sure you don't miss out on anything, Gillis says to always ask what discount plans are available.
3. Time your reservation.
Everything's a trade off. By reserving early, you lock in your car and your rate. But if you rent your car before you book your airline or hotel, you might miss out on a reciprocal deal. So do a little research and ask a few questions before you book.
That said, several industry experts recommend booking your car as soon as possible. "It's unlikely you'll get burned [on rates]," says Justin McNaull, spokesman for AAA. "But if you wait, there is a significant chance you will not get the same choice of cars."
If you want to book during peak periods, such as long holiday weekends, reserve six weeks ahead or you'll be blocked out, says Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group Inc., a consulting and market research firm specializing the auto rental and fleet industry. At other times of the year, the lead time varies with the company, he says. "I would say a couple of weeks is fine."
4. Consider how long you need the car.
Although you need the car for only two days, you might get a better price if you rent it for longer. "Don't be afraid to look at a weekly rate," says McNaull. "It's sometimes cheaper than a four- or five-day rental."
Online renters should play with the date pairs and see if that extra day will net a better rate, he says, adding that sometimes travelers have to hook into a weekend or weekday to get "the deal."
5. Look beyond the big guys.
Be willing to investigate lesser-known agencies, says Abrams. "There are many secondary brands that deliver a quality car at a competitive rate that are not necessarily household names."
And if you like the staff or cars at one agency and the prices at another, ask your preferred agent to match a competitor's price. The worst that can happen is a "no" and you lose nothing.